(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” –December 2010 No. 73.)
In 1824, Martin Bargus, Fort Wayne’s first German-born Catholic, arrived in town during the days before the Wabash & Erie Canal having followed the route from New York City to Fort Wayne which would be followed by many other Germans: Hudson River to Albany, Erie Canal to Buffalo, Lake Erie to Detroit, ox team to Maumee, Ohio and pirogue up the Maumee River to Fort Wayne. No German-speaking clergy settle in Fort Wayne until the Rev. Louis Muller arrived in 1836. By 1846, Fort Wayne’s German community, of which at least a third was Catholic, had now grown to a significant size. Three German Protestant congregations had already erected church buildings, namely St. Paul’s German Lutheran, St. John’s German Reformed, and Bethel German Methodist. Meanwhile the German Jews were busily organizing a congregation. Most German Catholics wanted to attend Mass and hear the sermons in their native language.
Swept along with these ethnic sentiments was the Rev. Edward M. Faller, the twenty-two-year-old German-speaking assistant pastor who had come to St. Augustine’s in October 1846. There he found thirty German Catholic families eager to build their own schoolhouse, orphanage and church. He soon established a church council, organized a school society (Deutscher Romisch Catholischer St. Josephss-Schulvereins), erected a frame schoolhouse and meeting hall on Calhoun Street adjacent to the church and purchased lots on the southeast corner of Jefferson and Lafayette streets for the site of its future church building. In order to guarantee the $1,700 cost of the property, five families mortgaged their farms.
A local editor, after praising several of the new Protestant edifices in town, concluded, “but the handsomest situation in the whole City is owned by the [German] Catholics, and when they shall have built their new Church, they can justly boast of the most beautiful place in the State.” A brick church 32 by 64 feet was gradually erected, as well as a small one-story residence for the pastor, behind which their schoolhouse was soon relocated. Finally, in November 1849, the German congregation moved in a solemn procession from St. Augustine’s Church to their new facility. The celebrated Jesuit missionary the Rev. Francis X. Weninger, who had been conducting a week-long mission to the congregation, then dedicated the church “to the service of God under the tutelage of Mary,” and named it Der Mutter-Gottes Kirche, The Mother of God’s church. English speaking residents of Fort Wayne, however, seldom used this title, and thereafter spoke of the “German Catholic Church” or “St. Mary’s Catholic church.”
In 1854, a school and a convent were built on the site. Three years later, the growing parish announced that it would build a larger church with a 165-foot steeple, the tallest in town. This 1858 structure, described by a local editor as, “the most magnificent church in the state,” was destroyed in 1886 by the explosion of its boiler. Within months, the cornerstone of a new, larger church was laid by Bishop Joseph Dwenger; a year and a half later, in December 1887, the finished church was dedicated. The name of the church was changed to St. Mary’s Church in 1900. On September 2, 1993, an afternoon lightening strike sparked a fire which gutted the church. Millions watched the dramatic spectacle of the great steeple falling to the street in flames on national television.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.