February 9, 2024

Dearborn County Catholics celebrate 200 years of eucharistic faith and service

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson preaches a homily on Jan. 21 at the Lawrenceburg Event Center in Lawrenceburg during a Mass to celebrate 200 years of Catholicism in Dearborn County. Some 1,500 Catholics from across the county in southeastern Indiana took part in the liturgy. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson preaches a homily on Jan. 21 at the Lawrenceburg Event Center in Lawrenceburg during a Mass to celebrate 200 years of Catholicism in Dearborn County. Some 1,500 Catholics from across the county in southeastern Indiana took part in the liturgy. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

LAWRENCEBURG—In 1824, handfuls of Catholics gathered for worship in small log chapels hidden in the dense woods of Dearborn County in southeastern Indiana.

Two hundred years later, some 1,500 Catholics from across the county gathered on Jan. 21 with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson in a large hall of the modern Lawrenceburg Event Center, along the Ohio River, to celebrate in a festive Mass two centuries of Catholicism in the county.

In his homily at the anniversary liturgy, Archbishop Thompson pointed to the Eucharist as “what has sustained Catholics for 200 years” in Dearborn County.

“This is what sustains us today,” he continued. “This is what will sustain us until the end of the world and beyond.”

In 1824, communities of Catholics were present in the northern Dearborn County villages of Dover, New Alsace and St. Leon. These were all part of the Diocese of Bardstown, Ky. The Diocese of Vincennes, Ind., which would later become the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, was not established until 1834.

Other parishes would emerge later at Aurora, Lawrenceburg and Yorkville. The faith community in the county most recently established is St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Parish in Bright, founded in 2000.

Among the clergy who served in the county 200 years ago were Father Edward Fenwick, who later became bishop of Cincinnati, and Father Joseph Ferneding, who played a key role in starting several archdiocesan parishes, from Millhousen in the north to Floyd County in the south.

‘This is what faith does’

Today, there are four parishes in Dearborn County. All Saints Parish is located in the northern part of the county on four historic campuses. St. Lawrence in Lawrenceburg, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Aurora and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in Bright are in the southern part of the county.

They are all led by Father Jonathan Meyer and Father John Hollowell, priests in solidum for the faith communities in the county.

Father Meyer has ministered in Dearborn County for nearly 10 years. He has served in all of the parishes of the county since 2021.

He spoke with The Criterion a few days before the large anniversary Mass, looking forward to having Catholics from across the county together for worship.

“To see them all together at one place and one time, with our archbishop, is going to be really powerful,” Father Meyer said. “This is what faith does. It grows, builds and expands. I have a heart full of gratitude for the good things that God has done.”

Keith Joerger, president of All Saints’ parish council, felt a similar gratitude in taking part in the Jan. 21 Mass. Joerger’s family goes back many generations in the faith community in the northern part of the county.

“It’s humbling to think that I am carrying on what Catholics started so many years ago in Dearborn County,” said Joerger, 40. “The Mass made me proud to be a part of the Dearborn County Catholic community. It also was beautiful to see my kids participating in the Mass, knowing that they will also be carrying the faith forward.”

‘Working toward a common purpose’

Joerger’s children are part of a growing number of young people active in their faith in the parishes of Dearborn County. More than 70 youths took part in the anniversary Mass as altar servers.

All Saints Parish had a group of 70 young people attend last year’s World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. Some 30 young adults from the parish participated in the SEEK 2024 conference of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in January in St. Louis.

The parish has also sponsored its Intense summer youth conference annually since 2021, drawing as many as 300 youths from across the archdiocese and beyond.

“Knowing that there are so many of the next generation engaging in their faith makes me hopeful that the faith will carry on in the future in an amazing way,” Joerger said.

Sarah Leiker also took part in the anniversary Mass with her family. Like Joerger, her family has long historical ties to the Church in Dearborn County.

A decade ago, shortly after four faith communities in northern Dearborn County were merged to become All Saints Parish, Leiker worked with Father Meyer and a committee of Catholics from across the northern part of the county to organize the initial Gobble Wobble 5K Thanksgiving charitable walking and running event.

The Gobble Wobble has grown to events spanning two days, and last year raised more than $70,000 for local food pantries.

“I didn’t realize at the time how much of a visual representation of becoming one that the committee and the 5K event would be for our parish,” Leiker said. “It is this same goal of working toward a common purpose and staying grounded in our faith that I hope continues to drive the culture … and relationships at All Saints Parish.”

Father Meyer noted how Catholics across Dearborn County in its 200-year history have adapted well to the many changes in the way the Church is organized there.

“Their response has always been, ‘We’re going to show up. We’re going to take care of what needs to be taken care of,’ ” he said. “And they’re continuing to do that today.”

Father Meyer said that the arrangement of him and Father Hollowell serving the four parishes on seven campuses is much like priests ministering the far-flung congregations in Dearborn County 200 years ago, but with modern roads, cars and communication making that ministry easier now.

In both situations, though, involvement of lay Catholics in the faith communities was and remains crucial.

“We’re here to help them live out their baptismal call,” said Father Meyer of himself and Father Hollowell. “They take care of things. I have great people that make great things happen.”

‘The only thing that ultimately matters’

The vibrant life of the Church in Dearborn County is ultimately rooted in the Eucharist, said Father Meyer.

“It’s unleashed people deeper into the Eucharist,” he said. “It’s from our worship of Jesus that we then go out and serve. But it’s also when we go out and serve and evangelize that we go back to Jesus. It’s powerful to see all these things that are flourishing.”

In addition to having eight Saturday evening or Sunday Masses each weekend in the county, Mass is celebrated on most weekdays at two parishes. Eucharistic adoration occurs for 12 hours three days each week.

A perpetual adoration chapel on the St. John the Baptist campus of All Saints was inaugurated in 2017. Another is slated to open at St. Mary Parish in Aurora next week on Ash Wednesday.

“In my opinion, it’s the only thing that ultimately matters,” Father Meyer said of the Eucharist in the life of the Church in Dearborn County. “The reason why we build church buildings as Catholics is for the holy sacrifice of the Mass and the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. That’s really at the center of it.”

Archbishop Thompson emphasized in his homily the importance of the Eucharist for both the past and the future of the Church in Dearborn County.

“In and through the eucharistic celebration of the Mass—the source and summit of all ministries and services, of all identity and mission and presence of Catholics—we are united to God and one another,” he said. “We are called to assist one another in our common baptismal call to holiness and mission. We are bound together in and as the body of Christ, the people of God, missionary disciples of Jesus.

“It has been this way for Catholics here in Dearborn County since 1824, and even before. It must be this way until the end of time.” †

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