by Tom Castaldi
A visitor to downtown Fort Wayne would be hard pressed to miss noticing the tall twin cross-topped steeples of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Church that helps shape the city’s skyline. On closer examination the same visitor might also read the historical marker that stands out front that tells the story of this the oldest church structure in continuous use in the Fort Wayne area. It explains that it was during the 1600s when Christianity was carried to this part of the new world by missionaries.
A major portion of the land was first purchased for a church building in 1831 at the urging of the Reverend Stephen T. Badin, who visited this area between 1830 and 1834 as a missionary to Catholic residents. In 1835, a chapel was being erected on the block now known as Cathedral Square, but the structures did not have a roof when the first resident pastor, the Reverend Louis Muller, arrived the following year. The small structure measuring 35 by 65 feet was finally completed in 1840 by the Reverend Julian Benoit and dedicated as St. Augustine’s. One remaining vestige of that first little church is a limestone statue standing just four feet in height in the Square today dating to the year 1837. Fr. Benoit acquired additional land to the south where he wanted space for a cemetery, and in 1846 he expanded his vision with the building of St. Augustine’s Academy. It was the first Catholic school in Fort Wayne. Next he busied himself with the construction of a rectory completed in 1854.
When Fort Wayne was named the seat of a newly created diocese in 1857, Benoit immediately proceeded to draw plans and raise funds for a cathedral. This Gothic style double-spire structure, 80 by 180 feet, cost $63,000.00, of which Benoit personally raised $46,000.00. In 1859 the old St. Augustine church was moved to the east side of Cathedral Square, facing Clinton Street, but shortly after was lost in a disastrous fire.
On December 8, 1860, Bishop John H. Luers, the first bishop of the diocese, presided over the opening of the finished cathedral, then the largest church in Indiana. During the celebration, on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, the new structure was dedicated as a place to worship God through the intercession of Mary. High above the main entrance in a niche, still prominent to this day, is a ten foot statue of Mary for whom the Cathedral is named.
In the late 1940s, the cathedral was remodeled, and the original brick exterior was faced with stone. The core of its walls, however, is the oldest of any church in the area. A second time the Cathedral was closed in 1998 for seven months to conduct a major restoration and renovation project. Appropriately the remodeling included opening up a space for a greater view of the east window in the apse, which is graced with one of the most beautiful stained-glass images to be found anywhere. It depicts a scene in the life of Mary the Mother of God and was installed during the years 1896 and 1897. The windows of the cathedral have been described as the finest of their kind in the western hemisphere.
On the grounds of Cathedral Square is a second marker erected in 1942 by the Mary Penrose Wayne Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It recalls Jean Baptiste De Richardville, who was born in 1761. Richardville served as the chief of the Miamis who knew him as Pechewa a name that means “Wildcat.” He was known by his fellow Miamis for his courage and business abilities. When he died in 1841, he was buried near the base of the old St. Augustine Church.
|Chief Richardville Marker in Catholic Cemetery on Lake Sreet|
A visitor to Fort Wayne scanning the skyline notices the defining shape of the twin spires. As the two steeples high above form an outline, directly ahead, the viewer gazes upon the land that helped form Fort Wayne history.
Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Dec 2009 No. 61