FORTVILLE — The tale of the church building at 523 S. Merrill St. is one of train rides, pitch-ins — even a dog.
For the past year, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Fortville has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of its building. Weekly church bulletins have featured historical highlights. Events sacred and secular have marked the milestone by bringing people together; they’ve included chalk drawings of a church building or the word, “hundred,” making a fairy garden with a church scene, and a guest priest teaching about the Holy Year of Mercy as designated by Pope Francis.
The anniversary committee has tried to have an event each month, said chairman Stephanie Garst, to get the excitement going.
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This month, the celebration culminates with a visit from Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, who will celebrate Mass at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 25 with St. Thomas’ current priest, the Rev. George Nangachiveettil, and a former St. Thomas priest, the Rev. Joseph Pesola.
“Just having the archbishop come out is an honor,” Garst said. “He’s got a lot of parishes (130) under his umbrella of churches.”
A catered lunch will follow the Mass.
Next weekend, after the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Sept. 10 or the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sept. 11, parishioners can stay after for a presentation on the church’s history and a building tour highlighting historical points.
In the back of the building hangs the 12th poster in a monthly series that has also highlighted moments from the church’s history. One poster, for example, celebrated vocational calls of people in the parish — people who went on to the priesthood, or joined a convent, or became a deacon. Another focused on the sacrament of marriage and featured wedding photos of couples married in the building.
Throughout the year, “we tried to have the celebration front and center,” said Rosemary Ritchie, one of the organizers.
Garst, Ritchie and other committee members asked fellow members of the congregation to share their memories. They told of priests riding the train into Fortville to celebrate Mass, sleeping on an iron bed in a back room of the church, and then heading to Greenfield to celebrate Mass at St. Michael.
Mary Weir has been part of the parish for more than 80 years. She’s been part of it since around the time she got married. She gave birth to a son in the 1930s in a home her family rented; years later, it became the parish rectory. At 107, she continues to faithfully attend Mass each week with family members.
Ritchie’s own family, with longtime ties to the parish, has a story of its own: One day, Gus, the family dog, followed her brothers to church on a day they were serving as altar boys.
They started to close the door behind them, explaining about the dog, but the priest insisted it remain open. So the dog came in and quietly followed the boys throughout their duties during the Mass.
Near the end, Ritchie says, the priest surveyed the situation.
“He said, ‘Well, this dog is better behaved than some parishioners,’” Ritchie recalls. “My mother about died.”
And so the stories drift from a building itself to the lives inside it. What stand out in Ritchie’s memory over the decades are the activities that bring the community in, such as weekly dinners during Lent and the annual parish festival in August. She said most parishioners help in some way with the festival.
“When there is an event, it’s like everyone wants to get involved in it to make it successful,” said Deacon Frank Klauder, who has served in the parish since 2007.
Klauder said in the Holy Year of Mercy, the church continues to serve the community, such as supporting its Knights of Columbus teams that gathered donations as part of the Aug. 28 Strike Out Hunger bowling fundraiser for Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen in Greenfield.
He thinks of the Holy Year of Mercy theme, in which Pope Francis urges reflecting on mercy received from God and sharing mercy with others. He eyes the growth coming to northwest Hancock County. And he sees St. Thomas, which he says has remained strong through faithful members keeping up both their building and their spiritual focus through the years.
He hopes they converge in the centennial celebration in people coming (or coming back) to a church he says can offer some connection.
“I hope they understand St. Thomas is open to everyone.”
The celebration: 10:30 a.m. Sept. 25 at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 523 S. Merrill St.
Tickets: Tickets are free; they are being used to gauge crowd size. Anniversary Committee Chairman Stephanie Garst said if a larger-than-capacity crowd is expected, arrangements will be made for overflow seating. Call the parish office at 317-485-5102 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The church: The church now known as St. Thomas began in 1869. Its first building, at the same site, was later moved and became a private residence in Fortville. About 60 members were part of the church when a brick structure was built in 1916. Local builder Frank Crouch constructed it for $7,113.67.
The name: The church was earlier called St. John. It was a mission of other Catholic churches for many years before becoming its own parish. Some say the current name was a nod to Thomas Tobin, a member of the 1916 building committee. Garst doesn’t think there’s any family connection between him and Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, but she does find it interesting they have the same last name.
More information: http://stthomasfortville.com/history/