Friday, December 16, 2011

A City of Immigrants: a brief overview of immigrants in Fort Wayne through 1920

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.

Part II

As you are well aware, immigrants from Germany played a major role in developing Fort Wayne into the city that it is today. There is not time enough in this presentation to go into great detail but you are encouraged to pick up a copy of Mather’s book to read on your own.

German Catholics in Fort Wayne began in the 1840’s to feel a need for a church separate from French, Irish and American parishioners. Three German Protestant congregations had already evolved and a German Jewish congregation was organizing. After the German Catholics moved into their own space, St. Augustine’s was increasingly composed of French and Irish immigrants.

According to Mather, “In 1850, Germans constituted 62 percent of the foreign-born in Allen County, of whom about a third were Catholic. French ‘emigres’ represented 14 percent of the aliens, a majority of whom were Catholic; the Irish were 11 percent of the total, most all of whom were Catholic.”

One of Fort Wayne’s more famous immigrants—Bishop John Henry Luers-- has a school named for him. Luers was born in Westphalia, Germany in 1819 and moved to the United States at age 13 with his family, which settled in Ohio.

Henry Rudisill was an American born Lutheran who came to Fort Wayne to oversee the landholdings of his employer John Barr. He soon learned that local labor was “both scarce and expensive; Rudisill immediately suggested that Barr ‘hire some Germans from Germany and send them out to me. German emigrants are frequently arriving in Baltimore and would be glad of such an opportunity. You can hire them much lower than the Americans and I think they are more to be depended on. … If you can get whole families it would be better….Their women are good in corn fields…They are more industrious and temperate than our Americans.”

In later years, Rudisill was part of a movement to bring the Lutheran Church more into line with American culture. His pastor, upon returning from Germany and wishing to take the congregation back to 16th century German Lutheranism, forced Rudisill’s hand as did the declaration by two German pastors in the community that membership in a fraternal organization was not to be undertaken by Lutherans. Rudisill was a member of the Wayne Lodge No. 25 of the Free and Accepted Masons and had been since 1830.

The split was amicable but growth of the new English-speaking congregation was not immediate.

Presbyterian minister Charles Beecher, in 1846, was quoted as saying, “The life among the German Evangelicals is a life of miserable toil and disgust to any generous mind. Mostly stingy and stupid, they are excessively bigoted and narrow in their ideas.”

However, with the establishment of a strong German Reformed Church—Fort Wayne’s St. John’s Lutheran was the first in Indiana--Fort Wayne became increasingly attractive to new arrivals from England and France. The French were nurtured by the church, according to Mather, because they were the only congregation in the area where French could be spoken during the services.

Itinerant Jewish peddlers came to this area seeking the freedom to conduct business that was denied to them in Germany or at best made extremely difficult. These Jews did not establish synagogues—this job was left to settled merchants. One of the more well-remembered of these men was Frederick Nirdlinger, born in Hechingen, Germany. He was equally recognized by both German and English speaking residents and was active in the Democratic Party, elected as a township trustee in the mid-1850s, and shared his carriage with Stephen Douglas when he ran against Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.

In the “Reflections” chapter of his book, Mather writes, “In hindsight, the modern reader may feel that there were areas in which the clergy and their congregations were timid. When the Miami Indians were about to be removed from the region, it appears that only a few voices from the local congregations were raised to protest their deportation. Similarly, there is scant record of constructive measures initiated by the religious leaders to bridge the social and political chasm that separated white and black residents. And, despite the fact that Anglo-Protestant church women were the leaders of the emerging women’s rights movement, there is no record of Fort Wayne clergy actively promoting the cause.”

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