On a moonless night late last fall, scores of Evansville-area families gathered at their new house of worship to celebrate one of the most important holidays of their faith. Clad in brightly colored, new clothes and bearing gifts and food fit for a feast, they greeted each other warmly before heading outside for an evening of fireworks. The celebration? Diwali, the Hindu “Festival of Lights.”
The event, laden with symbols of good – represented by light – triumphing over the darkness of evil, was the first Diwali celebrated at the Tri-State Hindu Temple, home to more than 200 families of Indian origin within a 50-mile radius of Evansville. Members – many of whom are doctors, university professors, and business owners – have spent several years raising the funds to build a place where they could worship as a community. Along with the Islamic Center of Evansville, which serves some 250 families from around the world, the Hindu temple represents the growing multi-cultural diversity of the city.
It’s a much different place in many ways than on the cold December day in 1819 when a group of pioneers gathered in the log cabin of Hugh McGary, the founder of their small settlement along the Ohio River. A Methodist circuit rider named John Schrader stood before them, having traveled through the wilderness to reach their isolated dwelling. Opening his Bible, Schrader read aloud to his audience. With these words, Schrader presided over the first recorded church service in Evansville history. For the next two centuries, faith and religion would continue to play an important role in the growth and development of the city.
Evansville’s historians say the city is rich in sacred ground, filled with the icons, relics, steeples, and temples that reflect an increasing presence of the world’s religions. The city may have begun with the prayers of Christians, but other faiths have followed.
Among the earliest believers to locate in the area were 33 men and women who built a primitive log cabin church on the bank of Carpenter Creek in a community later known as Howell, now part of Evansville’s West Side. They would become the founders of a mother church of a new denomination that would spread around the world. This year, that congregation, known as Howell General Baptist Church, will celebrate its 184th anniversary.
Around the same time as Howell’s humble beginnings, a group of Presbyterians were building their congregation in Evansville. By 1831, they felt secure enough to buy a lot on Second Street for $100 and erect what they called “The Little Church on the Hill.” Within a decade, those early Protestants would be joined by the waves of German immigrants arriving in the United States, who were drawn by the promise of political, religious, and economic freedom.[pagebreak]
Evansville Historic Preservation Officer Dennis Au says the city’s civic and religious histories are interwoven. The Daughters of Charity, a Roman Catholic order of nuns, for example, started the city’s first hospital in 1827; it has evolved into the St. Mary’s Health System. In 1886, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was built on First Street. It not only served residents of what was the wealthiest neighborhood at the time but also the 129-foot church spire was used as a guide for steamboats along the Ohio River. And the first wave of German immigrants who would arrive in Evansville were drawn here by a desire to seek freedom from religious persecution. They thrived here, and with their letters home to friends and family, more soon followed.
Au says many of the first Germans to arrive here were of the business and merchant class and a great number were Lutheran and “Evangelisch” or Evangelicals. The latter group built the churches that later merged into a denomination known as the United Church of Christ, one of Evansville’s largest Protestant denominations.
By the 1880s, the city saw the arrival of the denomination most associated with the Germans in Evansville: the Roman Catholics who tended to be farmers and laborers who clung to their faith.
“It’s no accident that one of the first Roman Catholic churches on the West Side is called St. Boniface since he is considered Germany’s patron saint,” says Au. The church’s cornerstone was laid in 1881. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1901, and remains an Evansville landmark with its towering twin spires that loom over the West Side. The congregation built a school to educate their children, starting a trend of Catholic education in Evansville that would continue over the next century. They designed their sanctuary with magnificent architectural details, including vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows that depict a heavenly host of saints, and hand-carved wooden stations around the nave of the church that represent the Passion and death of Jesus according to The Gospel of John.
The congregation clung to its German heritage, but one Sunday in 1917, during the height of World War I, the writing under the Stations of the Cross in the church was quietly changed from German, the predominant language of the parishioners, to assure outsiders of the congregation’s
allegiance to their new homeland.
Other churches, both Protestant and Catholic, followed suit, Au says. Eager to prove their American patriotism, the German congregations held rallies and public flag raisings, and their pastors and priests held services and preached sermons in English.
Although the German Catholics may have left some of the most visible marks on the face of Evansville’s religious landscape, other racial and ethnic groups also indelibly changed the city. As former slaves crossed the Ohio River after the Civil War, the number of African-American churches grew dramatically in the city. Among the first was Liberty Baptist Church, still in existence. By 1870, the African-American population in Evansville had soared to 2,000 and was concentrated in an area around what is now Lincoln Avenue and Governor Street. So many Baptist churches serving African-Americans sprung up by the turn of the century that the area became known as “Baptist Town.”
The city was becoming more culturally, racially, and religiously diverse. Among the wave of immigrants who came to Evansville in the mid- to late 1800s were members of the Jewish faith. Like their Christian counterparts, German Jews left their homeland facing political unrest. In addition, many Eastern European Jews were forced from their homelands during religious persecution. Au says many European Jews first arrived in New York City and then made their way inland, often settling in towns with German ties. Evansville’s European heritage proved to be an attraction to the Jewish immigrants: Congregation B’nai Israel was established in 1857, followed by Temple A’dath Israel in 1883.[pagebreak]
The synagogues served members who belonged to two denominations, the Conservative movement and the Reform movement of Judaism. But, the congregations also reflected their members’ different geographical backgrounds, says Evansville’s Rabbi Barry Friedman. One was predominantly German while the other was made of members from Eastern Europe and Russia. In 1980, the two congregations merged into what is now known as Temple Adath B’nai Israel.
It has only been in the last 40 years that the city has seen an increase in other faiths’ traditions. The first members of the Islamic Center of Evansville began to arrive in the 1970s, following a major piece of legislation signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that temporarily repealed long-standing quotas on immigration by national origin. The result was a significant decrease in immigrants arriving from Europe and a corresponding increase of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. Among the first Muslim immigrants to arrive in Evansville was Dr. Mohammad Hussain, an Evansville pediatrician from Pakistan. He personified many of the Muslims who would follow to the Evansville area: well-educated professionals seeking to build a new life for themselves and their families. As their numbers grew, so did the need for larger worship centers. By 1988, the congregation had outgrown three locations and had built a mosque on Lincoln Avenue, next door to St. Benedict Cathedral. The congregation, which has grown to more than 200 families now, is raising money to build a new mosque on the city’s East Side, near Temple Adath B’nai Israel.
Among the emerging faiths in Evansville is Hinduism. The local Hindu community has increased significantly since the early 1990s with the arrival of immigrants from India. They first began gathering for worship services at a local library and often traveled to Louisville to celebrate major holidays at the Hindu temple there. In 2006, they broke ground at a site in Newburgh for their own temple and have plans to expand the building as the congregation grows.
Another trend on the rise is the increase of non-denominational Christian “mega-churches” in the area. Among the best-known are Bethel Temple, Crossroads Christian Church, and Christian Fellowship Church. Though growing in size, they’ve faced their own challenges. “As you grow bigger, you have to feel smaller,” says Andy Hanson, Christian Fellowship Church’s administrator. “Otherwise it’s just a big crowd of people.”
The mega-churches, along with the rest of Evansville’s religious organizations, are striving to meet the needs of a changing society. While some denominations have lost members over the years, other congregations have been created or have increased their numbers, adding to the constant evolution of religious life in the city. It is believed that the word religion comes from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind fast.” Regardless of the changing face of religion, Evansville will undoubtedly continue to be a city bound to its religious beliefs. With 200 years of tradition, Evansville’s faithful have a long history to guide them.