News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

March 23, 2014

Exhibit showcases history of churches in Terre Haute

Museum seeks stories from past

TERRE HAUTE — This summer everyone is invited to an old fashioned, interdenominational church summer picnic celebrating that “Old Time Religion,” as part of the Vigo County Historical Society Museum’s opening exhibit for 2014. The exhibit and associated events will take a look back at how religion has shaped the development of the Wabash Valley.

The picnic is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. May 18 on the museum’s grounds. The event will feature families with picnic baskets full of goodies; gospel music; those famous “church ladies desserts” (available for a nominal fee); fellowship; and celebration of the past.

Along with family and food, museum directors say they are hoping you will bring your stories, too.

The “Old Time Religion: A Retrospective of Early Churches in Vigo County” exhibit displays numerous artifacts from the past, including church commemorative plates, pulpits, choir robes and old photos. While old photos and artifacts tell a story, museum directors say there are many stories of the past yet to be told. And they are in search of those.

“We know there is such a wonderful history of churches in Terre Haute and we want to bring that local history to peoples’ attention,” said Barbara Carney, assistant director of the Vigo County Historical Society Museum.

“We are hoping to become a conduit to bring this history to the people,” added Marylee Hagan, executive director of the museum. “We would love to be a depository for historical materials, and we are calling out for churches to bring us those articles and stories that tell their church’s history.”

Looking back

Carney assembled representatives from three of the area’s prominent churches early in March at the museum to discuss their congregations’ history and changes in the church throughout recent years. Present were Friar John Bamman, associate pastor at St. Joseph’s University Parish Catholic Church at 113 S. Fifth St.; the Rev. Dawn Carlson, pastor of First Congregational Church at 630 Ohio St.; and the Rev. Stephen Moore of Bethany United Church of Christ at 201 West Miller Ave., in West Terre Haute.

These spiritual directors quickly confirmed the tremendous past their churches came from and shared some relatively unknown “secrets.”

One of the great artifacts associated with the First Congregational Church is a copy of a sermon against slavery presented by the Rev. Lyman Abbot, the second minister of First Congregational. This sermon hangs on the church’s wall and is probably overlooked by many, yet speaks volumes on the church’s past. First Congregational is the oldest continuously worshipping congregation in the community.

It began in 1834 when Rev. Merick Jewett — heading to St. Louis on horseback in hopes of founding a parish in the untamed west — passed through Terre Haute. He came from Maryland where he was ordained and quickly found his career goals changed upon arriving in Terre Haute, according to the First Congregational recorded history.

After stopping at Capt. James Wasson’s Eagle & Lion tavern in Terre Haute, he was persuaded to preach the following Sunday in Terre Haute. “No minister in local history had a more immediate impact on the citizenry than Jewett,” the recorded history states.

He agreed to stay if there was enough support, and by October 1834 there were more than 50 pledges for support. Among some of the first members were Amory Kinney who worked at the risk of his livelihood to ensure that Indiana would not become a slave state. The first church building was erected at Sixth and Cherry streets.

Bamman told of how St. Joseph’s has close ties with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and the Sisters of Providence in that on the morning of 1840 in the fall, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the five sisters accompanying her attended Mass at St. Joseph Church, which had just recently been dedicated. After that Mass, they continued their hard journey from France to the “Woods.” St. Joseph began three years earlier when the city of Terre Haute was just 21 years old.

Bishop Simon Brute, bishop of Vincennes, celebrated Mass and met the Catholic residents of the area. When he saw the need for a place of worship, he then went on to purchase the west side of South Fifth Street between Ohio and Walnut for $500.

Construction of the church began in the fall of that year. St. Joseph’s history states that the people of New Orleans financed much of the construction since Indiana was a French mission territory at that time.

The building was completed in 1838 and dedicated in 1840. Mainly the Irish settlement in the city attended St. Joseph’s in the beginning. The current structure construction began in 1910 and was dedicated in 1912 and would come to face many future hardships.

Bamman did reveal the big secret of St. Joseph’s: The first resident priest, Father Simon Petit Lalumiere, who opened a day school for young ladies in association with Saint Theodore Guerin and the Sisters of Providence, is entombed in church’s catacombs, a little-known fact, he said.

Moore said mainly Welch, Scottish and English immigrants started the church he now oversees. It began in 1824 when the New Hope Presbyterian Church on Darwin Road fell prey to temperance and slavery issues making way for the Rev. William Goodman and his family to begin the First Congregational Society in Sugar Creek township, according to church history.

They built on Old Paris Road west of Ligett and named it the West Vigo Congregational Church. In early 1885, a group gathered to consider building the first church in the town of Macksville. Its charter was approved and a building constructed. In 1889, however, this church was closed and torn down.

But lumber from that church went to construct the old parsonage at Bethany, and the congregation at West Vigo Church merged with the Bethany Church. Later it would become Bethany United Church of Christ.

In 2005 the church was placed on the National Register of Historic places, Moore said.

The church bell, purchased in 1885 with a two-year guarantee, is still used to this day, he said.

‘A million stories’

After discussing history of the churches’ beginnings, all three leaders quickly agreed that the history is certainly not composed entirely of the buildings, and that many stories need to be documented and retained by members before they are lost forever.

“There are a million stories for us to tell,” Hagan said. “We hope the people will bring those to us to include in our archives.”

The church building history in fascinating, but Carlson was quick to say, “The building is not the church. We try to live that.” And that seems to be a trend in today’s churches.

“Real religion is when you go outside those walls,” Moore agreed. And that is one change that the three ministers have seen in recent years. While all concur that attendance is down, giving and caring among those worshippers who attend have increased greatly.

“Sunday is not just for church anymore,” Carlson noted. “It is not a social place of the community any longer like when I was growing up. We were at church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night,” she added. Now there are ball games and other activities available on Sunday, which affect church attendance.

“But our members are more benevolent, more mission-minded, though,” Moore said. “The spirit of giving and helping is enormous.”

And that generosity reaches further than the immediate community. Bamman mentioned ties St. Joseph has with St. Maximilian Kolbe, a poor parish in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, that they help support.

Today, churches seem to set aside theological differences and work together for the good of all, Carlson said. She pointed out Terre Haute Ministries, a not-for-profit community ministry, as an example of a place you can see this trend at work today. “We serve the same God and we are brothers and sisters in Christ,” Carlson said.

There has always been a desire in mankind to seek approval from a higher source with a hunger for a spiritually enhanced life, and while attendance is down, St. Joseph saw the highest attendance ever for this month’s Ash Wednesday service.

“There’s something there that makes us want to repent, and the churches are where we do that,” Bamman said. It was like that in the beginning, when Terre Haute was called “sin city.” Churches quickly followed the city’s founding and have left a rich heritage.

The museum is trying to “move outside the walls” of the church also and depict church activities such as Ladies Aid Societies, first communion classes, reunion groups, special committees, picnics and social gatherings, Hagan said. “We want to depict the activities within the community as well as basic church history.”

Museum officials are seeking any such photos and artifacts for the museum’s archives. The display is currently open and will continue through the May 18 picnic.

You can view the display at, or bring historical pieces to, the museum at 1411 S. Sixth St. It’s open from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

For information on donating memorabilia and artifacts of church history or verbal stories, contact curator Kim Smith at 812-235-9717.

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