Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer
August 25, 2017 // Local

A faith-filled Catholic community with a strong French heritage

Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer

Students enjoy vacation Bible school activities at St. Louis, Besancon, Parish, New Haven. —
Photos provided by St. Louis Besancon

Recent first communicants at St. Louis, Besancon, are an example of the spiritual life of the parish.

St. Louis, Besancon Catholic Parish in New Haven was established in 1846 by a group of French settlers who, inspired by pioneer priests like Father Julian Benoit, wanted to bring their strong Catholic faith and distinctly French culture to northeastern Indiana. They named their church “St. Louis” after a 13th century French king, and their settlement “Besancon” after their French hometown 150 miles south of Paris, near the Swiss border.

By 1870 those early settlers had built a Gothic Revival-style church that still stands today and anchors what is now the St. Louis, Besancon Historic District. The parish website calls its church “the pride of our community, our sacred place to worship God. … all of this is entrusted to us to be wise stewards and pass on the light of Christ to all who follow.”

St. Louis, Besancon recently noted 170 years as a parish. Many French family names like Didier, Dodane, Girard, Berthaud, Girardot, Gladieux, Huguenard, Voirol and Lomont can still be found on the parish rolls many generations later.

Father Ben Muhlenkamp, pastor for the last two years, described St. Louis, Besancon as “a beautiful French parish” whose people are very welcoming. He called it a “wonderful little farming community where everyone knows everyone.” He added, “I love seeing the strong family bonds … people care about their neighbors.” He noted that there are 300 registered families and many active parish ministries to serve them in various ways. “We try to get people involved,” he said.

The parish of St. John the Baptist offers a blend of education in the faith, spiritual support and works of mercy that serve the New Haven community.

One of those ministries especially prized by Father Muhlenkamp is Petros, a men’s Bible study group named after St. Peter, the rock of the church. Headed up by longtime parishioner Paul Kline, the monthly group attracts 20 to 30 men, ages 20 to 84. Kline said that the different ages bring different perspectives to the discussions, but their common denominator is their love of Christ and love of family. Father Muhlenkamp is a regular attendee and his input is welcomed, but Kline has told him, “This is your night off. You’re just one of the guys.” The pastor noted, “We have great conversations connecting our life and our faith in the Lord.”

Another popular organization is the Daughters of Mary Mom’s Group. It is open to all women of the parish with school-age or younger children. With meetings the second Wednesday of the month during the school year, it provides an opportunity for its members to discuss common problems while improving their mothering skills, their prayer life and their faith. Its mission is to help mothers realize that their worth comes from the one who gave his life for the salvation of all his precious children. President Beth Ann Spisak said it is based on the guidebook, “Having a Martha Home the Mary Way” by Sarah Mae. “We’re learning as we go,” she said of the group, which took root earlier this year. “There is a need,” she added, as members seek strength, patience, perseverance and true joy in their motherhood.

Another important ministry at St. Louis Parish is ably handled by choir director Rita Brueggeman, a 40-year volunteer in the position. She began as a teen and, along with longtime organist Jane Lomont and a “very dedicated” adult choir, provides music for Sunday Mass and other liturgical events. “We have the most wonderful choir ever,” she said with enthusiasm. Father Muhlenkamp agreed, calling the singers “faith-filled.”

The “gem” of the parish, however, is its elementary school. So called by priests and parishioners for years, St. Louis Academy dates back to the fall of 1915 when it opened with 116 students under the tutelage of the Sisters of Notre Dame. The brick building had four large classrooms, a basement and auditorium and was “well-arranged and solidly constructed,” according to historical records. Today, it boasts 162 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The nuns who taught there for more than 60 years have been succeeded by lay teachers under the able leadership of principal Vanessa Diller.

Academically, the small, rural school participates in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program. Athletically, it offers sports through the St. Louis Academy Crusaders program, often in conjunction with other schools. Spiritually, it has a “thriving youth group,” said the principal, and offers religious education classes parishwide.

Along with a core team, parish youth minister Claire Stuerzenberger runs vacation Bible school for pre-kindergarteners through sixth graders in the summer, middle school religion classes every other Saturday and high school religion classes on Sunday evenings. High schoolers enjoy a meal and social interaction, then a faith-based speaker and prayers to round out the evening. Stuerzenberger said she loves working with the various groups and watching them grow together in Christ. Father Muhlenkamp also commented, “I love ministering to our young people … they are the bright future of our church.”

Principal Diller is especially proud of a special education initiative that began at St. Louis Academy in 2012 with the support of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.  She commented, “We have continued to service students who have learning exceptionalities and need additional support in the classroom. Our school culture is welcoming, warm and loving.” She pointed out that students encourage each other and everyone is responsible for helping the school fulfill its mission, to help all students reach their full potential academically, socially and spiritually. We are “striving to grow in faith on a daily basis … enriching each person’s personal relationship with Christ.”

At St. Louis Academy, said Diller, teachers create meaningful relationships with their students by coaching, mentoring and through participation in school and parish events. They communicate and collaborate with one another in order to grow as professionals and in their Catholic faith. She believes that students are so inclusive and supportive of each other because they see teachers and staff model those qualities. “At St. Louis Academy, we are unapologetic in living our faith and sharing our journey with one another,” Diller added.

Living the Catholic faith and sharing that faith journey appears to be the mantra for all parishioners at St. Louis, Besancon. Father Muhlenkamp shared that “there is certainly a lot of love and pride in our parish community.” Those early French families who established the parish have truly passed on the light of Christ to later generations.

St. Louis, Besancon
15535 Lincoln Hwy. East
New Haven, IN 46774

Mass Times:

Saturday: 4 p.m.

Sunday: 7:30, 10 a.m.

Holy Day: 8 a.m., 6:30 p.m.
Vigil: 6:30 p.m.

Weekday: M 6:30 p.m.; T-F 8 a.m. 

Reconciliation: M 5:30-6:30 p.m.
Sat. 3-3:45 p.m. and by appt.

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