Inside Historic St. Mary
Noted architect James T. Kienle, a resident of Lockerbie Square, will talk about the architecture of St. Mary Catholic Church at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 28.
The 30-minute talk will be part of Inside Historic St. Mary / A Tour of Art and Architecture which will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. that day. Wine, beer, hors d’oeuvres and music will be available from 5 to 6 p.m. Tours will take place from 6:30 to 7 p.m. The event is open to the public.
By Jeff Harris
Special to Urban Times
Over the last century, residents of Downtown Indianapolis have become accustomed to its glistening limestone walls, its spiraling steeples, its majestic stained glass windows and its bells ringing out the hour from the corner of New Jersey and Vermont.
Yes, St. Mary Catholic Church is not only a Downtown landmark, it’s an old friend and neighbor.
However, few know its historical significance or the art and architecture behind its doors. But, that’s about to change.
Built from 1910 to 1912, the Gothic-inspired church has begun to show signs of its age and now parishioners, historians and neighbors are racing to save it. Launched in the spring of 2018, the Save the Steeples campaign hopes to raise more than $2 million to secure the physical structure from further deterioration.
To encourage more community awareness and support, the church will open its doors to the public on Sunday, April 28, for a fun tour of the historic building and a presentation from Jim Kienle, a nationally renowned architect and long-time member of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission.
“St. Mary is really one of our community’s hidden gems,” said Martha O’Connor, co-chairwoman of the campaign. “Not only is it a vibrant and welcoming faith community that serves families living Downtown and beyond, it’s an architectural treasure not seen anywhere else in our city. We must do all we can to save it.”
Beer and blessings: A brief history of St. Mary. St. Mary parish was founded in 1858, with its original church located at 117 East Maryland St., where it served the city’s burgeoning German community. As Indianapolis grew, the area became more commercial and residents moved out.
By 1906 church leaders decided it was time to relocate. Purchasing adjoining lots on the corner on Vermont and New Jersey streets for $82,900, the new location was selected due to its close proximity to the Germantown neighborhood, much of which is now known as Lockerbie Square.
After settling on the location, St. Mary’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Anthony R. Scheideler, called in an old favor to help with the design. A decade earlier, in the 1890s, Hermann Gaul, a Downtown Chicago architect, had visited Indianapolis to oversee the construction of the Home Brewing Co. plant near East Washington Street and Southeastern Avenue. Not wanting to stay in a hotel, Gaul, a German Catholic, contacted Father Scheideler to inquire about renting a room. Scheideler arranged for Gaul to stay with the Seiter family, which operated a saloon at 476 E. Washington St. near his worksite. While working in Indianapolis, Gaul fell in love with the Seiter’s oldest daughter, Mary Frances. The two were married by Father Scheideler in 1896.
Out of thanks for his assistance in finding his bride, Gaul told Father Scheideler that he would design a new church whenever it was needed – free of charge.
A decade later, the pastor came calling.
The unique art and architecture of St. Mary. Hermann Gaul, who lived from 1869 to 1949, was born near Cologne, Germany, and throughout his career designed 39 churches and 61 schools – mostly with brick in the Romanesque style. However, St. Mary is different and stands as his one and only foray into Gothic architecture.
As a young boy growing up in Cologne, he witnessed the completion of Europe’s largest cathedral, the mammoth St. Peter and Mary Cathedral – and the ensuing national celebration. Recognized as one of the greatest examples of German Gothic architecture ever built, the church’s cornerstone was laid in 1248, but the cathedral was not completed until 1880.
When called upon by Father Scheideler to design a new St. Mary building, Gaul used the Cologne Cathedral as inspiration, hand-drawing the plans and replicating a section of its layout and many of its Gothic elements and features.
Constructed with a steel frame and slate roof, the masonry is brick with a Bedford limestone veneer. A parishioner-owned firm, G. Ittenbach and Co., provided the limestone which was not ordinarily used on churches at the time, adding to the unique architectural history of St Mary.
The church features 165-foot-tall twin spires, as well as statues of the Holy Mother, Saint Boniface and Saint Henry – all significant figures in German Catholicism. Further ornamentations include numerous water-spouting gargoyles, finials and grotesques, some of which have been removed because of deterioration.
Inside the church, the walls are constructed of a combination of plaster and marble, with tile and terrazzo floors and columns of scagliola marble. The 12,000-square-foot church can hold up to 800 parishioners. Completed in 1912, St. Mary Church cost approximately $175,000, likely the most expensive church built in Indianapolis at the time.
“It is obvious that Hermann Gaul, the architect, was inspired by the Cologne Cathedral in his design for St. Mary,” said Dr. James Glass, principal of Historic Preservation & Heritage Consulting and former director of the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. “It is a marvelous, modern interpretation of High Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages and also reminiscent of the grand St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.”
Years later, in 1936, Emil Frei, a German-born artist living in St. Louis, was commissioned to design and install stained glass windows in the church. Crafted in Munich, Germany, the 10 huge windows depict scenes from the relationship between the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus Christ.
Today the St. Mary campus, including the Rectory and the Marian Center, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sits as a living monument to Indianapolis’s rich German history, Gothic Revival architecture and to the power of beer, love and a persistent priest.
St. Mary’s today and tomorrow. Beyond its congregational responsibilities, St. Mary has been an integral part of the development of the Mass Ave district for over a century.
During the 1970s, St. Mary was a small congregation and the surrounding community had declined. In 1979, St. Mary’s pastor, the Rev. Stephen Hay, joined with other leaders in the Downtown business and faith communities to create the Riley Area Revitalization Corp.. Now known as the Riley Area Development Corp., the organization’s mission was, and is, to address social and economic issues in the Mass Ave corridor and to preserve and re-use historic buildings in the neighborhoods.
The extensive preservation of homes and commercial structures on Mass Ave and other nearby historic districts stimulated by the leadership of Riley Area Revitalization greatly contributed to the growth of the parish and the attractiveness of Downtown living.
As Indianapolis has grown and changed, St. Mary parish has remained an open and welcoming place for all citizens, especially the city’s immigrant populations. From serving primarily the German community in the beinning, it has since welcomed Italians, Latvians and the Irish amongst many others. Today, St. Mary is home to a vibrant Hispanic community.
Through its efforts to maintain and restore its historic building, St. Mary has continued to work with new populations in the community and to aid the poor. Its mission, to be a good and welcoming neighbor has not changed.
Looking ahead, the congregation hopes to preserve the church’s history and, with the help of its friends and neighbors, make even more.
To donate to St. Mary’s Save the Steeples campaign, visit www.saintmarysindy.org or call 317-637-0328.