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The Diocese of Fort Wayne but almost the Diocese of Lafayette or Indianapolis

When the Diocese of Vincennes was split, yet again, in 1857, the new Diocese of Fort Wayne was established. This effectively cut the state in half with the Diocese of Fort Wayne in the north and the Diocese of Vincennes in the south.

Later on, of course, the state was carved up even more so that Vincennes was moved to Indianapolis (1898), becoming an Archdiocese in 1944 and Evansville, Lafayette-in-Indiana being created from Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. Then, in 1957 the Diocese of Gary was created and in 1960, Fort Wayne was renamed Fort Wayne South Bend.

There is always a great deal of deliberation that goes on as to how to divide and where to locate the See. When Indianapolis became an Archdiocese one of the proposals was to make Richmond or New Albany into a “rural” diocese with Indianapolis retaining Vincennes and Saint Meinrad Abbey. Of course, only the latter took place.

When the Diocese of Fort Wayne was established in 1857, the first bishop was John Henry Luers, a priest of the Cincinnati diocese. His name was proposed by the First Provincial Council of Cincinnati in 1854, but he was not the top pick. That went to James F. Wood, but by the time Rome had approved the establishment of the new diocese, Wood had been named coadjutor of Philadelphia.

Fr. Robert Gorman described the process in his history. This gets a little bit disjointed at times, so stick with it. 1

“… for it was not until January 8, 1857 that the Bull Ex debito pastoralis officii, establishing the diocese of Fort Wayne and on the day following day that the Bull Supremi Apostolatus officio, establishing the diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, were issued. The former document contained one of the most curious blunders made by Propaganda for according to it the new diocese of Fort Wayne consisted of the eight counties whose southern limits were intended to be the boundary of the new jurisdiction, thus leaving the episcopal see outside the diocese. The pertinent section reads as follows:

Therefore after our mature deliberation and with the plentitude of aposto1ical authority, we separate and dismember from the diocese of Vincennes the following regions and counties, as they are called, namely, the counties of Fountain, Montgomery, Boone, Hamilton, Madison, Delaware, Randolph and Warren and erect or constitute the same regions or counties into a true and properly called diocese and we desire that its episcopal see be located in the town named Fort Wayne and hence we command that this new diocese by called Fort Wayne. Hence, we command it to be suffragan to the Archbishop of Cincinnati and that it possess all the honors, privileges and rights which other episcopal churches possess and enjoy.

While it is strange that Propaganda made this error, it is equally strange that the prelates did not notice or take cognizance of it. The mistake was not formally rectified until March 29, 1912 when, on the appeal of Archbishop Moeller, the Sacred Consistorial Congregation issued a declaration which described the diocese of Fort Wayne as embracing all the northern part of the State of Indiana and having the same boundaries as the former diocese of Vincennes from which it was separated by the southern limits of the eight counties. Cf. Acta Aposto1icae Sedis, IV (1912), 338. It may be noted here as well that when the see was erected the question was raised whether St. Mary parish in Union City belonged to the new diocese. No decision was given but the priests of Fort Wayne assumed charge in 1857. 2

The delay in the erection of the diocese was accompanied by an even greater delay in the appointment of the first bishop. Wood, who had been recommended by the Council, was wholly acceptable. On December 28, 1856 St. Palais wrote to Purcell expressing the desire to see him appointed to Fort Wayne but he would be content with any nomination made, so long as he was relieved of part of his burden. Wood, by this time, had been nominated coadjutor of Archbishop John Neumann of Philadelphia and on January 9, 1857, the day following the issuing of the Fort Wayne Bull, Propaganda sent him the Brief advising him of his election to this post. Apparently, Propaganda requested further nominations from the bishops of the province. Purcell corresponded with St. Palais, requesting his opinion but in his reply of April 15, 1857, the Vincennes prelate stated that he was unacquainted with the priests outside his own diocese and, of his own clergy, the only one he would recommend was Julian Benoit, the pastor of Fort Wayne. Purcell, on his part, was anxious that one of his own priests should receive the honor and, accordingly, proposed the name of John Henry Luers, pastor of St. Joseph church, Cincinnati. 3

Luers was subsequently elected in a Brief dated September 22, 1857. St. Palais himself was glad of the appointment but some of the Indiana clergy were vexed that Benoit had been rejected. The consecration took place in the cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, Cincinnati, January 10, 1858. Purcell was the consecrating prelate, assisted by St. Pa1ais and Bishop George Carrell of Covington. The bishop of Vincennes accompanied the new incumbent to Fort Wayne where he was graciously welcomed by Benoit.

Thus, almost three years passed after the first steps had been taken before St. Palais was finally relieved of the care of the northern part of the State. It was over a year, however, before the new bishop was finally settled in Fort Wayne.

At the very start, he took a pessimistic view of the situation which, though it would have gladdened a Brute in 1834, seemed hardly acceptable a quarter of a century later to a man who had been pastor of a flourishing and prosperous congregation in a rapidly growing city. In succeeding letters to Purcell, on March 5, 1858 and April 9, 1858, Luers said that the number of Catholics in the diocese was very much overrated. Originally, he believed that there were between 15,000 and 18,000 but later he stated the figure more precisely at 3,220 families or approximately 16,100 individuals. “most of the parishes were small, poor and apparently neglected during recent years. Practically none of the churches had acquired property and no one had secured ground for charitable or educational purposes. The price of good land had soared by the end of the 1850’s, and the best land, it seemed to Luers, was in the hands of anti-Catholics. Furthermore, prospects of further economic development in northern Indiana appeared unlikely” Particularly, Luers, as St. Palais had been originally, was not content with the episcopal city. “There were, he conjectured, about ten or eleven thousand inhabitants without any prospect of increasing greatly. There were no flourishing, coal mines or factories or any public works in progress at the time to attract enterprising immigrants.
The fertile farm lands were already in the hands of anti-Catholics and only at very high prices could it be purchased. Approximately two thirds of the parishioners resided on farms two to eight miles away from the episcopal city.” The cathedral congregation was fairly large but nothing in comparison with his former parish in Cincinnati. (The church was a small frame structure which had been used for about twenty years and was now in a somewhat dilapidated condition, while the rectory was the brick house built by Bessonies.)

The Sunday collections averaged three or four dollars. Fort Wayne, he thought, could support a pastor and an assistant but no more. The whole number of baptisms, etc. and all last year was 135. From this you may judge what it is, and what with the aid of such a congregation can be accomplished. There is nothing here but a good lot and residence; and the subscription towards erecting a new church would not certainly exceed $5,000 4

On the other hand, Luers thought that Indianapolis, the Capital, with its fine English congregation and good Church property should be the see of northern Indiana. He “was willing to give St. Palais the town of Crawfordsville in exchange for Indianapolis, or better, he would give up the four western counties, Warren, Fountain, Montgomery and Boone for Marion, Hancock, Henry and Wayne counties in the southern diocese. In fact, he would have agreed to any division by which Marion County would be ceded to his diocese.” 5

Purcell advised Luers to be content with Fort Wayne and not to petition for the alteration of the decree establishing his diocese and Luers in return thanked the archbishop for his advice and promised that there would be no more complaints.

Though Luers thus gave up his project of establishing his see in Indianapolis, he entertained for some time the plan of locating in Lafayette which at that time was about as large as Fort Wayne and in a more flourishing condition. Moreover, it seems that he was strongly encouraged in this by Daniel Maloney. For some unexplained reason, Michael Clarke left Lafayette in 1857, after fourteen years of faithful and energetic labor to take charge of a parish in Bloomington, Illinois. 6 It is possible that he may have objected to the change of bishops, as St. Palais was well liked by his clergy in general and at the same time saw no parish of equal importance open in the diocese of Vincennes. But it is also recorded that about this time he was thinking of locating in Winchester, Randolph County, and had even secured the material to build a church and rectory. 7 Whatever his reason may have been, he was succeeded by Maloney who had left St. Vincent and Indianapolis certainly before November 25, 1857. Luers came to Lafayette in March, 1858 and was much attracted to the city and, despite the fact that he would probably arouse the antagonism of the people of Fort Wayne, actually purchased some valuable property. The Lafayette City Directory for 1858 noted:

The large square of ground on the corner of Alabama and Ohio in the southern part of the city has recently been purchased by the Bishop at a cost of $10,000 on which is contemplated to build a Cathedral, College and Episcopal residence. 8

Two explanations are offered for the ultimate failure to locate the see in Lafayette. One is that the property alluded to was to be acquired not only by purchase but also by gift from the city and that the civic gift was voted down in the city council by one vote. 9

Herman Alerding describes it thus:

Anxious to enter upon the work, assigned to him by the Holy See in the new diocese of Fort Wayne, he set out for the
town of Fort Wayne in a day or two after his consecration. “He arrived towards evening, alone and unannounced, carrying his traveling bag in his hand, at the door of the residence of Very Rev. Father Benoit.” What John A. Wilstach, Esquire, wrote in his sketch of St, Mary’s Church, of Lafayette, in the year 1893, will certainly prove of interest to our readers: “It would seem that one of the first cares of Bishop Luers, in his new diocese, was to select his episcopal city. This had received a designation in his commission from the Vatican, because Archbishop Purcell, in the multifariousness of his duties, had suggested Fort Wayne, but an application to Rome by Bishop Luers would have immediately produced the change in the designation. Now it so happened, that from his first visit to the Star City of the West, Bishop Luers had desired to write after his name, Bishop of Lafayette. Here he found our beautiful situation, our shining river with its amphitheatre of crowning heights on either side. Here he found a body of educated Catholics willing to make, under his leadership, any sacrifice in his behalf, and here also, he found handsome and beautiful church and school improvements greatly superior to those existing in Fort Wayne. He selected, with an eye which taste and prophecy both guided, the plat of land now occupied by the Lafayette Public Library, and the buildings to the south of it and the Opera House to the east, as the seat of the Cathedral, an episcopal residence, school, convent and hospital. This unsurpassable tract of land, almost in the center of the city, was to be obtained, partly by purchase and partly by gift. The gift was to be from the city, and the project was voted down in the city council by one vote, and that the vote of the member from the first ward. History and tradition have consigned, or should consign, his name to oblivion, and there let it rest.” 10

Fr. Gorman continues…

The other is that Maloney did not support the bishops’s efforts properly. [Thie B 155-156] In the meanwhile, the citizens of Fort Wayne, Catholic and non-Catholic, raised a large subscription to build a cathedral and sent a delegation to Lafayette to persuade the bishop to return. Luers came back to his designated see in the spring of 1859 and Maloney, a disappointed man, returned to the diocese of Vincennes, where on Sunday, February 13, 1859 he took possession of the pastorate at Scipio a second time, residing with his brother, Edward Maloney who had purchased his brother Michael’s home and farm in 1857.

Thus the new diocese remained in Fort Wayne. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Luers was able to relocate in Indianapolis. Or, if Richmond Indiana or New Albany Indiana had become the ‘rural’ diocese that Archbishop McNicholas of Cincinnati wanted. Perhaps in the future there will be yet another division.

  1. History of the Catholic Church in Indiana, unpublished manuscript — Archives, Archdiocese of Indianapolis[]
  2. Noll, John Francis. The Diocese of Fort Wayne; Fragments of History, Vol. II. Fort Wayne, IN, 1941. p.276[]
  3. Luers was born in 1819 at Luetten, near Westphalia, Germany. Coming to America at an early age, he had studied in St.Francis Xavier Seminary, Brown County, Ohio and was ordained November 11, 1846 and was engaged in pastoral work in the diocese of Cincinnati.[]
  4. Schroeder, Mary Carel. The Catholic Church in the Diocese of Vincennes, 1847-1877. Washington: Catholic Un. of Am. Press, 1946. p.140[]
  5. ibid. p.141[]
  6. Thie states that he took charge of the parish in Bloomington, Ill. in June, 1857. See Thie 61. Clarke was ordained in 1841 for the Diocese of Vincennes. He died in 1872 in Wenona Illinois[]
  7. Alerding, Herman Joseph, and John Francis Noll. The Diocese of Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne, IN: Archer Print., 1907. p.427[]
  8. Schroeder, ibid. p.141[]
  9. Alerding-Diocese of Fort Wayne, ibid p.34[]
  10. Alerding-Diocese of Fort Wayne, ibid p.33-34[]

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