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 F., 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)