Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
The mid-19th century saw saw an impressive population boom in Terre Haute due to the expansion of railroad service. The inception of this community as the “Crossroads of America” brought with it some of the same challenges any community faces with new and prosperous arrivals: where to house them, how to provide goods and services, and so forth. In regard to places of worship, though, local potential parishioners and philanthropists are typically left to fend for themselves. Fortunately, some fastidious German Catholics provided the beginning of a long and beautiful history of church architecture at the corner of Ninth and Ohio streets, known as St. Benedict’s.
Established in 1865 and predated only by St. Joseph’s on Fifth Street, the original structure at this location was quickly outgrown. In the late 1880s a committee headed by local dignitaries, including Herman Hulman and Frank Prox, began an aesthetic comparison search of existing church architecture that was inevitably satisfied by examples found in Chicago.
Having selected a suitable style, one that wed early Romanesque architecture with Gothic elements, the committee tapped a Chicagoan named Adolph Druiding to draw up the plans for the new church on Ohio Street. Ground-breaking began in 1896 and finished in 1899 with a price tag of $150,000. The breathtaking stained-glass work, which was renovated and joined by a protective outer glass in 2001, was actually produced by German and Austrian artisans for about $9,000 in the late 19th century. The eye-catching rose windows on either end of the cruciform layout are by far the signature elements of the church. All of the glasswork uses realism in their depictions, with a painterly quality evident in the stylized brush strokes.
The original exterior of the church still remains, but a devastating fire in 1930 gutted much of the interior and laid waste the massive Grand Dome that originally sat over the crossing of the transept below. The dome’s exterior mirrored the dome caps of the twin bell towers, with a slightly larger cupola and topped with an impressive bronze statue of St. Michael.
Despite being a fraction of its original structure, St. Benedict’s is a jewel among the many examples of ecclesiastical architecture that are documented in the museum’s latest exhibition.