St. Rita Catholic Church, Indianapolis’ first parish for African Americans, has been awarded a $150,000 matching grant for restoration work by the National Fund for Sacred Places, the organization announced this fall.
The 103-year-old congregation is one of sixteen included in a new cohort, funded by a collaboration between the Partners for Sacred Places and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. St. Rita will need to raise $300,000 on its own, and has already been in the midst of a $1.15 million capital campaign.
“While the church was set aside for African Americans, it was always very civic minded in making sure the mission of the church was carried out throughout the community and not just for Catholics,” says Sr Gail Trippett, CSJ, St. Rita’s institutional advisor and former parish life coordinator who helped apply for the new grant.
“We know we have a rich history, and participating in Sacred Places Indiana has helped us look at our facility and all our buildings and ask how we can repurpose them for what’s needed for the community now.”
Built in 1958, the church building features a postmodern style and various mosaics calling attention to Biblical scenes as well as Black history. One major feature is the “Coming of Elijah” altarpiece designed by artist Peter Recker.
“If you look at the tiny little pieces of stone, you’ll see bands swinging low and going up that symbolize the Negro spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’” parishioner Caleb Legg told Indiana Landmarks in November.
“It’s a nod to the faith, but also a nod to the African American who is marginalized through so much of the past century.”
Legg, a retiree and church historian, has previously been involved with various historic preservation efforts in the region, including a project in nearby Shelbyville, Indiana begun last year. He also gave a talk at the Indiana Landmarks Center in November (Black Catholic History Month), highlighting St. Rita’s legacy ahead of its appearance on the center’s holiday church tour earlier this month.
Legg also says the parish has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, a federal designation that comes with opportunities for grant funding related to preservation efforts.
The current phase of the parish’s fundraising concerns repairs on the church’s bell tower, which has undergone water damage and is needed to support the church’s façade. Costs for the work have been estimated at half a million dollars.
“Saint Rita is the saint of the impossible,” he said.
“Lots of folks thought it would be impossible to put all this together with the poor congregation we had in the early twentieth century.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).