Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Brief History of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

by Carmen Doyle

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is an imposing structure that dominates the downtown Fort Wayne skyline. It wasn’t always that way.

The Cathedral started life as St. Augustine’s, a small log church, in 1836. In 1857, the Diocese of Fort Wayne was established. With Fort Wayne now the seat of the Diocese, a Cathedral was needed as the principal church for the Bishop’s throne.

Father Julian Benoit had come to Fort Wayne in 1840 and had been planning to build a larger, more impressive church since he arrived. With Fort Wayne now the center of the newly created Diocese, there was even more reason to build a permanent and magnificent church.

Fr. Benoit was the biggest influence on what would eventually become the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  He was the man who raised the money to build the new church. Before he even began to raise money for building, Fr. Benoit had started improvements to the parish. In 1843, three years after his arrival in Fort Wayne, Fr. Benoit opened St. Augustine’s Academy, the first Catholic school in Fort Wayne. Establishing a school meant more families would be attracted to the church and be eager to help improve the parish. By 1846, Fr. Benoit had persuaded the Sisters of Providence to open a girls’ school at St. Augustine.

In 1859, the cornerstone for what would become the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was laid. A short 18 months later, the structure was finished and consecrated. (In contrast, the Allen County Courthouse was begun in 1897 but not dedicated until 1902.)
Fort Wayne in this time period really could boast of being “the City of Churches”. There was an informal rivalry between the different religions and parishes in the city to see which of them could build the most elegant place of worship. Fr. Benoit knew he could not rely solely on area Catholics to contribute funds toward building another church.  Some money did come from among Fort Wayne residents, including non-Catholics.  Fr. Benoit visited New Orleans in order to raise money to build the Cathedral in Fort Wayne. However, a large portion of the funds came from Fr. Benoit himself. Fr. Benoit also served as architect for the Cathedral.

Portions of the Square were originally purchased to be used as a cemetery. A European custom was to build a church over the graves of the deceased. The Cathedral is built in part over a Miami Indian burial ground, and as a condition of buying the land where the church sits, it was agreed that those graves would not be touched. A prominent Native American and Catholic originally buried at Cathedral Square is Chief Richardville. In front of the church on Calhoun Street is a boulder with a plaque marking his burial site and telling why he is honored. (The gravesite is Site 41 on the Bicentennial Heritage Trail map.You can also find a more detailed description of why Chief Richardville was honored in a blog post from August.)

Chief Richardville is not the only notable person buried at the Cathedral. Monsignor Benoit, after serving 45 years as a rector for the Diocese, requested to be buried in the Cathedral that he had helped to develop and build. Originally buried at the entrance to the sanctuary, his remains were moved to the crypt when it was constructed in 1906. Also buried in the crypt are Bishop Luers and Bishop Dwenger, the first two bishops of Fort Wayne.

While the Cathedral has experienced many interior changes in its 152 years, the structure has not. The fourteen columns holding up the vaulted ceiling are original, if a different color than what Fr. Benoit had designed. While the stained glass windows along the sides of the church were not installed until 1896, the famous stained glass window over the sanctuary is the same one Fr. Benoit had installed in 1861.  

While today Fort Wayne has more than churches dominating the downtown skyline, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is still one of the most recognizable landmarks. The Cathedral may have undergone some small cosmetic changes over the last century, but it nevertheless rises proudly over Fort Wayne.

Worthy of the Gospel of Christ-Joseph M. White
E-mail conversation with Janice Cantrell, Archivist for the Diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend
Frontier Faith- George R. Mather
The Diocese of Fort Wayne (1907) -
National Register of Historic Places Inventory- Nomination Form (September 1978)
Welcome to the Cathedral- pamphlet
Reflections: A History of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception-booklet available from Cathedral Museum

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