6. Historic Congregations Maintain Heritage and Ministries at the Heart of City

James Glass
Column that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on

Historic congregations contribute to the quality of life in Indianapolis through their traditions, buildings, and ministries. There are many such bodies in the city, but the ones remaining downtown have existed the longest and occupy some of the most historic buildings. Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, founded in 1837, inhabits the oldest historic religious structure in the community, constructed in 1857-61 on Monument Circle. Its parish draws members from all over the metropolitan area and emphasizes ministries in music and the arts, as well as to the disadvantaged. Its situation is unusual financially, in that the late Eli Lilly left a substantial endowment to help Christ Church remain in its English Gothic building. The congregation, like many others downtown, provides worship services that attract both parishioners and visitors to the city. In contrast, All Saints Episcopal Church at 1559 Central Avenue, founded in 1864, has struggled financially, but re-invented itself as a congregation made up of people from diverse backgrounds who enjoy an Anglo-Catholic liturgy and providing ministries to people with basic needs. According to Julia Collins, the parish’s administrative assistant, the High Church worship also fits naturally in the 1910 Gothic Revival building.

Roberts Park United Methodist Church, with roots going back to the city’s founding in 1821, occupies an imposing Italian Romanesque building at 401 N. Delaware Street. The congregation, which draws both from historic neighborhoods and from the whole metropolitan area, made the choice to stay downtown, according to the Rev. Howard Boles, the current pastor, because they had a passion for ministry in the city. The ministries include feeding the homeless and providing Wednesday noon services for downtown workers. The members also enjoy their 1876 historic building, which they restored in 1999-2000 to its original appearance. Bethel A.M.E. Church, the oldest African American congregation in Indianapolis, at 414 W. Vermont Street, was founded in 1836 and has occupied its current location since 1869. Frances Stout, the church historian, says that the church made a decision in the 1960s to stay in its historic building on the downtown canal, as long as the congregation was viable and could be of service. Julia Chamblis, the church’s administrative assistant, says that many African American organizations choose to hold their meetings in the restored sanctuary, and the pastor, the Rev. John T. Lambert, indicates that the congregation loves the building and is committed to remaining.

St. John’s Catholic Church, at 231 S. Capitol Avenue, is the original parish of the Roman Catholic Church in Indianapolis, founded in 1840. Its current majestic building, completed in 1871 in the French Gothic style, was constructed to be the pro-cathedral of the Catholic diocese in Indiana. Thomas Nichols, Director of Music and Liturgy, says that although there was discussion of closing the church in the 1960s, after the membership diminished, the parish members, priests, and the Archbishop of Indianapolis all decided that its historic importance to Catholicism was too great. The building was restored in 1971, and today, the parish has found a new mission in providing Masses for Colts fans who attend games in the RCA Dome across the street and to convention-goers and tourists. Both the visitors and parishioners are drawn by the unique atmosphere of the cathedral-like church and the High Church liturgy. Another Catholic parish has an inspirational story on the near-southside of the city. Sacred Heart Church, at 1530 Union Street, was founded in 1875 to serve German families. When a fire in 2001 destroyed the chancel and attic of the Gothic church, there was never any doubt that the parish and archdiocese would restore the building, according to Rose Bonwell, the outreach coordinator. She says that the beauty of the renovated church is part of its appeal for both long-time families and new members and adds, “A special spirit is in the building that wouldn’t be in a new church.”

At 701 N. Delaware Street stands Central Christian Church, occupied by the mother congregation of the Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis. Founded in 1833, the church has been in its current, Romanesque-style building since 1892. According to the Rev. Linda McCrae, the pastor, the church’s long history of ministries downtown was one of the principal reasons the congregation chose to stay in the 1960s. She says the congregation also felt strong ties to their building, and today members feel a sense of peace and continuity with those who have preceded them when they worship in the sanctuary with its old woodwork and stained-glass windows. The ministries, diverse membership, and historic building all attract new members.

A final illustration of a downtown historic congregation is provided by Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ at 416 E. North Street. There, the congregation, with its strong ties to the German heritage of Indianapolis, has chosen to stay in its 1913 Gothic Revival building, constructed by German Evangelicals who founded the congregation in 1841. The Rev. Labert Altmose, the interim senior pastor, says the congregation is working on a strategic plan to define its mission in the future, but members have strong feelings for their building, with its Tiffany-like stained glass windows and associations with generations of family worship.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 2013. James Glass
St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 2013. James Glass
St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 2013. James Glass
St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 2013. James Glass

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