The church in Arcola, Indiana, stands in the middle of an artist’s sky-blue horizon that branches out east, west and south. It is nestled on three sides by plowed fields where corn and soy beans will be harvested in the fall. But for now, on the cusp of summer, the church can be seen unbroken for miles around, only the north view shielded by a tree line separating one farmer’s field from another.
I grew up in America’s urban Catholic Northeast where the churches were built on crowded city streets not far from the factories and docks. Being a city kid, the Church in rural America has always intrigued me. A friend explains that I have a city-slicker parochialism and that the Church is always bigger than my experience. He’s right, but I can’t help lingering.
Arcola isn’t the wilderness as Fort Wayne is just a stone’s throw away. With a population over 250,000 and a prosperous economy, Fort Wayne can argue cosmopolitan. It’s got museums, ballet, theaters and women’s roller derby.
But Arcola is a four-way stop sign community with no real businesses except the farmers’ co-op and the “Arcola Inn and Ale” that does more ale than inn on weekend evenings. There is an elementary school, built in 1921, and a volunteer fire department. The town is home to a Methodist church as well as our Catholic church that is dedicated to St. Patrick.
The parish traces its roots to an 1845 Mass celebrated by a horseback missionary doing rounds from Fort Wayne. A year later, a small wood-frame church was built. A school opened around 1880. A 1900 photo shows nearly 60 kids with the pastor and two nuns. The school would last until 1969.
On Oct. 29, 1899, the current church building was dedicated. The parish website notes that a family added a brick walkway outside the church in 1903 to protect a daughter’s gown from dirt on her wedding day.
The church grounds today include a state-of-the-art CCD, parish hall and office building, as well as home for the local Knights of Columbus Council. So St. Patrick’s isn’t a relic. It’s the Church alive.
Across the street is the ball field that caught my eye the first time I drove through Arcola. On the home-run side of the center field fence is an oversized monument with the cross, Madonna and two angels. It bears the inscription, easily read from the road, “Jesus, I Trust in You.”
The parish serves around 400 families, which means it pulls in people from well outside of town. Arcola itself has only 100 houses — and that’s a stretch if you ask me — though it does have a post office where you pick up your mail from a boxed slot. The railroad cuts through town, right behind the ball field and the backyards of a few houses.
The parish cemetery is about a mile and a half from the church. Today, it’s scrupulously tended with its earliest burial date being 1854. It is history in microcosm with veterans from every war and names that define the region: Cavalier, Clark, Minich and Wilhelm. And the one that sets you thinking, praying: Infant Barkdall, Aug. 18, 1925-Aug. 18, 1925.
I take a last look at the church standing tall in the gloaming as I head home. Like the song, a visit to St. Patrick’s in Arcola gives this city-slicker parochialist a “peaceful, easy feeling.” I’ll be back soon.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.