by Nancy McCammon-Hansen
On December 10, 2011, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a special program entitled “Examining Immigration through Faith and Politics” was presented in what is hoped will be a series dedicated to how faith and politics intersect in today’s prominent issues. The hosts were the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Wayne and Temple Acduth Vesholom with support from the League of Women Voters, Catherine Kasper Place and The Reclamation Project. This particular piece was included in the packet of information given to participants. While by no means a definite work on immigration in Fort Wayne IN, this piece does provide a preliminary look at some of the issues that have faced immigrants to our city, the diversity of nations from which immigrants came, and various opinions about immigrants as voiced by leaders in the community. If you’re interested in local history, the History Center has many back issues of the Old Fort News on sale at this time plus copies of the two-volume Allen County-Fort Wayne History published in 2005.
Fort Wayne is a city of immigrants. This fact is ingrained in our history and such a part of who we are that the recent influx of Burmese and other immigrants to our city seems like something new. But it’s not. Let’s see why.
According to an article by Clifford Scott in the History Center’s “Old Fort News” (Vol. 74, No. 1, 2011), “The Fort Wayne population in the late nineteenth century established a long-lived reputation for being composed of one-third German Lutherans, one-third Roman Catholics (mostly German), and one-third Anglo Protestants of varied persuasions….But that tripartite population stereotype was never strictly true as Fort Wayne contained a remnant of its Native Indians, earlier French, and French-Indian peoples. German Jews dated from the 1840s and beyond, as did a growing—yet still small—number of African Americans. Irish Catholics had been a distinct part of the community since the canal-building days of the 1830s and 1840s. And by the 1890s and the period leading up to the state centennial in 1916, Fort Wayne had become more complex in population, as had most northern American cities, with an influx of Italians, Poles, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Syrians, Rumanians, Russian Jews, and other Eastern European and Mediterranean peoples without clear national labels who all sought a new life in the industrial heartland of North America.”
George R. Mather, in his book “Frontier Faith: the Story of the Pioneer Congregations of Fort Wayne, Indiana 1820-1860” takes us on a walk through the various religious denominations that led to Fort Wayne being christened (if you’ll pardon the pun) “The City of Churches”.
One of the earliest references in this book to “immigrants” mentions December 20, 1789, the earliest date that has been discovered as the first worship service conducted by a Christian clergy person. Worshippers were called by a cow bell: “The French settlers of this place go to prayers of a Sunday morning and evening…”. This account was written by Henry Hay, an English trader and partisan, who journaled about his time in this area and who also played musical accompaniment for dances with his friend, the Scots trader John Kinzie.
Roman Catholicism began to grow in America when word of the critical shortage of clergy was made known in France, where priests were being persecuted by the government of the Revolution. One such priest was Stephen Theodore Badin, who fled Orleans and arrived in Baltimore in 1792. He was the first priest ordained in the US and, although not serving Fort Wayne directly, did spend some time in the city upon occasion serving the sacramental needs of the French Catholic community.
Roman clergy from Europe were not all that impressed with what was then the American West and attracting and retaining clergy was a challenge at best. Travel was on foot, by horse or the infamous canal boats. The canal system had been constructed in large part by Protestant Irish laborers who were divided intro secret societies that fought among themselves.
One early Irishman was The Rev. John Ross, born in Dublin. At the age of 19, he was seized by a press gang in Liverpool, England and put on board a British man of war. In Barbados, he escaped, stowed away on an American vessel and landed in New London, Connecticut. He was a marginal Roman Catholic who became active in the religious life of the community where he lived and eventually became a Presbyterian minister, arriving in Fort Wayne at the age of 40.
Allen Hamilton, one of our city’s early leaders, was also born in Ireland. In 1824 he was appointed sheriff of Allen County, resigning two years later to go into business with Samuel Hanna and James Barnet. All three were Scots-Irish and Presbyterian.
The Rev. James Chute, another early Presbyterian pastor, organized a Bible Society in 1833 and reported that, “the town has been fully supplied with Bibles”. His congregation had doubled due to the development of the canal but he also noted, “Within a year our population has considerably increased, but they add very little toward the support of the gospel. Speculators and those who regard the things of the world…compose the great mass of emigrants to this country…There are, however, a few exceptions.”
French settlers arrived in great numbers in the 1840s, settling north of town in Perry and Washington Township. These folk were mostly from eastern France, Franche Comte, Alsace and Lorraine and did not identify with families who were French-Canadian. In the early 1850’s, an area of south Fort Wayne was known as “French Town”.