St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church-Celebrating 75 Years

A History Submitted by Dan Carpenter- 5/18/2014

The self-description of St. Thomas Aquinas parish – “God’s People in Extraordinary Variety . . . A Caring Community” – applies across a remarkable range of ethnic backgrounds, income levels, careers, ages, family makeup and political points of view. Few if any worship communities in Indianapolis can claim such diversity – or list more ways of expressing care for one another and for everyone in need regardless of denomination or distance.

The slogan means what it says. And so have the leaders and members of St. Thomas Aquinas meant what they’ve said, ever since they began their work for Christ in a then-Far-Northside neighborhood at 46th and Illinois streets 75 years ago. Boldness, both in taking on the heavy work of charity and in taking up causes that can bring discomfort, remains the hallmark of a parish once cited by a national publication for its “courageous action for social justice, as well as individual acts of love.”

Father Steve Schwab, the ninth pastor, submits that St. Thomas Aquinas has followed the course Pope Francis is charting in 2014 with his emphasis on the basics of worship and the “big tent” of inclusiveness. “There is an awful lot to build on here,” he says. “The enormous impact of St. Thomas Aquinas, per capita, in outreach to people in need, in commitment to social justice, is far beyond what others are doing.”

Changes in the world, nation and city have left their mark on St. Thomas Aquinas. World War II, the Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle to maintain the racial and social diversity of the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, and myriad other historic events and critical issues have deeply affected parish life and demanded engagement. St. Thomas Aquinas was among the first local churches to implement the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, was in the front lines early on in the fight against racial discrimination, and has poured its human and financial resources into alleviation of poverty from the streets of Indianapolis to the hills of rural Haiti.

Unchanging in the swirl of time are the guiding centrality of the Eucharist, the sacred commitment to pastoral mission, and the essential role of Catholic education.

The simple wood frame church built in 1939 could hardly have been more different from the daring brick-and-stone amphitheater-style edifice that replaced it in 1968. St. Thomas Aquinas School continues to operate in the building erected in 1941; but it was substantially expanded and modernized in the 1960s and early 2000s, and long ago saw the teaching duties pass from the Sisters of Providence to lay staff. Through all the transitions, St. Thomas Aquinas School has held to high standards. It perennially ranks with the state’s best in achievement test scores and was one of 11 Indiana schools to be named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005.

Appointed by Bishop Joseph Ritter in 1938 to found a new Northside parish between Cathedral and St. Joan of Arc, Father Joseph Tieman oversaw construction of a church building that was completed within five months at a cost of $15,000. By today’s standards, even the cost of its successor, $307,000, is astonishingly low. The parish population has followed a different trajectory, rising and falling with the migration patterns of Catholics in Greater Indianapolis as a whole. The charter congregation numbered 1,145, slightly above the 942 of 2014. For much of its history the parish has been nurtured by its neighbor, Butler University, and has had a connection with its students, faculty and staff. Student Masses were held in the church, and the parish supported a Newman Center on the campus from the 1950s until it closed in 2003. Since 2003, St. Thomas Aquinas has sought new and creative ways to serve the Butler Catholic Community as the current student ministry is called.

Like the original church, the school building followed traditional design, with an arched stone door set against a brick façade to reflect Italian medieval aesthetics in honor of the great 13th-Century theologian who is the parish patron. The school welcomed 157 pupils when it opened in September of 1941; the 2013-2014 academic year saw an enrollment of 215.

The man who established St. Thomas Aquinas church and school died in 1942 and was succeeded by Father John Holloran, who served as pastor into the early 1960s. Far from heterogeneous in its early days, the parish was not quick to take on the liberal image it now has. That development awaited two seismic events: the movement for racial equality and the Second Vatican Council. Both had close ties to Msgr. Raymond Bosler, who was St. Thomas Aquinas pastor from 1963 to 1966 (after the brief tenure of Father Thomas Carey) and was a civil rights leader in Indianapolis dating to the mid-1950s. Msgr. Bosler also served on the support staff of Vatican II, and brought the Council’s message of openness and lay involvement to the St. Thomas Aquinas pulpit along with his zeal for social justice. Meanwhile, he headed up planning for a new church building and an addition to the school, the latter of which was dedicated in 1964. “I would say the most distinctive thing about St. Thomas Aquinas was integration,” says Father William Munshower, who was assistant to Father Bosler and later was pastor. “Yes, and Bosler. And of course they coincided.”

The new church, finished in 1969 under the pastorate of Father Thomas Dooley, bore a look as radical as its era, eschewing spires, carvings and finery for a starkly utilitarian approach with cinder-block interior walls framing a half-circle of pews sloping down and around a sparsely adorned altar beneath a large skylight. Dominating the sacristy is a readily recognized symbol of St. Thomas Aquinas: a 40-foot circular, red “negative cross,” representing the risen Christ. To this day, the building incites strong feeling pro and con. If St. Thomas Aquinas doesn’t shy away from controversy, neither would architect Evans Woollen. He proclaimed the edifice an embodiment of the spirit of Vatican II, “a church for the new liturgy.”

A new liturgy, characterized by worshiper interaction and contemporary as well as traditional music, found the cutting-edge parish enthusiastically in the forefront. Wryly dubbed “the hugging church” and “the guitar church,” St. Thomas Aquinas has expressed its passion not only in lively celebrations of the Mass but in fellowship and service as well as social action.

Father Dooley, pastor from 1966 to 1978, and his assistant pastor, Father Martin Peter, issued a joint statement in 1975 committing St. Thomas Aquinas to full Masses enriched with music and with inclusion of people of all races, especially the needy. Today, as then, that commitment is alive and well.

Within the parish, the semi-annual auctions and the annual SausageFest and Groundhog Day have enjoyed consistent success. Faith sharing has thrived through a lengthy roster of ministries and support groups. Beyond the walls, the efforts to fill needs have been likewise too many to list, from the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry and Global Interfaith Partnership in Kenya, to the SHarP community garden and the partnership with a sister parish in Belle-Riviere, Haiti.

Father Marty Peter was pastor from 1978 to 1984 a period of intense involvement in peace and justice issues for the parish. Advocacy by St. Thomas Aquinas often made news; and in the most notable case, led to reform of racially exclusive practices by the neighboring Riviera Club. Then as always, the congregation was far from unanimous on political matters and discussion was often heated.

Membership topped 2,000 under the pastorate of Father Clifford Vogelsang, who served from 1984 to 1993. Critical issues, including cuts in government social programs and the first Gulf War, continued to press upon the parish and the church as a whole. Nor did community activism wane under Father Vogelsang’s successor, Father Munshower. He himself could be seen visiting homeless people being evicted from a shantytown and picketing against the death penalty in front of the Governor’s Mansion a block from the church. Parishioners spoke out for causes as varied as gun control, mass transit and an end to the Iraq occupation.

But more utilitarian concerns asserted themselves as well at St. Thomas Aquinas. The church and school were expanded, modernized and connected in 2001 at a cost of  $1,446,250. A spacious narthex with flowing baptismal font, chapel and Bethany Room for meetings were added to the church, among other improvements; the school’s enhancements included a new science lab, classrooms and gym floor. Also during those years, a meditation garden was created at the juncture of the school and church, centered around a Madonna and Child sculpture by artist Patrick Mack; and the original front archway of the school was graced with a sculpture of Christ receiving children of the world.

When he passed the torch to Father Schwab in 2005, Father Munshower praised the laity’s work in faith, outreach and education as a reminder “The people are the parish.” That was a signature message of Vatican II, carried personally to St, Thomas Aquinas by Msgr. Bosler a half century ago. And as Father Schwab observes today, the impact of a Vatican council takes several generations to manifest itself – which may leave the “extraordinary” church well positioned as it heads toward its 100th anniversary. Many and daunting as the challenges are, he says, “I think we’re exactly where (Pope) Francis wants a parish to be right now.”

How can we live in harmony?  First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God

          St. Thomas. Aquinas