St. Bartholomew celebrates its 175-year past with a look to the future

The leader of Bartholomew County’s largest house of worship feels both abundantly blessed and sufficiently challenged as he prepares to help his congregation celebrate the close of its year-long 175th anniversary Saturday.

The Rev. Clem Davis, pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, sees a growing segment of young adults and families with babies in the parish where an average of 2,000 people attend four services weekly. But offsetting that positive local development is a national trend of declining weekend church attendance facing Catholic leaders.

“We’re called to be evangelists,” said Davis of bolstering Catholic commitment and fervor.

Davis, associate pastor the Rev. Andy Syberg, and former St. Bartholomew priests will conduct a Mass at 4 p.m. Saturday with Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin to mark the Columbus congregation’s historic anniversary. A packed house of worship of more than 1,000 people is expected.

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St. Bartholomew had 1,592 registered households representing 4,327 total Catholics as of last year, said Greg Otolski, the Indianapolis archdiocese’s director of communications. Figures also show the parish as among the oldest in the archdiocese.

St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County, which began as part of the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, officially began in 1823, making it the oldest. Although the local Catholic parish began in 1841, records show that the first Catholic service in Columbus unfolded in a home in 1822 for about a half dozen people.

The Columbus congregation has been a voice for sanctity of life and social justice issues such as opposing the death penalty, including local gatherings highlighting that stance. But outreach to Haiti also has marked its recent mission, wherein members have helped the poverty-stricken nation with earthquake recovery and even restored a Catholic parish hall several years ago.

In the past few years, its Hispanic ministry also has grown significantly to attract about 450 people weekly to the church’s Spanish service.

Moreover, the church initiated a high-profile bridge to the Muslim community last year when its members formed a 14-person panel with the Islamic Society of Columbus Indiana after St. Bartholomew and two other Christian churches were spray-painted in 2014 with Islamic graffitti.

The Catholic faith dictates demonstrating God’s love to all, Davis said.

Millie Harmon, the church’s liturgy coordinator, mentioned that parish pioneers made it possible for today’s wide-ranging ministry.

“We are grateful for those whose shoulders we stand on today — those people who gave their all so that we could be doing the work that we are doing today,” Harmon said. “We pray to have the same faith, hope and charity that our ancestors had.”

Among the differences, however, is a wide variety of music that is shared during weekend services. A 40-member conglomeration of all of St. Bartholomew’s music groups, from its traditional choir to a folk-style guitar ensemble, will be part of Saturday’s celebration.

Andrea Davis, who is not related to Pastor Davis, has been leading the anniversary celebration for the past year and is part of a family linked to the church for more than a half century. Recognizing the church’s practical impact on her own life, she figures emotion will be abundant this weekend.

“I think a lot of people there will be really touched,” Andrea Davis said, adding that this is once of the biggest events she has been a part of.

The significance of the event has spilled into downtown along Washington Street via several anniversary banners designed by local graphic artist Tammy Apple.

Pastor Davis and other parish leaders have identified several specific national-scope challenges impacting the local church in the next several years. They include:

Finding new ways to engage youth and young families.

Finding ways to continue to reach an ethnically diverse population.

Coping with trends showing that only 30 percent of adults raised as Roman Catholics are active in practicing their faith and finding ways to reconnect with those Christians

Facing figures showing an increasing number of cradle Catholics practicing their Christian faith within other church denominations.

Harmon said she looks to local Catholics of long ago for future inspiration.

“It’s always been a prayer of ours,” she said, “that we continue the selflessness, the faithfulness, and the commitedness that people had to have had in 1841, and at the turn-of-century, during the Great Depression, and during the wars.”

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1820: Mrs. Basil Owens is the first Catholic in Bartholomew County. Mass and prayer services were conducted in homes as early as 1822 for small groups of people.

1841: The first church building, 50 feet by 30 feet, was built in 1841 on a lot purchased for $188 on what was then the outer limits of Columbus — just north of Sixth Street on Washington Street. Construction cost was $830, paid immediately.

1860: The congregation grew to 50 families and to 75 by 1875. Between 1853 and 1863, Mother Theodore Guerin (now Saint Theodora Guerin) and the Sisters of Providence established a Catholic School at St. Bartholomew.

1963: St. Columba Parish forms at 27th and Home Avenue near the site of today’s St. Bartholomew Catholic Church.

1987: The two local Catholic parishes become one with two separate worship structures or “oratories.”

1992: St. Bartholomew launches its outreach and support with its sister parish, St. Anne’s Catholic Church, in Limonade, Haiti.

2001: St. Columba Oratory is razed.

2002: The new St. Bartholomew Catholic Church is built and dedicated.

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What: Mass marking the 175th anniversary of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church.

When: 4 p.m. Saturday with Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin leading the celebration and speaking.

Where: 1306 27th St. in Columbus.

Information: 812-379-9353 or