Part of the Family


The soundtrack for Mass is a choir of babies and toddlers.

They are everywhere at Holy Family Church in Oldenburg, Ind., each trying to outdo the others in volume and pitch. Some are unhappy, but most are just enamored with the sound of their own voices. They feel comfortable enough to let loose a whoop or a shriek whenever they like.

The juxtaposition of old and new is striking here at Holy Family, and it’s especially obvious at today’s Mass as they celebrate two baptisms and the 150th anniversary of the friars’ presence in Oldenburg. Over the years many of the men in SJB Province lived here during formation or as part of the parish team. A number of them, including Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler, have returned to be part of this milestone event. With all the excitement, Pastor David Kobak will have his hands full.

For generations, many parishioners have known only pastors and associates who were friars. Ask what they like about being in a Franciscan parish and they look at you quizzically as if to say, "Is there any other kind?"

Legacy of helping

George Doll, 69, is a lifelong member. "And she’s been here all her life," he says, nodding to granddaughter Georgeana, 14. "We’re basically an old German community, half town people and half rural." At Holy Family, "We have a lot of different generations, from great-grandparents to families just starting out," so baptisms are frequent. "We have a lot of Franciscan heritage through the friars and the Sisters of St. Francis," whose motherhouse sits across the street. "We always supported the Franciscans because they had their school of theology here [1875-1958]." For decades young friars cleaned the church, played basketball with neighbors and picked apples on George’s farm.

"They took care of all of our maintenance," says parish activist Jeff Paul, whose family has been part of the community since the 1850s. "We were really spoiled when the clerics were here. We took them for granted." Like everyone else, Jeff has had favorite friars. "We were close to all of them. There’s one right there," he says, pointing to Br. Norbert Bertram, a former member of the novitiate team who came from Cincinnati for the festivities. [The novitiate was here 1870-’90 and 1967-’79.] "Fr. Sylvester Heppner …oh that laugh. He was such a people person; everybody loved him. He always remembered your kids by name and could relate to the old folks he visited in the hospital."

When Fr. Rock Travnikar moved here in 1994, he stopped by Jeff’s IGA Village Store and said, "The church is missing a spire," referring to the Onion Dome that was removed in 1949 after it fell into disrepair. "I’ll get to work on that tomorrow," joked Jeff, who later spearheaded an effort to raise funds to restore the Dome. "The friars taught us how to be true volunteers. That’s what we learned from the friars."

Sr. Pat O’Bryan, MS, joined the parish five years ago. "I have to be where I can sense the presence of God," says Pat, the Executive Director of Edelweiss House in Greensburg, an agency that helps children whose parents are in transition. "I walked in this church and said, ‘Yes!’"

Molly and Mark Lindenmeyer, formerly parishioners in Batesville, were hooked on Holy Family when they heard Pastor Sylvester preach in the 1990s. "It was the first time we understood Franciscans. They draw you in; they make you proud of your faith." And they’ve always been good neighbors. "Fr. Dave has owned this community like it’s his own."

Sharing lives

Today Dave’s job is to keep things moving, starting with a homily on discipline (drawn from the readings) that will preface an anniversary meal. He speaks over the baby babble in church, reminding the audience that one definition of discipline is "things that make us stronger: persons, trials and tribulations, fractured relationships, broken hearts." When we get through tough times, he says, "We stand up straighter. We’re sharing in divinity, becoming better human beings. The friars have been preaching this to the community for 150 years."

He segues to the baptisms of babies Macy and William, so cute they elicit gasps of admiration. Of course, the talkative toddlers in the crowd, bounced on parents’ knees or standing on laps for a better view, have something to say about it.

After Communion, it is Jeff’s job to put things in perspective. "Whenever I celebrate an occasion like this," he says, "I’m reminded we’re part of a huge family. On behalf of the Franciscan friars, I simply want to say thank you for the privilege you have given us in sharing your lives for 150 years.

"This is a very special place for us because many of us spent time in formation here, where we encountered Francis and our faith was deepened." He wonders aloud how many parishioners were baptized in this church. "Discipline is how we become disciples," he says, evoking Dave’s homily. "We are a holy family," with friars sharing the "ups and downs, baptizing your babies and burying your dead."

But "we don’t just focus on 150 years. We are open to the future. May God continue to bless us all on this wonderful journey of faith and discipleship."

Before the crowd convenes to the basement hall for a chicken dinner, Pastor Dave scoops up the baptized babies, one in each arm, and walks them down the aisle to be blessed by all.

It’s a memorable day for the whole family.

More photos at Flickr