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John F. Hagel’s Mission-style church in the mid-1920s. (Source: “25th Anniversary, St. Joan of Arc Parish, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1921-1946.”)

On May 13, 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized Joan of Arc, the 19-year-old French soldier and visionary who was burned at the stake by the English during the Hundred Years’ War back in 1431.  On the eve of the Jazz Age and at the dawn of the Flappers, this medieval martyr who donned men’s clothing to go into combat was elevated to sainthood.  Joan became the celestial protectress not only of France, but of parishes all over the world, as well.

That May, American Catholics building new churches rushed to be the first to adopt St. Joan of Arc as their patroness.   A Long Island parish, in Jackson Heights, New York, just south of the future La Guardia Airport, got to the “prize” first.  One of its competitors, still on the drafting table, was about to be built in a then-rural part of Indianapolis.

Indianapols New May 17 1920

Indianapolis News, May 17, 1920

In 1920, the part of town that became St. Joan of Arc parish still encompassed a large, sparsely-populated area at the southwest edge of Bacon’s Swamp.  A wetland stretching out through woods and ponds north of the Indiana State Fairgrounds, the swamp, named for farmer Hiram Bacon, had served as a great hideout for fugitive slaves before the Civil War, when Bacon’s farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  For most of the early 1900’s, a large peat bog underlying Broad Ripple and the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood caused trouble for developers due to the squishiness of the soil.  It’s almost impossible to imagine this today, but during the World War I era, some entrepreneurs seriously considered the 400,000-ton peat bog between North Keystone and North Meridian, just east of “SoBro,” as an alternative fuel source for Indianapolis.

Decades of European immigration, combined with the famously high fertility rates of Catholic families, caused serious overcrowding in downtown churches.  As the city’s growing population began to move out beyond 38th Street, Bishop Joseph Chartrand commissioned a new church to serve North Side Catholics.  In its early years, St. Joan of Arc was the only Catholic parish north of the new cathedral (SS. Peter and Paul) on Meridian Street.

The building committee settled on a spot where Park Avenue and Ruckle Street then came together, crisscrossed by 42nd Street.  The architect tapped to design a temporary church here was 31 year-old John F. Hagel.  Born in 1889, Hagel, who lived on the Near East Side and was likely a parishioner at St. Philip Neri, was the son of German immigrants.

The groundbreaking ceremony for John Hagel’s church – the original St. Joan of Arc building – took place in March of 1921. Contractors completed the building in a mere 90 days.  Bishop Chartrand consecrated it during a special Solemn High Mass on July 17th, the anniversary of French King Charles VII’s coronation in 1423 at Reims Cathedral, an event made possible by the army of Joan of Arc.

SJOA savings bond

The United States Printing & Lithograph Co., 1918. (Source: Library of Congress, World War I Posters.)

Hagel’s building, which had white adobe walls and a red tile roof, measured about 100 feet long by 50 feet wide and could squeeze in up to 600 people — uncomfortably.  There was no spire or bell tower.  In appearance, it resembled the Alamo of Davy Crockett fame and was an unusual architectural choice for the Midwest.  As a 1972 parish history put it:  “Some viewed Mr. Hagel’s creation as handsome, perhaps, but dismayingly foreign.  Spanish mission style was acceptable in Mexico or California. . . but in Indianapolis!

It wasn’t the only such building in town, though.  The Spanish-style Cadle Tabernacle, the closest thing Indy knew to a contemporary “megachurch,” was a major Evangelical temple and later broadcasting hub for a radio ministry.  Curiously, Cadle Tabernacle was also a favorite gathering place for Indiana’s powerful Ku Klux Klan, which held several notable rallies there in the ’20s.

Architect John Hagel went on to design at least one other church, St. Vincent de Paul (1926), just east of Shelbyville, Indiana, which replaced a previous church there, allegedly burned down by the Klan in 1924.  At a time when Indiana was the foremost stronghold of the heavily anti-Catholic KKK, Shelby County police never pressed charges.  But as a 1927 arson spree in Indianapolis made clear, Klansmen might not have been the perpetrators of that fire after all.

Hagel was likely a big fan of the California Mission style and Southwestern architecture in general. In 1933, his home address was listed as 1415 North Linwood Avenue, in the Little Flower neighborhood on Indy’s East Side.  It is unclear if he personally designed the tiny home that sits there today, two blocks due west of Little Flower Church.  But since it’s the only adobe-inspired house on the block, it is reasonable to infer this was John Hagel’s.  The place was sitting boarded up in May 2015.

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(1415 N. Linwood Avenue, Indianapolis. Architect John Hagel lived at this address in 1933.  Photo: Stephen Taylor)

In the mid-1930s, John F. Hagel and his wife Irene moved to Evansville, where he went into partnership with Earl O. Warweg.  An Indianapolis native, Warweg played professional football in the early 1920s. The firm of Warweg & Hagel primarily designed movie theaters, including the Carlton Theater in Evansville (1937) and the Swiss Theater in Tell City (1948), as well as the Jasper-Dubois County Public Library (1952).  Hagel died in Evansville in 1966.

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Rev. Alphonse Smith, center, later Bishop of Nashville, with Father Jerome Pfau, mid-1920’s.  (Source: Carl W. Henn, Jr., “Fifty Years at St. Joan of Arc Church, 1921-1971.”)

Alphonse Smith, a native of Madison, Indiana, served as first pastor at St. Joan of Arc from July 1921 to February 1924, when he left to become the bishop of Nashville, Tennessee–a position he held until his death in 1935.  Though all of Nashville’s early bishops were Irish or Midwesterners, Smith was known for helping to build up the number of native Tennesseans entering the seminary. During his days as rector in Indianapolis, Smith lived in a small frame house at the corner of 42nd and Central Avenue, the former site of a fruit orchard.  Today that lot is home to the current, much larger church, built in 1928.

Long before it became the site of the parking lot for St. Joan of Arc School, Hagel’s church narrowly avoided destruction by a “firebug.”

At about 1:30 on June 23, 1927, Victor Walton, a newspaper boy who lived around the corner at 4208 Ruckle Street, noticed a suspicious man coming in and out of the church.  When Walton saw smoke, he realized the man was an arsonist.  Sending a friend named Herman Zigner to get help, Walton dashed into St. Joan of Arc and encountered heavy smoke inside, then “brought out candlesticks and other pieces of value before firemen arrived.”  The stranger had “soaked some of the choir boys’ clothes in there with oil and set fire to them.” (Indianapolis News)  He also robbed the poor box.

The blaze took place just three days after two other churches were burned.  Flames totally gutted St. Patrick’s in Fountain Square on June 20.  A smaller fire damaged Our Lady of Lourdes in Irvington on June 21.  It seemed that the Klan, which had threatened Catholics for years, was finally striking hard.

Church Fires - Indianapolis News, June 23, 1927

Indianapolis News, June 23, 1927

On the afternoon of the St. Joan of Arc fire, Motorcycle Policeman William Miller, having heard a description of the suspect, caught him on a trolley car at 36th and Pennsylvania Streets.   Miller found a directory of Catholic and Protestant churches in the man’s pocket, with check marks penciled next to three of them.  Though the Indiana Catholic and Record, an anti-Klan paper, had surprisingly little to say, the Indianapolis News and other journals covered the story.

Giving his name as Maurice de la Tour, alias Ray Gordon, “the bug” nearly got lynched outside St. Joan of Arc.  The Huntington Herald reported: “Police had difficulty in rescuing Gordon alive from a crowd which took him away from [Officer Miller] and beat him into insensibility.”  Later, the busy firebug — “who seemed to be under the influence of some kind of dope” — grew annoyed with police interrogators and asked to write out his own confession on a typewriter at the city jail.

“De la Tour” went to court in Marion County in October.  By then, police officers from different states had determined that he was identical with one Frank Trimm.

Church Fires - Huntington Herald, June 23, 1927Fourteen months before he was due to be released from a prison in Douglas, Georgia, “Trimm” — one of many aliases — escaped.  Trimm had been sent there in 1923 for trying to burn down the Cathedral of Savannah.  After his arrest in Indianapolis, Ohio State Police connected him to a ring of arsonists working under the busy Ray Marsden, apprehended at Sandusky, Ohio.  Marsden, who grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, and had a long criminal record going back to 1901, had been robbing Catholic churches for almost two decades.  As a boy, he had made state headlines in Wisconsin after he escaped from a reformatory school, where he’d been sent for robbing the Milwaukee Public Museum.

In the mid-1920s, Marsden and accomplices targeted over twenty churches in Ohio and Kentucky, though he took credit for pilfering seven thousand throughout the U.S. and Canada.  Police finally caught him after he stole a statue of Mary from Our Lady of Consolation Shrine in Carey, Ohio.  In court, Marsden claimed responsibility for setting the disastrous blaze that destroyed the great pilgrim shrine at St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec City in March 1922 and the one that left Quebec’s spectacular Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame in ashes that December.  Marsden might have been bluffing about many of these crimes, but he was certainly an active thief and vandal.

Whether or not the Indianapolis arsonist had been one of Ray Marsden’s henchmen remained unproven, and neither of the two seemed to have any connections to the Ku Klux Klan — in fact, they claimed to be Catholics.  Marsden stated in court that while his fellow burglars were anti-Catholic, he watched in horror as they scattered the Eucharist on the floor of a church in Covington, Kentucky.  In court statements, “Frank Trimm” claimed to have taken to arson as revenge against a sister who became a nun and a brother who entered the priesthood.  Trimm, it seems, had spent time as an actor in New York City, where he assumed the stage name Maurice de la Tour after the 18th-century French Rococo painter, who he actually resembled.  “The bug” was probably acting in court, too.  He even claimed to be Spanish.

Legal representation for the arsonist came from H.P. Pike, Marion County Attorney for the Poor.  Though an Indianapolis judge sentenced “Maurice de la Tour” to a life term at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, where his records are under that name, the arsonist got out after seventeen years.  Aged 70, he went right back to burglary, robbing a Chicago home while the family was at a funeral.  De la Tour was in jail again in 1949.  He died there in 1951.

Church Fires - Indianapolis News, June 23, 1927 (1)

Indianapolis News, June 23, 1927

Indianapolis News June 24 1927

Newspaper carrier Victor Walton, 4208 Ruckle Street, helped identify arsonist Frank Trimm. (Indianapolis News, June 24, 1927.)

Fortunately, by the time of the 1927 fire, attendance at mass was outstripping the capacity of the old St. Joan of Arc church and a replacement was not long in coming, anyway.  The parish school, dedicated in 1922 and staffed by the Sisters of Providence out of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, brought many families into the area.  Initial enrollment was 114 pupils.  Even by the time of the school’s opening, records show that there were over 800 parishioners.  By 1926, there were over 2,000, all attending a church that could barely hold 600.

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(Source: Carl W. Henn, Jr., “Fifty Years at St. Joan of Arc Church, 1921-1971.”)

Under the guidance of the second pastor, Father Maurice F. O’Connor — who had rushed into the burning building — a funding campaign began in spring 1928.  At an ultimate cost of $310,000 (compared to just $23,000 for the earlier building), the parish was able to hire contractors to execute a design by the famous Chicago “ecclesiologist” Henry J. Schlacks.

Schlacks, who once worked for the great architectural firm of Adler & Sullivan, had already designed some of the Windy City’s most stunning sacred edifices, including a few — like St. Adalbert’s in Pilsen — laid out in the style of Roman basilicas.  These look similar to his plan for the new Indianapolis church.  John Hagel, future designer of drive-in theaters, was dwarfed by the great Schlacks, who also founded the School of Architecture at Notre Dame.  With walls of solid Hoosier limestone, marble columns, a marble altar, and lavish interior decoration, featuring stained glass windows from the studio of F.X. Zettler in Munich, Schlacks’ church was instantly one of the most spectacular in the city, a distinction it still enjoys.  The current building was consecrated on December 15, 1929, just a few months into the Great Depression.

The old church out back shows up in this aerial photograph dating from about 1970.  The building is top center, just north of the school.  Facing structural issues, the 1921 church was torn down around the year 2000 for an expansion to the parking lot.  Fortunately, the parish still puts the site to good use every September, when Indy’s popular French Market is held here.

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(Source: Carl W. Henn, Jr., “Fifty Years at St. Joan of Arc Church, 1921-1971.”)

7 responses to “Misc Monday: Burning Joan of Arc: The 1927 Indianapolis Arson Scare”

  1. Nancy says:

    Love the history you are revealing! I wish I had your gift of pen. Please keep it up. You have at least one fan.

  2. Jarryd Foreman says:

    Loved this article! 🙂

  3. connie henn says:

    Loved the article and photos. Brings back fond memories of my grade school days there and playing the piano in the old church for recitals. Then, of course, our wedding and 2 of our daughters weddings tooke place in the “new” St. Joan of Arc on the corner.

  4. Stephen J. Taylor says:

    Connie, thanks. Do you happen to have any photos of the old church’s interior?

  5. Carl Henn says:

    Many thanks to Stephen Taylor for his research and writing skills that enabled the publication of this article. St. Joan of Arc Church is looking forward to the writing and publication of a follow-up to its “50 Years at St. Joan of Arc”. It will be titled “100 Years at St. Joan of Arc”, and will appear in 2021 or 2022, God willing..

  6. Meaghan says:

    This is a great write up! I learned so much. I was just this week looking at this very story in a scrapbook owned by the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum and someone sent me your article so I’d have more info. Check out the IndyPL scan of that Joan of Arc WWI poster for a cleaner copy: http://www.digitalindy.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/wwi/id/618/rec/211

  7. DIANE RIVELLI LEAKE says:

    Thank you for helping preserve this history of a much loved church home. I attended school and graduated from SJA in the late ’50s. The book promised “100 years” was released in December of 2017.

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