The voices of St. Rita Church’s parishioners — Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike — resounded with a hearty “Viva” in response to Father Michael Tobin’s shout of “Viva Santa Rita” — Long Live St. Rita — at the beginning of a bilingual Mass May 23 to celebrate the parish’s 100th anniversary.
The Mass on Pentecost Sunday brought together about 200 parishioners, including families with children from the Spanish and English-speaking parish communities for a celebration filled with music from choirs in both languages.
During his homily, Father Michael Tobin, pastor of St. Rita, acknowledged parishioners like Tom Burke who’ve been a member of the parish since 1936, as well as Hispanic parishioners who’ve called the parish home only since the late 1990s.
“St. Rita has grown because it opened its door to the need of the Archdiocese of Louisville and the community,” said Father Tobin. “St. Rita is the communion of the souls who over 100 years have confessed Christ as their savior.”
Burke, 93, attended the 100th-anniversary celebration with Shannon Christian, one of his five daughters. In 1936, his family moved from Eastern Parkway to Preston Highway when that area was “wide open fields with cows grazing,” said Burke during an interview before the celebration. The family joined St. Rita Church where he and his 10 siblings received their sacraments and attended the school.
Years later, Burke would raise his family at St. Rita.
“I was steadfast to the church. I made this my second home,” he said. The church community, too, was steadfast in their support for him and his family, especially when his wife died suddenly 30 years ago. Burke, a retired master plumber, is remembered by parishioners as the person to call whenever there was a plumbing problem. He also started and coached St. Rita’s softball team for more than 20 years. The school’s softball field is now named after him.
There are also families like Sandra Kmiec’s that started at St. Rita. Kmiec, who chaired the 100th-anniversary committee, said she met her husband in one of the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes (RCIA) 35 years ago. Her husband was part of a group Kmiec was helping to prepare to enter the church, she said. They were married and raised three children at St. Rita. Kmiec said over the years she’s heard of several couples who’ve met at St. Rita.
While some families, like Burke’s, can trace their lineage in the parish for three generations, families like Ana Lane’s have come to the parish recently.
In the nine years Lane has been a member of St. Rita, she said she’s felt welcomed. Her two daughters were confirmed at St. Rita and she serves as a lector.
“For the immigrant community, finding a parish where they feel welcomed is everything. To worship in our own language is the most important thing,” said Lane, who is a native of Guanajuato, a city in Central Mexico. St. Rita has provided a place where she and other Spanish speakers feel they belong.
“I see the future at St. Rita full of opportunities because of everybody’s willingness to acknowledge everyone’s gifts. The Holy Spirit brings us all together as one community,” she said.
This welcoming church began as a farm parish in the 1920s. A desire for a church building led a group of Okolona residents to host a euchre card party on Sept. 29, 1916, to raise funds. According to historical records from the Archdiocese of Louisville, the party netted $75 and it was placed into a fund for the construction of the church. In 1917 a down payment was made on a plot of land on Preston Highway. Construction on the original church building began July 10, 1921.
The original building could seat about 250 people and was dedicated on February 22, 1922. A rectory was built in 1926 followed by a school in 1928. Seventy-eight students enrolled and were taught by the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville.
The present church building was dedicated in 1954. The original church still stands on the campus at 8709 Preston Highway and has been repurposed as a gathering space called the Casper Center. The convent where the Ursuline Sisters lived now houses the archdiocese’s first Office of Hispanic Ministry.
Since then, St. Rita has become home to about 1,500 members, including about 600 Hispanic and Latino parishioners.
Father Joseph Rankin, who served as St. Rita’s pastor for about 15 years, said he has “great hope for the future” of the church because he knows how hard-working the parishioners are and how committed both groups — Hispanic and non-Hispanic — are to passing on the faith to their children.
Before he became pastor of St. Rita, Father Rankin said he knew of the need for Masses celebrated in Spanish. He was celebrating a Spanish Mass once a month at St. Francis of Assisi Church for a growing Hispanic community. Father Rankin said he asked Father Bill Martin, pastor of St. Rita at the time, if he’d consider a Spanish Mass.
“He didn’t speak any Spanish, but he spoke friendship, welcome and love,” said Father Rankin.
Father Rankin started celebrating Spanish Masses at St. Rita and “challenged” the small first groups of worshippers to “fill the church,” he said. In 2005, he became St. Rita’s pastor and in the years he ministered there, he was celebrating about 125 baptisms
yearly for Hispanic families, he said. Father Rankin also served as the Archdiocese of Louisville’s first Vicar for Hispanic Ministry.
It took some adapting on the part of both Hispanic and non-Hispanic parishioners for the parish to grow and change in the way it has, said Father Rankin.
“In the history of the Church, there’s been a lot of adaptation. The early Church was Jewish and it took some adaptation for the Gentiles to come into the Church and so the Church grew,” Father Rankin said, “because of the Spirit that happened and because of the Spirit that happened at St. Rita and we’re blessed for it.”
Father Tobin said he sees a “terrific sense of ownership” among parishioners and a commitment from both groups to build the parish. St. Rita has a history of sending forth men into the priesthood. In the 1970s and 80s “three sons” of St. Rita — Father B. J. Breene, Carmelite Father Michael Greenwell and Father Charles D. Walker — were ordained priests.
As he looks to the future, Father Tobin said he would like to continue to promote vocations and to encourage Hispanic and Latino men to discern a vocation to the diaconate, he said. Father Tobin said he plans to continue to build on the work of Father Rankin and the late Father Martin who fostered the growth of the parish into a place where all have found a spiritual home.
Father Tobin was appointed pastor of St. Rita last June. He was also named the new Vicar for Hispanic Ministry.