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Brass Rubbings

Material Witness

On a Hoosier Parish


A Jesuit priest I know who spent some time in Indiana describes it as one of the most balkanized places he has visited. Distances of a few dozen miles hide the sorts of cultural gulfs you write poems about. This is especially true in matters of religion. There are Catholic strongholds in southern Indiana. Jasper, in Dubois County, is famous for its German Catholic roots. Evansville and Terre Haute also have strong Catholic communities. Bedford, in Lawrence County, however, is not one of those places. 

At one point, Bedford was a Baptist town. There used to be vibrant mainline congregations—Presbyterians, Methodists. They still exist, but one has the sense that a single bad flu season would just about do them in. Even the Baptists aren’t what they once were. There was a nasty split in the First Baptist Church about twenty years ago, though the breakaway group came back after their congregation saw the demographic writing on the financial wall. Then there is the familiar social dimension of churchgoing. This or that church will get popular for whatever reason. And some of those congregations even believe specific things. When I was a kid, it was the First Assembly of God. Today I think it’s the First Church of God. Don’t ask me what the difference is.

It is believed that there were Catholics in Lawrence County as early as 1835. It was not until about 1850, however, that Mass was regularly said there. Father Patrick Murphy, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Martin County and a trustee of Indiana University, said Mass once a month or so at various houses in the county and at the courthouse. The other sacraments required getting word to a priest in New Albany. Father Murphy kept this up until 1859, when he was replaced by the colorful Father Louis Neyron. Father Neyron claimed to have been a surgeon in Napoleon’s army, journeying as far as Moscow with the Emperor before ultimately being captured at Waterloo. No doubt dismayed by Bonaparte’s meteoric fall, Doctor Neyron decided to chuck in the military life for the priesthood. 

If the legend is true—and it probably isn’t, but that’s another story—Catholics in southern Indiana owe much to Kutuzov and Wellington. Dr. Neyron became Father Neyron and answered the call of Bishop Simon Bruté, coming to Indiana in 1835. Succeeding Father Murphy, who may fairly be called the Apostle of Lawrence County, was no doubt difficult. But Father Neyron managed as well as anyone, probably because he could tend to the spiritual and medical needs of his flock. Indeed, even Protestants availed themselves of Father Neyron’s services, which he provided to all without asking fees. Father Neyron moved on in his turn, becoming one of the earliest professors at the University of Notre Dame. Father Joseph O’Reilley of Greencastle and Father Philip Doyle from North Vernon succeeded Father Murphy, too. It was Father Doyle who proposed building an actual church in 1864.

Acting on Father Doyle’s advice, the Catholics of Bedford bought a lot on what is now I Street in Bedford and laid a foundation. Then the Catholics of Bedford got lucky in a roundabout way. The Methodists in Bedford decided to buy the old Presbyterian Church, then located at what is now the intersection of K and Fourteenth Streets. The Presbyterians moved to the intersection of L and Sixteenth. The Methodists then offered their old church building—located next door to the lot previously purchased—to the Catholics. By now Father C. John Mougin was priest in Bedford and he negotiated a shrewd trade: the Methodists could have five hundred dollars plus the building materials purchased for the Catholic church if the Catholics could have the old Methodist building. Deal done. In addition to Kutuzov and Wellington, Catholics in Bedford must count John Wesley among their benefactors.

The Catholics in Bedford had a church without the arduous building project promised when they bought the lot. Father Doyle came back for the dedication, bringing his whole choir from North Vernon, no easy task on the rugged roads of the day. On June 26, 1865, Father Mougin baptized Angelina Tyree, the first child in the building’s history. By and large, however, the life of the parish of St. Vincent de Paul continued as it had since the days of Father Murphy. A succession of priests came through town and said Mass and dispensed the sacraments. Mission work was still an integral part of their activity in the area. As late as 1879, when Father John Unverzagt came to Bedford, he had to journey as far as Bloomfield, in Greene County, and Stinesville, in Monroe County, to minister to the Catholics there. 

In 1887, Father Matthias H. Bogeman became pastor of St. Vincent de Paul. It is hard to imagine a priest like Father Bogeman today. Born in Franklin County in 1860, he was ordained in 1885 and given care of St. Charles Borromeo in Bloomington and surrounding areas. In addition to his clerical attainments, he was an accomplished architect. It is said he designed Kirkwood Hall on the campus of Indiana University and the Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington. Naturally, by 1893, Father Bogeman designed a beautiful new church for Bedford. 

One important thing to remember about Bedford is that it has historically been a center of limestone production in the United States. The reason why everyone’s water is unbelievably hard and everyone’s basement is more or less damp is that Bedford is situated on top of an enormous deposit of Oolitic limestone. It’s the sort of white-gray stone that looks especially impressive on a monumental scale. You have probably seen this limestone before, since the Empire State Building and the Pentagon are both built out of it. As the quarries took off, Italians and Germans came to town to work in them. The quarries, which were still doing big business in the 1970s, form the backdrop for the iconic cycling movie, Breaking Away, which has nothing to do with St. Vincent de Paul. 

The cost for Bogeman’s church was twenty-two thousand dollars in 1893. The Catholics of Bedford pulled together, donating not only money but also labor to the demolition of the church purchased in 1864 and the construction of the new building. The altars of the church were carved by men who would later hear Mass said at those altars. The Communion rail was carved by men who would later communicate at that rail. The font was carved by men whose children and grandchildren would be baptized in it. 

Just as it had nearly thirty years previously, luck intervened. While Father Bogeman was planning his great church in Bedford, the great Columbian Exposition was taking place on the shores of Lake Michigan. At this great fair, some fine Belgian stained-glass windows were exhibited. Just the sort of windows Father Bogeman needed for his new church. Funds were raised for twelve large windows at the price of three hundred dollars a piece and twenty three smaller windows. The new church was dedicated on July 24, 1894, almost thirty years to the day since the church bought from the Methodists was dedicated. Father Bogeman sang a high Mass and Bishop Silas Chatard confirmed thirty nine children. It is this building that stands today. 

This concrete connection between the people of the parish and the building no doubt spared St. Vincent the fate of so many churches in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The descendants and relatives of the men and women who paid for and actually built the altars, the Communion rail, and other fixtures of the church were still in the congregation when a young priest proposed getting with the time and renovating the old building. I was once told by my grandfather, then a congregant, that one of the worthies of the parish told the young priest that he could take out the stone Communion rail if he wanted. “But Father,” he added, “please be careful with it. You won’t always be pastor here, and we might want to put it back after you’re gone.” It never moved an inch. 

St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Hebrews that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. In his commentary on the letter, Aquinas tells us that this cloud of witnesses, the saints, glorifies God in word and deed. They are an example to us, set before us for our consolation. Aquinas connects this to St. James’s Epistle, in which the labors and patience of the prophets are proposed, and to St. Augustine’s confident admonition that the Holy Spirit speaks in the deeds of the saints. I do not know whether any of the men who built St. Vincent de Paul are saints. I hope and pray all of them are. They, too, are witnesses of a kind.

P. J. Smith is the editor of Semiduplex.

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