In 1919, St. Rita was established by Bishop Joseph Chartrand as the first African American parish in Indianapolis. It was created as an extension of St. Bridget Catholic Church, which had attracted a small number of Black families beginning in the late 19th century.

St. Rita Catholic Church 100th year anniversary
Credit: Ira L. Hogan Jr., Indianapolis Recorder

St. Rita’s original church was the former Knights of Columbus Chapel at Fort Benjamin Harrison, which was dismantled and moved to the Martindale-Brightwood  neighborhood. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis dedicated the building on August  3, 1919. That same year, a small parish school was established on the church’s campus to serve the city’s Black Catholic children. At the time of St. Rita’s opening, 70 families were recorded as members. Father Joseph M. Bryan, a white priest, led the church from 1919 to 1935.

In 1935, Father Bernard L. Strange began his service at the parish. A white priest from Bramble, Indiana, he worked as St. Rita’s administrator from 1935 to 1947. Afterward, he served as the church’s pastor from 1947 to 1973.

Father Strange was instrumental in St. Rita becoming a vital part of Indianapolis’ Black community. As a progressive leader, he was committed to civil rights and racial justice. In the 1930s, he began fighting for the desegregation of Catholic schools. The following decade, Father Strange became active in the Indianapolis chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and helped increase the organization’s membership numbers.

Another important focus for Father Strange was Indianapolis’ youth, especially those in and around Martindale-Brightwood. Educational services were available to such children at St. Rita School. A combination of Catholic and non-Catholic students attended the school, which was known for its commitment to academic excellence. As enrollment increased, a brand-new school building and gymnasium were built on St. Rita’s campus in 1954. Five years later St. Rita’s School opened the first kindergarten program in the Indianapolis Catholic Diocese.

Four children at St. Rita's Catholic Church, 1967
Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Membership at the church also increased during this time. To accommodate the growing congregation, a new sanctuary was constructed between 1958 and 1959. Located on nearby Martindale Avenue (later renamed Dr. Andrew J. Brown Avenue), the church is constructed in a Modernist style but incorporates many elements of traditional Catholic church design, including wall mosaics, stained-glass windows, and religious altars. A detached 72-foot-tall bell tower stands outside the building.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, St. Rita remained active in the community. Both the church and the school/gymnasium served as venues for various social events, including weekly dances, bingo games, and athletic youth programs.

The parish was also heavily involved in the civil rights movement. St. Rita often joined neighboring churches, including St. John’s Missionary Baptist (pastored during this period by Rev. Dr. Andrew J. Brown Jr.), and New Bethel Missionary Baptist (pastored then by Rev. Dr. F. Benjamin Davis), in civil rights efforts at the local and national level.

In 1973, Father Strange was reassigned from St. Rita Catholic Church to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church (the home of Martin University). He retired from parish life in 1976 and died in 1987.

Between 1973 and 2007, St. Rita was led by a series of priests from the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), a Roman Catholic order focused on missionary work. During this period, most of the parish’s pastors were men of color.

At the time of the SVD’s arrival, Martindale-Brightwood was experiencing a social and economic downturn. Many of the community’s more mobile residents, including some from St. Rita, had already moved to other parts of the city. The construction of Interstate 70 also negatively impacted the neighborhood. These changes played a major role in declining membership at the church and school, which continued into the 1st century.

Due to low enrollment, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis merged St. Rita School and St. Andrew School in 2003. The newly named St. Andrew-St. Rita Catholic Academy, which was located on the campus of St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church, closed in 2010.

While the school has closed, St. Rita Catholic Church remains open. In addition to serving the spiritual needs of its parishioners, the church has continued to assist the Martindale-Brightwood community with issues regarding aging, education, poverty, hunger, and homelessness. It has also been seeking to diversify its congregation, particularly in the wake of demographic changes around the neighborhood that began in the late 2010s.

Revised February 2021
 

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