A Church constructed during the Civil War
In 1855, Father Wenninger, a Jesuit missionary, while visiting St. Mary of the Knobs advised the German settlers around an area called “Silver Hills” by Native Americans, to build a church where they could use their German language. “Silver Hills” was the area now known as Starlight. A Herman Poeppelmann, a single, fifty-four year old German, living next to Henry Godecker in Wood Township was recorded to be the founder of this congregation. It was stated that he was a great leader and gave the church its name, St. John the Baptist. In 1860, parishioners began building the first church on five acres of land Henry Godecker and his wife donated on the south side of a dirt road. Father Edward M. Faller of New Albany laid the corner stone for this church. During construction, an infant, Joseph Wieseka, son of John Wieseka and Bernadine Heinemann became the first person buried at St. John’s. The church was completed in 1861 and Bishop De Saint Palais, fourth Bishop of Vincennes, dedicated the edifice and Father Louis Gueguen, pastor of St. Mary of the Knobs, celebrated the first Mass, November 4, 1861. The first person baptized in the new parish was the son of Joseph Bierman and Elizabeth Engle, Francis Bierman.
During the previous year, in November of 1860, a native of Indiana, Abraham Lincoln was elected our sixteenth President of the United States. In December of 1860, South Carolina had succeeded from the Union and by April 12, 1861 six additional Southern States would succeeded and Confederate Troops began a long, four-year civil war when they fired upon Fort Sumter. Four additional Southern States succeeded by June 8, 1861. Kentucky, a slave state, did not leave the Union after Fort Sumter. However, Union Troops occupied Louisville by encircling the city, building eleven Union Forts from the east, south and west with the Ohio River on the north. Jeffersonville became a major manufacturing, supply and hospital center during this war.
Eight community members would serve in this war. However, for most German settlers in the “Silver Hills” area, life continued in a somewhat normal manner. Father Gueguen cared for the forty-nine parish families until August 20, 1862 when Father Gabriel became St. John’s first full time pastor. That same year, the first couple to be married at St. John’s was Nicholas Kiefer and Frances Rosenberger. Father Gabriel lived with local families until he had a large brick parsonage built in 1868. During his tenure, ten years, he enlarged the church, had the interior frescoed and added two sacristies.
St. John’s opened a school in 1862 in a long log building built on the north side of the road on five acres of land donated by Mrs. Agnes Hollrah. Father Gabriel taught at this school until 1867 when two sisters from St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana came to administer to German speaking Catholics. These two sisters were Sister M. Victoria and Sister M. Mechtildis and enrollment was stated to average 70 students.
In1892, this growing community was eligible for a post office. Previous to this, mail was picked up sporadically at Scottsville. The new post office was located in a small store owned by Mr. and Mrs. George Koerber, Sr. near the school. It was registered with the US Postal system under the name of “Starlight” and Mrs. Elizabeth (Faske) Koerber was postmaster. There are many versions of how the name Starlight was chosen. These stories involve the clear night skies, the light above the school and a lamp at the small store. In 1893, the parish built a new frame school and convent. In the fall of 1900, Sisters of St. Benedict from Ferdinand, Indiana came to replace the Sisters of St. Francis and continue the education of community children.
A New Church is constructed as World War I begins in Europe
On the 50th anniversary of the parish in 1911, plans were drawn for a new church and the cornerstone was laid in 1913. Men of the parish, along with Father Loibl, worked very hard constructing the new church. Thousand of hand-made blocks were used to build the new church and the initials of several men, including Louis Miller, can still be found on blocks located in the belfry. In 1914, the Most Reverend Joseph Chartrand, dedicated the new church. Seven years later in 1921, Father Bernard Riedford had a larger brick rectory built beside this new church.
During World War I, sixteen young men of the parish served in our Armed Forces. John Lybrook died in service. In the early twentieth century, German was the most widely studied foreign language in the United States. Prior to World War I, more than 6% of American school children received their primary education exclusively in German. After World War I the perception was that it was unpatriotic to speak the language of our enemy. The German language continued however in the private homes of older German Starlight citizens.
Disaster struck the parish for the first time on December 8, 1928, when the two room framed school built in 1893 was destroyed by fire. For a temporary school, the convent was used until a new large three-room framed school was completed in 1929. During this period the Sisters of the parish lived in the home of a neighbor. Saint John Parish would replace their frame schoolhouse with a new brick school in 1962 and in the fall of 1984 the parish would add four classrooms. Kindergarten through grade six were conducted in this school and classes continued until 1991. St. John’s School had been incorporated into the public school system and was a part of West Clark Schools. In 1991, this school was closed when West Clark consolidated its school locations.
Father Edward Bauer became pastor in July of 1937 and was remembered for the work in the embellishment of the church. Most of the present church’s interior was redone in 1939 at his direction and through generous donations by parish members. Father Bauer was pastor of St. John’s during the Second World War when approximately fifty men of the parish saw active duty during this conflict. Two men Richard Fosskuhl and Louis Rosenberger were killed in action. Another son of the parish, Lawrence Trindeitmar, died shortly after the war on September of 1947.
Father Richard Smith was assigned to St. John’s in 1979 and under his leadership St John’s held its first Strawberry Festival. This festival has continued ever since on the Saturday in May before Memorial Day. This event has grown and has become a great source of income for the parish.
Disaster struck the parish again, in the early morning of August 31, 1985. The rectory caught fire and claimed the lives of our pastor Father Richard Smith, Father William Fisher, and Father Kenneth Smith. The parish was devastated by this event. A new rectory and parish center was built in 1986 and includes a meeting room dedicated to the memory of Father Richard Smith. The years following the fire and reconstruction brought repair work to the church. In 1990 and 1991, a side entrance ramp was installed, the inside of the church saw new paint, the pews and kneelers were refinished, carpet was replaced and a new bathroom was added to the back of church.
In 1993 the Starlight Foundation purchased the home of Ben and Sharon Niehoff located behind the school and donated it to the Archdiocese to be used for retired clergy. In 2008, Hurricane Ike brought its winds to our parish and blew the awning off the side of the church and the roof off the school. The roof of the school was repaired and a new ramp was constructed. The church was air-conditioned and a new vestibule was added to the east entrance of the church.
In 2011, as we celebrate our 150th anniversary, let us reflect on our history and look forward to the future and hope that it is as bright as the night skies above Saint John Parish at Starlight.