November 19, 2018
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Sacred Spaces

View the full feature in the March/April 2018 issue of Evansville Living.

Religious buildings — among the most historic, architecturally distinguished, lavishly ornamented structures in a community — belong not only to the people who worship in them, but to the neighborhoods they anchor.

The Historic Evansville website (historicevansville.com) lists 247 historic churches in Evansville; dozens have been razed. Still, dozens remain, physically connecting us to our past while serving as centers of faith and community.

We wanted to explore every historic church in the county! That being not quite possible, we present a tour of 10 of Evansville’s historic churches, all currently serving a congregation.

Trinity United Methodist Church

216 S.E. Third St., trinityevansville.org

  • Constructed: Completed in 1866
  • Architectural style: English Gothic
  • Denomination: United Methodist

The U.S. was in the midst of the Civil War when the congregation of Trinity United Methodist decided to start construction on a new church building at Third and Chestnut streets.

“They realized it was quite a challenging and courageous thing to build during the war,” says church historian Bill Bartelt.

While Trinity’s first church on Locust Street had been simple in its architecture, the present-day church in Downtown reflects a shift that happened in Evansville in the 1860s. As the city grew, the buildings began to reflect a sense of pride in the town.

“When the church was being built, it was supported not just by the members of the congregation, but by others as well,” says Bartelt. “Churches were ornaments of the town and said something about the city. That was the case with Trinity.”

Designed by Evansville architect Henry Mursinna, Trinity UMC’s appearance was inspired by St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. The original sanctuary is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture from the time, says Bartelt. A narrow structure with two distinctive spires rising from the front entrances, Trinity UMC’s building immediately calls visitors’ eyes upward.

“That was the whole purpose of Gothic architecture,” says Bill Bartelt. “I always can tell when someone is a visitor to the church because when you walk in, you’re forced to look up.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

301 S.E. First St., stpaulsevv.org

  • Constructed: Completed in 1886
  • Architectural style: English Gothic
  • Denomination: Episcopal

While crosses are a common symbol in most churches, the cross atop St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has been a welcome sight to many throughout the community. Standing at 12 feet and weighing 850 pounds, the copper cross on top of the church served as a guide for those navigating the Ohio River and was even electrified in 1925 to direct travelers.

Even the foundation of the church building lies in the shape of a cross. In 1887, the Viele Chapel was constructed adjacent to the church and in 1956 a two-story parish hall was completed, all of which are connected to the original structure.

“The space begs to be filled with sound,” says St. Paul’s priest Reverend Holly Rankin Zaher.

Like many other churches in Evansville, St. Paul’s experienced a fire a year after the flood of 1937 that completely destroyed the interior of the church. The only relics remaining after the blaze were a stained glass window in the bell tower and a baptismal font, which remain in the church today.

“One of the things I love about being an Episcopal priest is being connected to our past, to our traditions, to our history and thinking about how we live this life with God today and in the future,” says Reverend Holly Rankin Zaher.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church

613 Cherry St., stsmaryandjohnparish.org

  • Constructed: Completed in 1867
  • Architectural style: Gothic
  • Denomination: Catholic

Of all the statues and stained glass windows in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Downtown Evansville, many say the Assumption of Mary into Heaven over the main doorways of the sanctuary is the most stunning. It may not be original to the 150-year-old church, but it is original to the Evansville community.

When Assumption Catholic Church was razed in 1965, the window was saved and stored in boxes before it was given to the Evansville Museum. Forty years later, as St. Mary’s began an extensive renovation, an opening was discovered behind the organ on the balcony above the entrance.

“When we found the window at the museum, it was in pieces and boxes. It was black and dark,” says church director of communication and membership Lee Griggs. “The museum gifted it to the Diocese and we put it in the opening there. It’s really neat, the whole story of it.”

One of the oldest church buildings in the city, St. Mary’s features a 50-foot-high center ceiling as well as a 175-foot tall outdoor spire, which houses the church’s three bells — St. Michael, St. Mary, and St. Aloysius.

“There are such stories here,” says Lee Griggs. “And we have parishioners who know all the intricate details of every bit.”

St. Ananias

3401 Bellemeade Ave., stananiasorthodox.org

  • Constructed: Completed in 1950
  • Architectural style: French Normandy, built with St. Meinrad, Indiana, sandstone
  • Denomination: Orthodox

Until St. Ananias was founded in December 2009, Evansville was the largest metropolitan area in the country without an Orthodox church. However, the building has housed other denominations and congregations since its beginning. It first was home to First Community Church, later housing the Pentecostal Church of God of Prophecy until St. Ananias purchased it in April 2016.

The building has since undergone major renovations, like the removal of the second-story sanctuary put in place by the Church of God of Prophecy with Sunday school rooms below on the first floor.

St. Ananias priest Father Daniel Hackney says he knows the “hand of God” was at work to bring the congregation to the church building. The biggest indication was a bishop’s throne donated to St. Ananias, which featured iconography of Jesus that matched a panel on St. Ananias’ altar painted by the same iconographer. The date on the throne’s image was 1949 — the year construction began on the church building St. Ananias now calls home.

“Church buildings point toward a higher purpose in life,” says Father Daniel Hackney. “They can answer questions to the ultimate meaning of why we are here and our ultimate destiny.”

First Presbyterian Church

609 S.E. Second St., firstpresevansville.com

  • Constructed: Completed in 1874
  • Architectural style: Castellated Gothic
  • Denomination: Presbyterian

With roots dating back to 1821, First Presbyterian lays claim to being the oldest religious organization in the city. The sanctuary the congregation calls home today, however, would not be erected until five decades later. On the corner of Second and Mulberry streets Downtown, the church cuts an imposing figure among the homes in the Riverside Historic District.

“We are very welcoming,” says church office administrator Lora Blaylock. “Places like this can be scary, but we always are welcoming.”

Inside the castle-like gothic chapel, First Presbyterian houses a large organ boasting almost 2,000 pipes, 30 stops, and operates all through mechanical action. It was installed in 1991 and designed by CB Fisk Organ. The company used American Walnut and built the organ to harmonize with the Victorian Gothic architecture of the building.

Another dazzling feature of the sanctuary and fellowship hall are the original stained glass windows, including a Tiffany Easter window depiction. As the sun moves across the sky and through the windows, various colors appear throughout the sanctuary floor and walls.

“Sometimes you come in and get a little gift of light,” says Lora Blaylock. “We’ve been fortunate to have lots of people who really care about this building.”

Trinity Lutheran Church

1000 W. Illinois St., facebook.com/Trinity3in1LCMS

  • Constructed: Completed in 1871
  • Architectural style: Gothic Revival
  • Denomination: Lutheran

Laureen Baggett, church secretary, office manager, and board of trustees member, is the fifth of seven generations of her family to attend Trinity Lutheran Church. However, countless generations have worshiped at Trinity since it began in 1841 as Evansville’s first protestant German church, later producing Zion United Church of Christ in 1845 from members of its own church body.

Three decades later in 1871, the current church building, which lies in the shape of a cross, was constructed with 85 families of the congregation present for the dedication. The structure’s most impressive features are the Charles Lamb stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The depiction of Jesus as a child particularly impresses, as it is not pieced together but rather poured to achieve the look of a folded cloth garment.

“Your salvation is not in this particular brick and mortar building,” says Laureen Baggett. “But it just elevates you — the beauty of the place, the fact that God is meeting you there every Sunday, and the fact our forefathers had the thought to put their resources into this church for future generations.”

St. Benedict Cathedral

1328 Lincoln Ave., saintbenedictcathedral.org

  • Constructed: Completed in 1928
  • Architectural style: Lombard Basilica
  • Denomination: Catholic

When St. Benedict Cathedral was completed, it was the largest church in Evansville.

“There was absolutely no clear reason at that time to build a church of that size for that congregation,” says Father Godfrey Mullen, parish rector of St. Benedict. “But they had a vision for what would one day be needed and they weren’t afraid to go after it.”

Along with 65-foot ceilings, a seating capacity of 900, and a 1928 F.X. Zettler stained glass window from Munich, Germany, a claim to fame for the cathedral is the large baldachin over the altar. In the 1960s it was decided to move the canopy forward 25 seats, but no contractor in Evansville said it could be done. A trucking company eventually was hired which attached a truck on Lincoln Avenue to the baldachin inside and pulled it forward to its current location.

“This was built in faith by the people who worshipped here not only for themselves, but for future generations,” says Father Godfrey Mullen.

St. Boniface Catholic Church

418 N. Wabash Ave., saintbonifaceevansville.com

  • Constructed: Completed in 1882
  • Architectural style: Roman with a touch of Byzantine
  • Denomination: Catholic

St. Boniface Catholic Church was built to fulfill a specific need for the community — to provide a place of worship for German Catholics on Evansville’s West Side. Even the name alludes to this purpose, as Saint Boniface is the patron saint of Germans and served as a missionary in the country.

While the church building was finished in 1882, a fire in 1902 destroyed everything except the exterior walls. It was restored later that same year, and the roof was lowered with the steeples dropping to 175 feet from 202 feet. St. Boniface was struck by a weather disaster once again when the flood of 1937 destroyed the grotto underneath the church, which was later reopened in 1972.

A decade later in 1982, St. Boniface Catholic Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“That’s what churches are for, not just to bring people together to pray, but to inspire people,” says Richard Preske, a retired deacon and author of “St. Boniface: A Living Legacy.”

Liberty Missionary Baptist Church

701 Oak St., find Liberty Missionary Baptist on Facebook

  • Constructed: Completed in 1885, rebuilt in 1886
  • Architectural style: Gothic Revival
  • Denomination: Baptist

Summer was kicking off in Evansville in May 1886 and the parishioners of Liberty Missionary Baptist Church, Evansville’s first African American Baptist church, were preparing to celebrate with a festival. But as the church members worked, a storm struck the city bringing with it a cyclone that would destroy the entire church save for the bell tower.

After the storm passed, members of Liberty saw only one option — rebuild.

“They called in what was known at the time as a ‘colored contractor’ to rebuild the church, and he did it in seven months,” says church pastor Rev. Todd M. Robertson, who has been with the church for 20 years.

Liberty was founded in the heart of the city’s largest African American community, an area known as Baptisttown. The exterior of the church features red brick with limestone trim and the original, single bell tower still stands, though there is no bell and Rev. Robertson says he’s not sure there ever was one.

Today, the congregation of Liberty remains strong, with celebrations every year to mark the anniversary of the founding of the church.

“Our congregation still is strong and vibrant,” says Rev. Todd M. Robertson. “We culminate every year the idea that God has allowed us to be able to practice and worship here in this building and area.”

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church

100 E. Michigan St., stpaulslcms.org

  • Constructed: Completed in 1908
  • Architectural style: Gothic Revival
  • Denomination: Lutheran

When St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was completed, three services were held the day of dedication Feb. 23, 1908; one in English and two in German. Today, remnants of the church’s German past remain in the form of a German inscription of the church’s name on the outside of the building. During WWI, the congregation talked about erasing the German from the stone but decided it would be too costly.

While St. Paul’s is Gothic Revival, Karin Marie Kirsch, a member and archivist for the church, says it’s a specialized form of the style.

“There was a whole movement to build churches that looked like theaters starting in the mid 1800s,” she says.

St. Paul’s is representative of this movement with its floor in the sanctuary that slopes down toward the altar and its lack of a center aisle. Instead, the church has two main aisles, which gives the sanctuary a unique feel and flow.

This architecture, however, is not unheard of around the country, and Kirsch says many of St. Paul’s features will be familiar to churchgoers throughout the Midwest.

“I love the altar,” Karin Marie Kirsch says. “It’s what struck me when I first came, and I still love it. You don’t really see the church if you don’t see all the good things in it.”

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