By Megan Erbacher
The Message assistant editor
After 50 years of discussions, planning and fundraising, St. Mary Parish in Ireland has its new church – the first church built in the Diocese of Evansville in a decade.
Bishop Joseph M. Siegel celebrated the June 28 Dedication Mass for the new St. Mary Church.
Father Joseph “Effie” Erbacher, St. Mary pastor, concelebrated Mass with the bishop. Other priests concelebrating included Father J. Kenneth Walker, Diocesan Judicial Vicar and pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Loogootee; Father John L. Boeglin, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Jasper and Dean of the diocese’s East Deanery; Father Anthony Govind, administrator of Christ the King Parish in Ferdinand; Father Gary Kaiser, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Princeton and St. Bernard Parish in Snake Run; Father Jeff W. Read, pastor of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Celestine; and retired priests of the diocese Father Donald K. Ackerman and Father Joseph Ziliak.
Matt Miller and Larry Durchholz served as Masters of Ceremonies, and Diocese of Evansville seminarian Bradley Gehlhausen, a son of St. Mary Parish, participated.
Due to COVID-19-related gathering restrictions, the celebration was limited to 230 people to allow proper social distancing.
Father Joe, who was named pastor of the parish in June 2017, exclaimed he was “joyfully overwhelmed” by the formal dedication and blessing of the new church.
“I was ordained in 1972; and already then, there was talk of a new church to be built at St. Mary, Ireland,” he recalled. “Here it is, almost 50 years later – and in 2022 my 50th anniversary (of ordination) – and I have had the privilege of carrying out and overseeing this magnificent project to completion. I am really moved to tears and grateful to (then) Bishop Charles C. Thompson (now Archbishop of Indianapolis), who asked me to accept this challenge.”
The Mass’ Introductory Rites included the architect and general contractor – Hafer of Evansville and Streicher Construction of Jasper, respectively – presenting the plans for the church to Bishop Siegel. Then, the bishop invited Father Joe to open the doors to the church.
After the opening procession, Bishop Siegel blessed and sprinkled water throughout the church before the Gloria.
During his homily, Bishop Siegel said it was a joy to be part of the celebration. The bishop commended Father Joe, previous St. Mary pastors and parishioners, and all those involved in the new church. Bishop Siegel said the living word of God will be proclaimed day after day in St. Mary’s new church.
Following the Litany of the Saints, the bishop anointed the altar and walls of the sanctuary with sacred Chrism, and he censed the altar. A brazier filled with incense sat atop the altar as Deacons John Huether and Garrett Braun made their way down the aisles, censing the church and all those in attendance.
At the wishes of parishioners, the exterior of the new church is nearly identical to the St. Mary Church it is replacing. However, the new building is nearly three times the size of the old church, which will help accommodate the parish’s nearly 2,500 members.
“They wanted a traditional church very close in appearance to their existing church building, which served them well for some 116 years, and where they all celebrated so many sacraments of their lives,” Father Joe said.
There are many features of the new church Father Joe enjoys, including a larger sacristy, spacious reconciliation room, stained-glass windows, the large crucifix in the sanctuary, the cry room/bridal room, the new organ, and the shrine and picture of the "Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
He especially loves the Blessed Sacrament altar, which were three separate altars made into one. The altars are from St. Patrick Church in Corning, which closed in 2014.
“I have fond memories of St. Patrick Church as I was pastor there for eight years,” he recalled. “The entire (new) church is so beautiful, peaceful and very prayerful. As much as possible, we used many things from the existing church in our new church.”
Other amenities include:
- Seating capacity of about 700, with space to add 150 chairs for additional seating
- Large narthex for gathering
- All of the church’s current stained-glass windows were refurbished by Mominee Studios in Evansville, and nine new windows were commissioned
- More restroom space
- Lower level for parish offices
- Additional parking lot on the north side of the new church
Construction Manager Pat Gress, a St. Mary parishioner, isn’t sure what he’s going to do with his time now that the project is complete. Gress has about 800 photos on his phone documenting the process. He said being a part of the experience has been humbling, and he’s elated that it’s come to fruition.
“It’s been such a long, hard three years to get it to this point,” he said. “I’m just so excited. … The realization today that we will be worshipping here from now on is pretty surreal.”
There’s no definitive timeline to raze the old St. Mary Church and office building, but plans are being made to tear those down once offices are moved into the new space.
Father Joe made brief remarks at the end of Mass before the final blessing and thanked everyone involved in the process.
“I am personally grateful to so many parishioners, and especially my staff, who have worked so many hours beyond the call-of-duty over these past three years to carry us through,” he said. “I only happen to have had the honor of putting the ribbon on this gorgeous House of the Lord!”