HI Mailbag: Early Religious Congregations in Indianapolis

Written by on May 28, 2013 in Mailbag - 19 Comments
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Reader’s Question:

Which is the oldest congregation in Indianapolis, where was the first church located, and what is the oldest church structure still in use? ~ Erin Fry, Indianapolis

HI’s Answer: 

A number of groups are known to have held religious gatherings in Indianapolis as early as 1821.  They were conducted in schoolhouses, cabins, and open-air venues.  The Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists appear to have been the earliest denominations to organize themselves as “classes,” “societies,” or “chapels,” which then led to the building of official places of worship.  Depending on the precise definition of what constitutes a church, one of the three mentioned above would probably hold the distinction of “first.”  However, many other religious denominations were not far behind.

In 1821, the Methodists held religious “classes” in a log structure at W. Washington Street and Tennessee Street (now Capitol Avenue), which they referred to as Wesley Chapel.  In 1823, the Presbyterians worshipped in a log “sanctuary” on Pennsylvania Street near Market Street.  In 1828, the Baptists established the first institution expressly called a “church,” when they built a one-story brick building at the southwest corner of Monument Circle and Meridian Street.

The Methodist congregation became Meridian Street United Methodist Church.  Over the years, it has worshipped in a log cabin on the grounds of what is now the Indiana State Capitol, a log sanctuary on W. Maryland Street between Meridian and Illinois Streets, a small brick building at Monument Circle and Meridian Street, an ornate Gothic structure on the southwest corner of Meridian and New York Streets, another ornate Gothic structure on the northwest corner of Meridian and St. Clair Streets (after the previous church burned down), and its present-day location at 5500 N. Meridian Street, which was built in 1952.

Meridian Street Methodist's fourth home was on the northwest corner of Meridian and St. Clair Streets (Bass Photo Company Collection, INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

Meridian Street United Methodist’s fifth location was on the northwest corner of North  Meridian Street and St. Clair Street       (Bass Photo Company Collection, INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

The Presbyterian congregation became First Presbyterian Church.  Its members worshipped in buildings on the corner of Monument Circle and Market Street, on the southwest corner of N. Pennsylvania and New York Streets, and on the southeast corner of 16th and Delaware Streets.  Although the physical buildings still exist today, the congregation known as First Presbyterian Church does not.  In 1971, it merged with Meridian Heights Presbyterian Church at 4701 Central Avenue, adopting the melded name of FirstMeridian Heights Presbyterian Church.  In 2001, the former home of First Presbyterian Church was sold to Redeemer Presbyterian Church.  In addition to the church, the buildings on Delaware Street between 15th and 16th Streets also house the Harrison Center for the Arts, named for President Benjamin Harrison, who was a member of First Presbyterian Church and lived just down the street.

First Presbyterian Church erected a new building at 1505 N. Delaware Street in 1902 (photo courtesy of )

First Presbyterian Church dedicated a new building at 1505 N. Delaware Street in 1903   (photo by Detroit Photographic Co.)

The Baptist congregation became First Baptist Church of Indianapolis.  It has worshipped in buildings at N. Pennsylvania and Market Streets, the northeast corner of N. Pennsylvania and New York Streets, the northeast corner of Vermont and Meridian Streets, and its current location, since 1960, at 8600 N. College Avenue.

First Baptist Church of Indianapolis was located at Ohio and Pennsylvania for many years (Bass Photo Collection, INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

First Baptist Church of Indianapolis was located at New York and Pennsylvania Streets for many years before moving north   (Bass Photo Collection, INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

As for the oldest church still standing, that distinction is held by what is today known as Christ Church Cathedral.  Christ Episcopal Church was founded in 1837.  The present building was constructed in 1857.  Besides being the oldest church still standing, it is also the oldest building of any type on Monument Circle.  Christ Church was chosen as the cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese in 1954.  The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.  The church is well-known for its community outreach and outstanding music programs.  Christ Church Cathedral was the subject of a Historic Indianapolis “Then and Now” article in 2011, which you can view by clicking here .

Christ Episcopal Church around 1900 (photo courtesy of INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

Christ Episcopal Church in the 1890s and the original Columbia Club building next door (erected in 1889,  replaced in 1898)   (photo courtesy of INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

 

If you have a question about Indianapolis history, please send it to historicindianapolis (at) yahoo (dot) com, with “HI Mailbag” in the subject line, and I will do my best to answer it. ~ Sharon

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About the Author

Sharon Butsch Freeland is a freelance researcher, writer, proofreader, and editor. She's a proud alumna of Shortridge High School and MacMurray College and over the years has also taken courses at Herron School of Art and Design, Indiana University, University of Colorado, Colorado Academy of Art, and the Indianapolis Art Center. She's been the executive director of a nonprofit association, a newspaper columnist, a residential real estate broker, and a political campaign staff member. Fascinated by Indianapolis history from an early age, Sharon's passion for bygone eras became even more compelling when she discovered that her ancestors had settled in Indiana in 1828. Since learning that she's a seventh generation Hoosier, many details about both the State of Indiana and the City of Indianapolis have taken on new meaning for her. Sharon enjoys helping others get excited about the history of Indianapolis, as well as the histories of their own families.

19 Comments on "HI Mailbag: Early Religious Congregations in Indianapolis"

  1. David May 28, 2013 at 3:00 pm · Reply

    This is fascinating! I had no idea there were so many old churches still around. I do have one correction though: the former First Presbyterian building at 16th and Delaware is actually the home of Redeemer Presbyterian Church now; the Harrison Center for the Arts is in the connected building next door.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Michael May 28, 2013 at 3:58 pm · Reply

    Although their presence was not so early, “architecturally,” Catholics were gathering in Indianapolis as early as 1835 at “Powers Tavern” on West Washington Street. The priest was Rev. Claude Francois who visited from Logansport. Others included Fr. Stephen Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States. They came through Indianapolis while heading somewhre else. Catholics working on the National Road were probably present as early as 1832.

    Most Catholics were coming into the state through Kentucky and so the southern part of the state is where most Catholics were present. Beside Vincennes, a lot of Catholics were living in the area around Madison and across the border from Cincinnati (New Alsace).

    A room was rented for services in Indianapolis for about three years, beginning in 1837. Fr. Vincent Bacquelin traveled between Indianapolis and St. Vincent’s in Shelbyville (which is where he is buried). By 1840 Bacquelin was visiting three times a month. In 1840 a lot was purchased and Holy Cross parish was founded near Military Park. Saint John the Evangelist was established from this.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland May 29, 2013 at 10:15 am · Reply

      Thank you for providing a little background on the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Indianapolis. As you’ve noted, St. John the Evangelist was the first parish in Indianapolis and was originally located near Washington and West Streets. The land on which St. John’s was built was purchased by the parish in 1846. The original portion of the church that we know today was completed in 1867.

    • Bill Mullenholz August 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm · Reply

      Several old Indianapolis Roman Catholic parishes were “national” churches. The two with which I am familiar is my family’s own parish, St. Mary’s on Vermont and New Jersey, which was a German National Church. On the near south side, Holy Rosary was an Italian National Church. I am not sure the reason for this but in Chicago, St. Hedwig’s parish in Bucktown was the scene of the “pepper riots” due to the all Polish parish’s distrust of the Irish Catholic hierarchy. As a result, they built All Saints Cathedral, a Polish National Church, a few blocks away on West Dickens Street. St. Hedwig’s, is a very large ediface, perhaps larger than Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral on North Meridian Street, and is currently undergoing restoration. All Saints, due to declining membership, was sold to a Presbyterian congregation a few years ago.

  3. Stephen Carlsen May 28, 2013 at 4:41 pm · Reply

    Thank you for your write up and for the history you provide of my congregation, Christ Church Cathedral.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland May 29, 2013 at 10:22 am · Reply

      I attended your 175th Anniversary Concert on May 19th, “Music for Royal Occasions.” It was wonderful. I am now looking forward to your annual Strawberry Festival on June 13th. I’ll be ordering “the works.”

  4. Howard Boles May 28, 2013 at 5:27 pm · Reply

    Thank you for sharing this information. One correction to add. The earliest Methodist meetinghouse, which grew into Wesley Chapel, continued to grow to the point that in 1842, the church divided into an eastern and western charge with Meridian Street as the dividing line. You are correct that the western charge is the predecessor of the current Meridian Street UMC. However, you fail to note that the eastern charge is still active and existent. This worshipping community took the name Roberts Chapel in honor of the Bishop Robert Roberts. The Roberts Chapel later moved to the current location of Delaware and Vermont Streets and was renamed the Roberts Park Methodist Church. This church, like Meridian Street, traces its roots to that first Methodist meeting house of 1821 and is still active today.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland June 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm · Reply

      I apologize for not explaining the original Methodist congregation’s split into two groups, and I thank you for filling in HI readers with a description. Since the question sent in was regarding “oldest” and “first” congregations, I was focused on answering that question as directly as possible. Although Roberts Park United Methodist Church was indeed spawned by the same original group as Meridian Street United Methodist Church was, it appeared to me from my research that Meridian Street Methodist built its church at New York and Meridian Streets before Roberts Park Methodist built its church at Vermont and Delaware Streets. Thus did I follow Meridian Street Methodist’s subsequent moves in my report.

  5. pjco May 28, 2013 at 6:21 pm · Reply

    I enjoyed this great information & wonderful photos, also information posted by others in comments.

  6. basil berchekas jr May 28, 2013 at 10:27 pm · Reply

    My Mother was active in Meridian Street United Methodist since it was located at Saint Clair Street, and we had friends at Christ Church, First Baptist, First, Second, and Tabernacle Presbyterian, as well as Roberts Park United Methodist…anyhow, fairly active for someone from East 21st and Emerson…

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland June 2, 2013 at 4:18 pm · Reply

      For an eastside kid, you sure got around. I appreciate your frequent comments to all of the Historic Indianapolis contributors’ pieces.

  7. Norm Morford May 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm · Reply

    Thanks, Sharon — good job!

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland June 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Norm.

  8. Janice Marion Stotler May 31, 2013 at 12:19 pm · Reply

    Some corrections. First Presbyterian Church was formed and had their first building on what is now The Circle. The building of that church is still located at the corner of 16th & Delaware; they merged with Meridian Heights Presbyterian (47th & Central) and now is called First-Meridian Heights Presbyterian Church. I worked as secretary to the ministers at 16th & Delaware for 8 years from July 1953 to October 1961. There is a book published for (I think) their centennial. Thanks for correcting

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland May 31, 2013 at 6:50 pm · Reply

      Thank you for your comments. However, I am a little perplexed by your corrections. I obtained the information about the location of the first church building from the book titled, Centennial Memorial, First Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana, which was published by the Mitchell Publishing Co. of Greenfield, Indiana, in 1925.
      .
      The book states that the Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis was organized on 5 July 1823, and that the first structure in which the congregation worshipped was on Pennsylvania Street near Market Street. It goes on to say that the church at the corner of The Circle and Market Street was not built until October of 1842 (nearly two decades after the church was originally founded).
      .
      I wouldn’t think there were multiple books written for First Presbyterian Church’s centennial, but if you have an alternate source that refutes the information I reported, I’d be glad to take a look at it. Thanks again.

  9. Esther Shir June 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm · Reply

    This is a particularly interesting article, Sharon! Love the old photos too! Great research. Thanks a lot!

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland June 2, 2013 at 9:21 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Esther.

  10. John David Wild June 3, 2013 at 9:43 am · Reply

    Hi Sharon: My father John Franklin Wild III (thankfully mom put her foot down, or I’d be the fourth), often spoke of the scout troop at First Presbyterian, where he made Eagle and was later an assistant scout master. His grandfather, John F., had the J.F. Wild & Company State Bank at 129 E. Market, and I recall somewhere (in my distant past mind) that he lived on what is the “near north side” in the area of First Presbyterian at 16th and Delaware. I went to Tabernacle Presbyterian, where I got my Eagle award (along with Tony Metz, as I recall), I was not aware of the merger of First Presbyterian and Meridian Heights at 47th and Central, but I’ve been in that church many times as a teen and later young adult “schlepping” my mother’s harp, as she would often play for weddings and also for the choir director (Don Martin) during musical programs at services. J.F. Jr. (who was christened John Eugene, but later had legally changed, thus making my dad a “Trip”) passed when my father was but a teen, so I never knew my grandfather, nor great-grandfather. My son, another John, but a John Benjamin, will probably end the line – no kids, and at 36 and divorced, no prospects. I guess in a family with so many Jones, the throne will soon be empty. Love your work, and as to the banking, my daughter is now a manager for PNC (former Merchants in Indy) in St. Louis area.

  11. John David Wild June 3, 2013 at 9:46 am · Reply

    helps to proofread – the comment at the end was meant to say “with so many Johns,”

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