By Christine Stephenson
© The Dubois County Herald
Special to The Message
IRELAND — Tom Schmitt sat in his pickup Feb. 24, far away from the construction workers, watching the old St. Mary Church slowly fall apart.
That church was where he was baptized, received his First Communion and was confirmed. That building, which now appears quaint next to its newer, larger replica, held nearly 75 years of memories for Schmitt. Some of his family was part of the parish when the church was built in 1904.
“I’m elated,” he said, glancing over at the men in neon vests gradually disassembling the steeple, removing one bell at a time. “It’s been a long time coming.”
A few feet away, parishioners Terry and Marilyn Nicholson sat in their car for at least an hour and watched the same scene unfold. They’ve watched the church through their children’s old toy room in their Ireland home for 30 years.
“It’s a really tight-knit place,” Terry said. “The church reflects the community.”
The new church, which sits directly behind the old one, may look similar but will never hold as much history for at least another century. It took some time for some members, mostly older ones, to come to terms with the old church’s demise.
“This was their church,” Terry said.
Around 9 a.m., Sam Schwenk pulled into the lot on the other side of the Nicholsons, in time to see the church — the one his family helped build — while the exterior was still mostly intact.
“It’s a shame,” he said, stepping out of his Jeep. “It’s a real tearjerker.”
By early March, the old St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland was gone.
There wasn’t much of anything parishioners could do about it. The church had bad bones.
The layers of bricks were not properly supporting the foundation of the building, and there were hairline cracks in multiple spots on the arched ceiling. They couldn’t afford to have it fixed, and it was too small, anyway. It could only fit 380 of the 2,000-something parishioners at a time.
Property Manager Patrick Gress, a parishioner who helped manage the project to build the new church, knew this for years. Most did; talks of building a new church began decades ago, long before any action was taken.
“We just didn't see any point in spending that kind of money on a structure that was this size when we needed a bigger church,” Gress said.
But building a new church would prove to be a long, tedious task. The $6 million project, funded through a capital campaign that began in March 2017, would not be completed for three years.
The process involved a long-term-planning committee and several town-hall meetings where parishioners gave input on how they’d like the new church to look. Nearly everyone said they wanted it to look traditional, so designs were made to make the new church exterior appear nearly identical to the old one, even transferring some of the same stained glass windows and Virgin Mary statue.
It would be the first new church for any parish in the Diocese of Evansville in a decade.
In June 2020, parishioners gathered in face masks for a dedication Mass. It could fit nearly double the number of people inside. As Gress likes to put it, the old church can be turned sideways and set down three times in the new church, he said.
Although the old church wasn’t being used anymore, it wasn’t until around October that Gress and others were allowed to start clearing out the interior. They sold some of the pews and preserved some bricks for members to have as keepsakes.
As the building was vacated, a small copper box buried in the interior of one of the pillars was found to be a time capsule, preserved for more than 100 years. Editor’s note: Look for a separate story about the time capsule in the April 2 issue of The Message.
St. Mary Pastor Father Joseph Erbacher said he and members of the parish want to create a time capsule to place in the new church to continue the tradition. He’s not sure what everyone will want to include yet, but it will likely include something that clearly states the year and maybe some items such as a chalice, he said.
Construction workers with Lechner Excavating were careful when beginning to deconstruct the old church. Gress said they hope to preserve the trusses and the archway above the entrance.
Eventually, when the building is completely demolished and made into green space, Gress said he hopes the arch can be used as decoration and serve as a reminder of what the spot once was.
Story and photos © Dubois County Herald; reprinted with permission. The Message thanks the Herald for enabling us to share this wonderful story and the photos with our readers.