Perhaps because June makes my mouth water for strawberry shortcake from the Christ Church Strawberry Festival, I’m focusing this week on Christ Church Cathedral. Tiffany recently wrote about the lesser known facts about Christ Church, so I’ll not get into the history but will let the photos speak for themselves. These images show how the church once towered over other houses and churches on the Circle, but today “the little church on the circle” is dwarfed by its neighbors.

The Episcopal congregation built this Gothic Revival church (seen in the center of this ca. 1875 photograph) in 1857-59 and it opened in May 1859. During the Civil War era five protestant churches, including Plymouth Church to the left, stood on what was then known as Governor’s Circle. In 1857 the intended governors’  home was demolished and the land became known as Circle Park until the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was constructed. Today, Christ Church is the only church remaining on the Circle and is Indianapolis’s oldest religious structure in continuous use.  (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company #298598)

Here Christ Church is viewed from the newly constructed Soldiers and Sailors Monument in about 1897. The Morrison home (on the right) was purchased by the Columbia Club in 1889 and razed in 1899 to make way for a new Columbia Club building. (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company #42037)

By 1905 the English Hotel and Opera House stood on the northwest quadrant; the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse had recently been finished; and the Pyle House, a former hotel and boarding house with the Owl Cigars billboard, would soon make way for the Board of Trade building. The lychgate, extending south from the tower entry, was added to the church in 1900. (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company #4359)

The Board of Trade building is under construction in this ca. 1906 view. (Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection)


Christ Church was photographed in April 1934 for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Although the church looks the same on the exterior, the congregation expanded underground in 1927 to add educational rooms. (Library of Congress, HABS Collection, W. W. Bonns, photographer)


Through the years the congregation refused offers from businesses and developers clamoring for the desirable real estate. Philanthropist and church member Eli Lilly had much to do with preserving this gem, even writing its centennial history book “The Little Church on the Circle” in 1957. One of my favorite preservation stories, although I can not vouch for its accuracy, is that American Fletcher Bank wanted to expand and even discussed buying air rights above the church. A person who was familiar with the negotiations told me that the normally modest and mild-mannered Eli Lilly quipped “I’ll buy that bank before I let them tear down my church.”  (Wikipedia, 2010)

The 47th-annual Christ Church Cathedral Women’s Strawberry Festival will take place on Thursday, June 14, 2012, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (or until supplies run out!).

[Would you like to see your old photographs featured in this Then and Now column? If so, attach a high resolution jpeg or png and any details about the building within our “Say Hi” link in the footer of our website.]


14 responses to “Indianapolis Then and Now: Christ Church Cathedral, 125 Monument Circle”

  1. Jim says:

    Excellent photos of the old church! I love seeing the oldest photos, when this church’s tower rose high above it all. Today, the church seems so small compared to the surrounding buildings.

  2. Kathy Lynch says:

    This was a delightful look back in time, with a glimpse of the English Hotel, where my uncle worked as a teenage stagehand and lighting technician, and the unknown and unnamed but very familiar building which once was at the northwest corner of Ohio and Meridian Streets. I have one slight quibble though, and I may not be right at all. I doubt the usage of “porte-cochere” for the structure added south of the doors of Christ Church. If it were entirely separated from the main structure, it would be a lych-gate, but we always called it “the church porch.” Simple enough!
    One last vignette: Weekday mornings early mass brought out a wildly diverse congregation at Christ Church. It was nearly a certainty, though, that two men would be there, Eli Lilly and his chauffeur. They arrived in the Nash Metropolitan and slipped away during final prayers.

  3. Joan Hostetler says:

    Kathy, You are right and I’ve changed porte cochere (which I copied from an NPR article on the church, but should have known better since a buggy/auto can drive under a porte cochere) to lychgate, a term I frequently get to use. Here is the definition: Thanks for catching my error and enlightening me. I’m curious since you are familiar with the church: have you ever heard the story about Lilly threatening to buy AFNB?

  4. Joan Hostetler says:

    Oops, that should read ” lychgate, a term I DON’T frequently get to use.”

  5. basil berchekas jr says:

    I can conceivably hear Mr Lilly say what the story says he said. Used to shoot pool in the basement of the former Board of Trade Building “back in the day”, and have eaten some of those fine strawberries there.

  6. Kathleen Lynch says:

    I’ve heard lots of Lilly stories — Ruth, JK, Eli… but not the story about AFNB in his sights! It’s one of those stories which “ought” to be true, whether it is or not!

  7. Virginia Mills says:

    This is NOT the oldest structure in continuous use as a house of worship in Indy. That distinction goes to Valley Mills Friends Meetinghouse in Decatur Twp. The name was chamged early on but it’s the same building and the same families.

  8. Nancy Fitzgerald says:

    Hmm. Hostetetler. The name is familiar. Related to an educator in the family teaching in the late 50’s? My brother had a teacher with that last name.
    I actually was a member of Christ Church from 1959 until 1976, when I moved out of the city.
    I was married in that church, one of my children was baptized there, Christmas Eve, while her father sang in the service choir, and my little boy’s funeral was in the church. As was other family members funerals.
    I was actually part of the very first strawberry festival. It was introduced to the church by a Mrs. Patricia Sterling, a member and family friend, who was from England. The price then, if memory serves was 75 cents!
    Paul Moore was the Dean, Peter Lawson, the minister, and Bishop Crane the Bishop at that time.
    My father-in-law, A. Peter Alyea was on the vestry and took his turns at ushering. The Lilly’s wanted people from the parish to share their pew (their kneeling bench had beautiful needlepoint covering), so my father-in-law would sometimes seat me with them, which always made me nervous. I was a very young mother.
    They were driven to church in a beautiful pale blue Bentley limousine, and the chauffeur would smartly jump out, run around to open the door for Mr. and Mrs. Lilly while the parishioners gaped…!
    A lifetime or two ago. I’ve lived on the East coast in coastal Maine for thirty five years now.
    The pictures of the church are wonderful. I’d never seen the really old ones. Lots of nostalgia.

  9. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Thanks so much for sharing these lovely reminisces. I, for one, would have loved to have been a fly on the wall, at the very least.

  10. N. Fitzgerald says:

    I may have posted to you before. I discovered this site about a year ago and I love it!
    I was a member of Christ Church from 1958 until 1976 when I moved out of the Mid-West to the east coast.
    Yes. I did hear the story about Eli Lilly. My father-in-law was on the vestry there and thus, was one of the ushers for Sunday family service. The Lily’s had a beautiful needle point upholstered kneeling bench and my father-in-law said they preferred not to sit alone so he would often seat me with them as my husband was seated in the choir and I often sat alone. I was never really comfortable sitting with the Lily’s. They were so wealthy and I was a shy young woman. They always were driven to church in a limousine. I think they were Bentley’s. One was black, the other one was robin’s egg blue.
    The Columbia Club gave the church Sunday morning space for some of the School classes; I heard that the arrangement was that a place serving liquor could not operate within so many feet of a church. The club provided Sunday school class space and the church did not enforce the law…I don’t know if that’s true, you could check it out but it was believed by many at the time.

    That church is dear to me. I was married in it. My daughter was christened there. My son’s and father-in-law’s funerals were held there. And my daughter was in the choir as a teen. I used to actually work helping with the strawberry festival.

    There was a woman from England, named Pat Sterling who was a member and I think the festival idea was hers. It might be somewhere in the church records. Paul Moore was the dean, and Peter Lawson was a priest and later the dean after Paul left to go to D.C. There might be information in their records.
    Thank you for this site. It means a great deal to me as I live so far away now and don’t get back often.

  11. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Glad you enjoy the site Ms. Fitzgerald; we hear from many ex-pats in our comments section. I can tell you after doing research on other churches in the area, that there were church sponsored strawberry festivals here in the 1800’s. The lady you mention may well have revived the idea, but evidently, it’s a long-held tradition.

  12. Penny Edwards says:

    The lady’s name was Pat Harding not Sterling. She had the shortcake recipe from her English heritage. I was VP of the Woman’s Guild & for the 10th Anniversary we had the tuna can she used to cut the shortcakes silver plated. She was the one who started the festival at CCC. She was the housekeeper for many, many years.

  13. Nancy Fitzgerald says:

    You are right. Pat Sterling/Harding began the tradition at CCC. I know because she was a family friend and I was there for the first festival helping serve.
    I moved away to the east coast in the mid 70’s and lost track of Pat and her family. I found an article online about her bringing the festival to CCC and some really interesting history of the cantankerous relationship be tween Peter Lawson and Eli Lilly. I had forgotten that there was a blowup and Lilly and wife decamped to the episcopal church on N. Meridian until after Peter left in the mid 70’s, then Lilly came back.

  14. Sharon Sickels Cunningham says:

    My Grandparents attended the Valley Mills Church. They lived on High School Road.
    Roy and Alta Kane.
    They had 10 children.
    My mother, Margaret Kane Sickels was a classmate
    of John Mills. Graduated Decatur Central HS 1939.

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