By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
RHODELIA, Ky. — For Elaine Miller, St. Theresa of Avila Church in Rhodelia, Ky., is her family, her home, her life.
“St. Theresa means the world to me. I’ve been here all my life. The parish is just like one big family,” she said during a celebration of the parish’s 200th anniversary Oct. 14.
The parish in Meade County marked its bicentennial with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz and a parish dinner.
The oldest Catholic church in Meade County sits at the westernmost tip of the Archdiocese of Louisville on an expansive property of green rolling hills.
Roots at St. Theresa run deep — all the way to the pioneer Catholics who first settled the land near the Ohio River in the late 1700s.
The earliest families at St. Theresa gathered in local homes for Mass around 1805. The first log church was erected in 1818 on the banks of the Ohio River in Breckinridge County and was blessed by Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, the first bishop of what was at that time the Diocese of Bardstown, which later became the Diocese of Louisville.
In 1826 the parish relocated to a more central site in Meade County. The current church building was dedicated in 1861.
At the Mass, Archbishop Kurtz commended the parish for its strength and perseverance and urged parishioners to continue to nurture their faith. Parishioners filled the
church sanctuary and choir loft, numbering about 375. Another 50 or so gathered in an overflow space in the parish hall, where a live video feed showed the Mass.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us,” the archbishop told the congregation. “There is a lot of history and a lot of deep faith that has been within these blessed walls of this church.”
The archbishop likened the Catholic Church to a choir — one that includes those in heaven, those in purgatory and those on earth today. He acknowledged that “we all struggle because we are a family” but he implored those gathered to “continue to be a good family to one another.”
“Just think of the history,” he said. “History is not simply meant to have our mind go to the past. It’s meant to help us keep our course,” he said.
The day’s readings, he noted, do not just talk about the families of the past, but also of the families of the present — “how valuable your family of faith is.”
“How important it is to pass on that gift of faith and to pass it on with our words. But, you know this, we pass it on with the way we live our lives,” he said.
During the liturgy, Archbishop Kurtz recognized a number of women religious and priests who called the parish home or served in some capacity at the parish.
In the 200-year history of the parish, 45 men and women went on to dedicate their lives to serving the people of God through a religious vocation. There have been nine priests, 22 Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, five Sisters of Loretto, four Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph, three Dominican Sisters of Peace and one Sister of Mercy.
Father J. Ronald Knott, a son of the parish, was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville in 1970. For Father Knott, St. Theresa was more than his home parish, it was the epicenter of his world as a child and young man. He shared that world with his readers in many of his weekly columns for The Record. Called “An Encouraging Word,” the column ran from 2002 to 2017.
“The parish was the world of that community. It was sort of a self-contained world where everybody knew everybody, which had its advantages and disadvantages,” he said with a chuckle.
Father Knott recalled parish picnics that resembled family reunions more than fundraisers, movies in the parish hall on Sunday afternoons and turkey suppers that brought together parishioners.
He said parishioners today can learn a great deal from the pioneer spirit of the early Catholics in Meade County.
“They were doing great things on a shoestring budget all throughout the diocese. In those pioneer days they built great institutions with very little.
“Amazing things happen when you have a strong faith and that’s what they had. They believed they could and that it was worth doing,” he said.
Those early Catholics in Central Kentucky possessed a sense of passing something on, Father Knott said.
“The word tradition means to ‘hand on.’ I hope the lesson learned this weekend is the responsibility that goes with the history — the responsibility of tradition,” he said.
Beginning in 1886, the parish began handing on education to its children. St. Theresa Academy opened on the parish grounds as a boarding and day school in 1886.
Children of St. Theresa were first taught by the Sisters of Loretto and later by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. In the 1950s, the Meade County Board of Education took over administration of the school. But the Sisters of Charity continued to teach at the school alongside lay educators until the school closed in 1993.
Marie Barr, a lifelong parishioner and member of the bicentennial planning committee, said she credits the pioneers of the parish with instilling a strong work ethic and faith that has been passed down through the generations.
“The work ethic, the values have been instilled in us to work hard, it all comes back to the sense of community and pride in our parish,” said Barr, who is principal at Payneville Elementary School.
Father George Illikkal, pastor of St. Theresa, called the anniversary a “historic moment for the parish.”
“This means so much to the parish. The people here are so proud of the church,” he said.
Father Illikkal, who has led St. Theresa for two years, said the occasion was also a day to welcome home individuals who grew up at the parish but have moved on.
“They’ve been touched by their parish and they are coming home,” he said.
Today, St. Theresa has about 500 parishioners and is clustered with nearby St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi Church in Payneville, Ky., where Father Illikkal also serves as pastor.
Todd Ray, a lifelong member of the parish and chair of the pastoral council said everyone in the parish looks out for one another.
“I consider it home. My parents instilled in me when I was young to go to church, and I hope to pass that legacy on to my children,” said Ray, who is the nephew of Fathers Knott and Robert Ray, also a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville and a son of the parish.
Parish leaders and parishioners alike said they are taking great care to involve the parish youth and young adults.
During the recent parish discernment process, where about 70 percent of the archdiocese’s 110 parishes examined existing ministries and made plans for the future, Barr said St. Theresa considered the youth as it prepared for the future.
“We are trying to keep our younger generation involved. We brainstormed ways to get them involved in music, in the Mass,” Barr said, noting the parish has plans to institute a youth Mass.
Father Knott urged the young people to learn about their parish, to embrace its history.
“If I could give advice, I would say do it until you believe, just get in there and preserve the building, learn its role in history. In my experience, the faith sort of follows,” he said.
Elaine Miller who said the parish is her life, said she looks to the younger generation to continue the tradition of faith handed down from family to family.
“I hope the younger generation can appreciate the faith and hang on to the faith through anything and keep the parish alive. They are now the caretakers of the parish,” she said.
At the Mass, the archbishop blessed a time capsule, which contained a number of artifacts related to the parish’s 200-year history. It will be placed behind one of the side altars and will be opened in 2068 on the occasion of the parish’s 250th anniversary.
Following Mass, about 500 people attended a parish dinner at the adjacent Meade-Breck Community Center.