The newly built altar at SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Huntington looks as if it were from the same era as three older altars that dominate the church’s sanctuary. That’s by design, says the church’s pastor, Father Tony Steinacker.
“What you see up there is honoring our past,” he said.
The altars — both the new one, which is used daily, and the century-old altars that have been recently redecorated — are the focus of the church building.
That, also, is as it should be, said Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.
“The altar is the center and focal point of every Catholic church or chapel,” Bishop Rhoades said during his homily at the church’s 175th anniversary Mass on Saturday, June 29.
Following his homily, the bishop consecrated the new altar, anointing it with sacred chrism before parish members dressed it with altar cloths, a crucifix and candles so that the Eucharist could be celebrated. As Mass continued, Bishop Rhoades was joined by concelebrants including Father Steinacker; SS. Peter and Paul’s former parochial vicar, Father Maicaal “Mike” Lobo; former pastor Father Perry McDonald; former parish administrator Msgr. Owen Campion; former assistant pastor Father Tom Zelinski; Deacon Daniel Koehl; Father David Ruppert, who grew up at SS. Peter and Paul Parish; Father Steve Colchin, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Parish in Huntington; and other pastors from neighboring parishes or who have been associated with SS. Peter and Paul.
“We are joyful today because we recognize the meaning and the dignity of the altar as well as the abundant graces we receive from the sacrament that is celebrated on it, the graces of the Holy Eucharist,” Bishop Rhoades said during his homily.
The Mass was celebrated on the feast day of the church’s patron saints, the Apostles Peter and Paul. They are, Bishop Rhoades said, “pillars of the Church at its beginning.”
Both were martyred, he said. “Their blood was the seed for God’s Church to grow and spread from Rome to the ends of the earth.”
Bishop Rhoades placed relics of three saints in the new altar.
“We’re privileged to be having three saints, chosen for specific reasons,” Father Steinacker noted. “St. Anthony the abbott and confessor, chosen to encourage a stronger participation and strengthen all priests in helping them to be good confessors; St. George the soldier and martyr, to help each of us to be strong in our faith at all times and be willing to give of ourselves completely for the faith; and St. Therese of Lisieux, virgin and doctor of the Church. Her writings are inspirational … she has inspired countless believers to embrace a life of simplicity and complete devotion to good.”
The relics, which Father Steinacker calls “my personal gifts to the church,” were given to him by other priests over the years and have now been placed in the altar stone at SS. Peter and Paul.
The new altar, which replaced a small, simple one now in storage, contains elements that reflect the church’s past. So, too, do the three larger altars. Originally made of stained pine, the altars were whitewashed and decorated in 24-karat gold in 1903. They were again whitewashed and regilded in 1953, when faux marble accents were added. All of the ornamentation disappeared in 1973 when the altars were painted solid white.
The new look pays tribute to the styles chosen by previous generations, with a white base, wood graining and faux marble and accents of gold and other colors. A crucifix was restored to the top of the main altar.
Renovation of the altars is part of a wider project undertaken by the parish during a yearlong celebration of its anniversary.
The current church building, dedicated in 1865, is actually the second church occupied by the parish. The first was a small building made of logs, where the first Mass was celebrated on Aug. 15, 1843 — the official founding date of SS. Peter and Paul Parish.
“I believe this is the fourth oldest parish in our diocese,” Bishop Rhoades noted during his homily.
The first few Catholics living in what would eventually become the city of Huntington worshipped when they could. A traveling priest arrived every few weeks to celebrate Mass in the home of one of the five Catholic families who had immigrated from Germany and who, along with the Native American families who had joined the Church, made up the whole of the area’s Catholic community.
That changed when Miami Chief Jean Baptiste Richardville donated a piece of land so the small log church could be built.
“From the beginning, the primary purpose of the people of SS. Peter and Paul was to be welcoming to all,” said Father Steinacker, the 14th priest to serve as pastor in the parish’s history. The parish now counts 990 families in its membership and welcomed Father Steinacker as its pastor just two years ago.
“The Catholic community has been alive, strong, vibrant, instrumental in so many different ways since the beginning,” he said. “We are strongly seeking the input of parishioners and community members of just how SS. Peter and Paul Parish can be welcoming and active in the community for generations to come.”
Education, he noted, was one of the parish’s first missions — and one that continues today. The first parish school was established in 1858 and, beginning in 1868, the parish was served for 150 years by members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a presence that ended just last year.
In cooperation with the neighboring St. Mary Parish, SS. Peter and Paul continues to operate Huntington Catholic School, serving students in preschool through eighth grade.
“We have the longest-running school system here,” Father Steinacker said. “We’ve educated hundreds, thousands of people.”
The church’s current building was constructed adjacent to the log structure in 1865 on land donated by Miami Chief Francis LaFontaine, Richardville’s son-in-law and successor. The log structure was eventually dismantled, with its beams forming the framework of a private home that still stands north of Huntington.
Situated atop a hill and boasting a 185-foot-tall steeple, SS. Peter and Paul’s church building is visible throughout the city.
“The physical structure is so prominent,” Father Steinacker said. “It just rises — from every point of the city, you can see this church.”
The parish’s reputation in the community was boosted by Father Steinacker’s immediate predecessor, Father Ron Rieder, who served as SS. Peter and Paul’s pastor for nearly 33 years and was extremely active in the community at large.
“Father Ron is an institution unto himself,” Father Steinacker said. “Thirty-two years and eight months as a pastor; that’s unheard of.”
Father Rieder served as chaplain to the city’s fire and police departments, a position that Father Steinacker now holds, Huntington Mayor Brooks Fetters noted during a dinner following the anniversary Mass. Fetters proclaimed June 29, 2019, as SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church Day in Huntington, and the parish also received congratulations from Congressman Jim Banks, Indiana Sen. Andy Zay, and Indiana Rep. Dan Leonard.
Dana Wannemacher offered this counsel for his fellow parishioners as they continue the mission started by their forefathers: “Rely on God. Work together. And spread the word. It’s worked for 175 years.”
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