In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the growing Italian immigrant community of Indianapolis congregated largely in a neighborhood just southeast of the city’s downtown area, in relatively close proximity to the City Market where many of them worked. At first, most of the Italian Catholics attended Mass at St. Mary Church downtown, where the majority of parishioners were German. Occasionally, the church was visited by missionaries who would offer services and missions in the Italian language.
In 1909, Bishop Francis Silas Chatard authorized the formation of a new in response to attempts by Methodists to proselytize the city’s Italian community. This “Italian national parish” was formed without formal borders so that anyone of Italian heritage could belong to it. The founding pastor, Father (later Monsignor) Marino Priori quickly built a wood-frame church on the site of what is now our courtyard. Then, in 1911, he laid the foundation of the present building. Architects J. Edwin Kopf and Kenneth K. Woolling based their design on the Church of San Giogio on Via Velabro in Rome, Italy. They used Indiana limestone columns and pilasters to outline the main entrance to a nearly square nave (62 by 65 feet) which can seat a maximum of about 400 people.
Masses were initially offered in the basement while construction continued on the church’s superstructure. Delayed by a lack of funding and the First World War, construction was not completed until 1925 at a cost of around $50,000. Bishop Joseph Chartrand dedicated the church on May 3, 1925.
The economic boom of the 1920s encouraged members of the Italian community to move to better neighborhoods. Membership at our parish declined from 887 in 1923 to 689 by 1933. In those early years, the parish boosted its budget by hosting a traditional lawn fete and bazaar. But in 1934, during the Great Depression, they decided to attract larger crowds by erecting food stands and rides in the street and offering entertainment; thus was born the first incarnation of the parish’s street festival.
The baby-boom following World War II brought membership to a then-peak of 1,011 in 1950. Soon thereafter, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly & Co. began expanding its property, wiping out homes west of East Street and contributing to another decline in parish membership. The construction of the Interstate highway system further cut into the neighborhood. By 1978, the parish had only 155 members.
Renewed interest in ethnic heritage and a general revival of parish life, strongly fueled by the return of an annual parish street festival in 1984, helped the parish avoid being closed in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s membership was around 400, making Holy Rosary one of only 12 parishes in Marion County with fewer than 1,000 members. One-half of the membership lived outside the immediate neighborhood, and roughly two-thirds were of Italian heritage.
In 1998, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, O.S.B., moved the Tridentine Mass Apostolate – whose members worship using the Church’s traditional Latin liturgy from 1962 – from nearby St. Patrick Church to Holy Rosary. Soon thereafter, the pastor, Monsignor Joseph F. Schaedel, V.G., integrated the members of the TMA into the parish rolls, doubling parish membership. It has continued to grow and now boasts of a membership of nearly 1,300 souls. In 2012, the Anglican Use community came to Holy Rosary. Their members once belonged to the Anglican Communion before “coming home” to the Roman Catholic Church. They brought with them a liturgy very similar to the traditional Anglican liturgy, further adding to the parish’s diversity. The Anglican Use group left Holy Rosary in December 2020 and moved to nearby Good Shepherd Catholic Church.
Parish life has grown along with the size of the parish roster. These days we have Masses, meetings, services, classes and a whole range of other activities every day of the week throughout the year. Even though the percentage of parishioners with Italian heritage has diminished over the last two decades, the parish has not forgotten its Italian founders and those who kept the parish alive in its lean years. The words of founding pastor, Monsignor Marino Priori, continue to ring true these many years later:
La Chiesa e il tempio del Signore, la porta del cielo; venite, dopo una settimana di cure terrene, dopo tante fatiche, dopo tante tristezze, dopo tanti patimenti, riposate le vostre membra, rigenerate il vostro spirito alle fonti della grazia, innalzate la vostra mente a Dio, ringraziatelo dei benefizzi ricevuti nella creazione e nella vita quotidiana, domandategli forza per poter vincere tutte le lotte della vita, per poter godere dei frutti della redenzione.
Translated from the Italian, here is what Monsignor Priori said:
The church is the temple of the Lord, the gate of heaven. Come after a week of earthly cares, after so much toil, after so many sorrows, after so much pain. Rest your limbs. Regenerate your spirit at the sources of grace. Raise your mind to God; thank Him for the benefits received through His creation and in daily life; ask for strength so you can win all of life’s struggles, and be able to possess the fruits of redemption.
(Much of the information for this article was derived from material published on the website of the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana.)