St. James Catholic Church had a dominant presence on the southside of Indianapolis before the construction of Interstate 65. Located at 1155 E. Cameron Street on the southside of Indianapolis, “St. James the Greater” parish was formed in 1951.

Archbishop Paul Clarence Schulte chose the name “St. James” in memory of Rev. James M. Downey, whose patron saint was St. James the Greater. A beloved priest, Rev. Downey served at St. Catherine of Siena, less than a mile from St. James, from 1917 until his death from cancer in 1948.

Archbishop Schulte commissioned the formation of the new parish for the 325 families of the rapidly expanding southeast side of Indianapolis. St. James became one of the 20 new parishes created during Rev. Schulte’s tenure as archbishop. The mid-century modern bare-bones design of the church building was later dubbed the “Schulte special” because he believed the spartan design would reduce architectural fees and competition for building bids.

The Rev. Cornelius B. Sweeney served as St. James’ first pastor. He supervised the organization of the new church. Two months after his appointment, however, Rev. Sweeney suffered a massive heart attack that left him on bed rest. Archbishop Schulte quickly appointed Rev. John R. Betz to take over the project. Rev. Betz oversaw the construction plans of four parish buildings on an 8-acre tract of land.

The archdiocese broke ground for the first building, a seven-classroom school with a capacity for almost 200 students, in May 1952. The school partially opened for students in January 1953. Archbishop Schulte dedicated the building in October 1953, upon its completion. The modern design of the school grounds included a regulation-size football field, at the time one of few in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) south deanery. The grand opening festivities for the completed school included an all-day open house that drew an estimated crowd of 500 people, including city and Catholic Church dignitaries.

Construction of the church was next on the agenda. Initial plans called for a rectory and convent in addition to the church. The congregation often met in the cafeteria or the gym of the school while the church was being constructed. In January 1953 construction started on the second part of the school, designed as the temporary location of the church.

The plan called for the new portion of the school, designed with six floor-to-ceiling rectangular stained-glass windows on both sides, to serve as a temporary church building. The church portion of the building, dedicated in 1953, aligned with the opening of the completed school. The parish intended conversion of the temporary chapel space to a gym and auditorium for the school within a few years, following a fundraising campaign. Despite their best efforts, however, the parish did not succeed. Without sufficient funds for the new building, the church converted the “temporary” space into a fully functioning worship space.

By 1961, the fortunes of the parish and school seemed to be turning in a positive direction. The school was able to purchase a school bus. However, by 1969, the large Catholic community that once dominated the southside splintered as the newly constructed Interstate 65 bisected the area. The assistant pastor of St. James joined a community group designated to work with the state’s highway department to address the swift downturn of the community. The highway’s path left vacant lots, half-demolished houses, and countless unkempt yards in its wake.

The school continued to operate, though declining enrollment forced a merger with four other parishes in 1974. Along with St. James, St. Patrick, Sacred Heart, Holy Rosary, and St. Catherine schools consolidated to form one education complex to serve all the parishes as Central Catholic School (see Catholics). The grounds at St. Catherine about a mile north of St. James housed the complex. The school portion of the building was used for administration purposes and Sunday school for parishioners.

The church celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1976 along with Rev. Betz’s 40th anniversary in the priesthood. Rev. Betz continued to serve at St. James until his retirement in 1981. Instead of replacing him, the parish started a priest-and-resource sharing program with St. Catherine of Siena. Catherine of Siena also struggled financially, and the congregations of both churches were shrinking. The St. James complex became the site for festivals and special masses. As the majority of the school building remained unused the Indianapolis Police Department briefly considered it as a possible site for their South District headquarters in 1992.

By 1991, the Most. Rev. Edward T. O’Meara approved a plan to merge the two parishes of St. Catherine and St. James. Rev. Thomas Clegg, the pastor of St. Catherine, oversaw the merger. The South Deanery Pastoral Council administered a feasibility study that concluded that the St. James parish location should serve as the site for the Central Catholic School complex and the construction of a new church building. The newly combined parish became Good Shepherd Catholic Church, officially founded in May 1993. Rev. Clegg served as the founding pastor.

After 40 years, the conversion of the “temporary” St. James chapel into the gym and auditorium for the students of Central Catholic school finally occurred. In August 1996, the old St. James School officially reopened as the new Central Catholic, complete with a new gym and auditorium. In 2020, the gym space still contained the rectangular stain glass from the original chapel. Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein dedicated the newly built church upon its completion in November of 1996.

As of 2020, Good Shepherd parish served the students of Central Catholic and 275 families, with a church capacity of 400 people.

Revised June 2021

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