Religion and Foreign‐Born
Populations in Indianapolis
Prologue Occasional Paper Series
vol. 1, no. 5
Religion and Foreign‐Born Populations
In the 1890s, Slovenian immigrant Jurij Lampert returned to his homeland to recruit workers
for National Malleable Castings Company, a foundry located in the industrial suburb of
Haughville, west of Indianapolis. As families arrived in the Hoosier capital they re-created their
familiar village life, surrounding themselves with mutual aid societies, lodges and fraternities,
and businesses to sustain their small community. At the heart of their community was Holy
Trinity Catholic Church, an institution that served for decades as both religious and social hub of
the Slovene community.
During those same years, Jews from Eastern Europe arrived to take advantage of new
employment opportunities in the warehouse district of South Meridian Street. They too
established distinct enclaves; at the core of their community were their synagogues. These
religious institutions represented the centrality of both faith and nationality for the new arrivals
as they sought to adapt to their new home.
Half a century later, Hispanics who came to Indianapolis did not establish distinct
neighborhoods; by 1967 they too found a place that would bring together their fellow
countrymen. St. Mary's Catholic Church, established as a German parish in the 1910s, began
offering Sunday Mass in Spanish, thereby providing this growing ethnic population with a
religious and social gathering place.
In the same year, 1967, Kanwal Prakash (K.P. Singh), an architect-artist of Asian Indian
origin, migrated to Indianapolis to become a senior urban planner with the Department of
Metropolitan Development. He was among only a handful of Asian Indians residing in the city
at the time. Despite the small population, he gathered with other Asian Indians to
celebrate Diwali—the Festival of Lights—a ceremony within the Sikh faith. By the late 1970s,
several hundred people, many of whom were non-Asian Indians, participated in the
festival. Over the ensuing years, the faith community continued to grow and in February 1999
dedicated the first Sikh temple built in Indianapolis.
For decades, local civic leaders characterized Indianapolis as an "100 percent American city,"
one free of foreign influences. In fact, foreign cultures and their influences permeated the entire
course of the city’s history. They created and sustained communities, provided services to
others, and ultimately contributed to the social and cultural life of the Hoosier capital. Central to
these communities were religious beliefs and institutions that allowed them to maintain a distinct
ethnic-religious identity in an increasingly diverse urban landscape. By examining the
experiences of individuals and groups who emigrated and transplanted their cultures and their
faiths, we can, in most cases, see ourselves and hopefully understand who we are and what the
city has become since its founding.
THE CULTURAL - RELIGIOUS CORE
During the 1830s, hundreds of Irish canal workers and laborers and German artisans settled in
Indianapolis. Predominantly Catholic, each group formed its own ethnically based parish and
offered services in its native language. As each respective community developed, Irish and
German Catholics established a variety of institutions that strengthened their national identity
and rooted them firmly in their own religious heritage. Parochial schools, parish societies,
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fraternal organizations, and social clubs united the groups and provided a religious and cultural
core for life in their new American home.
Among the most common forums for nurturing religious and national identity were the
parochial or religious schools. In the absence of an established public school system in the early
to mid 19th century, religious denominations maintained educational institutions. By the 1870s,
however, most Protestant schools and academies had closed, but Catholic parishes continued to
rely upon parochial schools to educate children and to serve the particular ethnic population. St.
John's, primarily a German parish, established an academy for girls in 1859 and later opened a
school for boys. In 1916 Sacred Heart, another German parish, opened a coeducational high
school under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Two schools served the Irish Catholic
population in late 19th century Indianapolis. In 1893 the Sisters of Providence opened St. Agnes
Academy as a secondary school for girls, which continued until 1970. During the mid-to-late
20th century, distinctly ethnic parochial education became less important, especially by the
1970s as more non-Catholics turned to parochial schools as an alternate to public education.
Other immigrant groups settling in Indianapolis did not rely on parochial schools for their
children's education. Southern and Eastern European Jews and Eastern and Greek Orthodox
immigrants arriving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to support public
education. In an effort to preserve their distinct cultures and religious heritage, they offered
additional training through their congregations and after-school classes that taught native
languages, cultures, and religious traditions to the younger generations. The desire to maintain
such connections persisted well into the 20th century. Concerned over the preservation of
Jewish identity and education amidst diverse Americanizing forces, for example, the Orthodox
Jewish community established the Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis in 1971, an independent
Fraternal societies, benevolent associations, and assorted clubs also have served to maintain a
sense of group identity in Indianapolis. Often associated with a specific congregation or parish,
these groups provided financial assistance as well as social opportunities. Since 1870, Irish
Catholics have turned to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a national Catholic group, for mutual
support and to advance the cause of Irish nationality. Likewise, the Slovene and Italian Catholic
communities organized mutual aid societies that offered members income during sickness or
benefits to a family upon a member's death. Similarly, German and Danish Lutherans relied
upon brotherhoods to assist individuals and families within their congregations.
With the declining importance of fraternal groups and mutual aid societies in contemporary
American society, many immigrant-religious groups have sustained their identity and heritage
through the creation of cultural centers. These institutions, such as the India Center, the Hispanic
Center, the Jewish Community Center, and the Islamic Center in nearby Plainfield, promote a
sense of ethnic-religious community and transmit culture and religious heritage to younger
generations and new converts. More importantly, they have become a focal point for a
population that has since dispersed from the boundaries of the old immigrant neighborhood or
parish. Consequently, the faithful return regularly to participate in important religious and
cultural events that sustain national ties. At the same time, these centers reach out to a wider
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public, exposing the broader population to specific faith and cultural traditions through public
programs and festivals.
Wishing to maintain their identity within American society, immigrant groups established
institutions that initially served their constituents. Members of the Zion Evangelical Reformed
Church, a German Protestant congregation, founded the Protestant Deaconess Society in 1895 to
train nurses (deaconesses) and to maintain a Protestant hospital and nursing home. Deaconess
Hospital opened in 1899 but eventually closed in 1935. The Altenheim (old-age home), which
opened its doors to the elderly in 1909, continues as a retirement community affiliated with the
United Church of Christ. Similarly, in 1883, members of a Bible society of St. Paul and Trinity
Lutheran churches founded "an asylum for orphans and aged people." Today it is known as
Lutheran Child and Family Services, an agency that, while retaining its denominational ties,
provides residential care and treatment for emotionally disturbed children, individual and family
counseling, adoption and foster care services, and assistance to the disadvantaged.
Ethnic communities also promoted their faith through service to the larger city. In the spring
of 1867, several Germans from Indianapolis attended a festival for the Cincinnati German
orphanage. Inspired by the work of that institution in the Queen City, they organized the
German General Protestant Orphanage Association, raising funds from numerous congregations
and erecting a building in 1872. Intended to "receive all poor children of Marion County who
are without parents, for education without compensation," the home served thousands of children
over the decades. Merging with other orphanages in the mid-20th century, it continued as the
Pleasant Run Children's Home, a nonprofit and nonsectarian institution until its closing in 2001.
Other faith-based institutions worked towards assimilating and converting the foreign-born
population into the American mainstream. In 1908, John H. Holliday, editor of the Indianapolis
News and an organizer of the Foreign House (1911), declared that immigrants “crowd together in
the most densely populated districts of the cities and complicate the problems of municipal
government.” Responding to this call, Methodist deaconesses worked with the Italian population
and Presbyterians sponsored the Cosmopolitan Community Center to teach English and domestic
skills to Eastern Europeans. In 1923 the Foreign House and Cosmopolitan Center merged into
the American Settlement. This social service agency on the city’s west side employed trained
social workers and offered classes in citizenship and English, a supervised playground, and
numerous clubs and activities for children. As the number of immigrants arriving in Indianapolis
gradually declined, its focus shifted to the needs of the changing population of the area. Now
known as Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, it provides programs for children and seniors,
employment services, prevention programs for youth at risk, among other services.
The institutions that assisted the foreign-born in adapting to life in Indianapolis clearly
emphasized the necessity of becoming American. This goal generated divisiveness within the
foreign communities as older generations resisted such assimilation, seeking comfort within the
traditions and institutions of the home culture. Younger immigrants attended public schools and
felt the pressures of Americanization from their peers. These youth generally favored the
adoption of the English language, joining American groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts and
ridding themselves of their foreign labels and distinctions.
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As groups slowly became more Americanized, ethnic-religious identities diminished in
importance and no longer provided the relationships that sustained earlier
communities. Consequently, the agencies and institutions originally established to serve a
narrow constituency, whether a single congregation or a specific denomination, either ceased
operations or expanded their services to reach a broader, more diverse population. In doing so,
the ethnic-religious characteristics that had rooted them for decades passed from the scene,
leaving remnants of their cultural identities in institutional names or in the memories of those
who had benefited from their services.
ETHNICITY AND RELIGION AS DIVISIVE FORCES
Although foreign origins and religion served as unifying forces in creating and sustaining
community, these factors also contributed to divisions, most notably among the Catholic
population. One such instance occurred in the 20th century when the Home Mission Board of
the Methodist Church established a mission to serve the growing Italian population on the near
southeast side. Local Catholic leaders, objecting to this "Protestant invasion" of their
neighborhood, criticized the Methodist effort to raise funds to support the mission. "Everyone
who knows anything about Italians knows they are Roman Catholic," wrote the editor of
the Indiana Catholic and Record in 1916. "If the Methodists are going to spend $15,000 on a
new mission, they might well spend it on the alleged Methodists who don't go to church and who
leave Protestant churches notoriously empty. . . Let our Methodist friends take care of their
own. Millions of them who don't go to church need care."
Upon their arrival in the city, Catholics congregated according to their respective
nationalities. Concerned with preserving their native traditions and language as well as their
particular doctrinal interpretations, groups quickly sought to establish their own national parishes
with priests from their homelands. Because of disagreements with the local Irish-American
pastorate, for example, the St. Aloysius and St. Joseph lodges of the Slovene community raised
funds for a separate Slovene parish, resulting in the opening of Holy Trinity parish in
1906. Similarly, Italians attended the German and Irish parishes until Bishop Francis Chatard
authorized Father Marino Priori to organize an Italian national parish—Holy Rosary—in 1909 to
serve the Sicilian district on the southeast side. A desire to maintain national identity was also
characteristic among German and Scandinavian Lutherans and the numerous groups of Eastern
European Jews who came to Indianapolis.
Despite its rather small foreign-born population, Indianapolis experienced some of the ethnic
hostility and conflict encountered by other major urban areas. Some of this tension was religious
in origin, with Catholic and Protestant divisions the most prominent. During World War I,
churches were not exempt from the growing anti-German fervor. Members of St. Anthony
Catholic Church, a predominantly Irish parish on the city's west side, voiced a strong hatred for
the British and supported the Germans, at least until Germany altered its policy and embarked
upon all-out war. Given the sizeable German presence in Indianapolis, the Marion County
Council of Defense, a branch of the state and national organizations that monitored pro-German
sympathies and activities, began to target local German-speaking congregations. In 1918, the
Council sent a letter to St. Paul Lutheran Church, charging its pastor, the Reverend F.
Zimmerman, with discouraging the sale of Liberty Bonds and declaring the war to be unholy and
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unjust. The church trustees responded with a resolution, declaring the charges to be false and
proclaiming their loyalty to the United States. By early fall, St. Paul's, like other German-speaking
congregations, complied with a directive of the Indiana State Council of Defense to
cease the use of the German language in worship services and other church business.
World War I heightened the anti-foreign and nativist feelings of Americans, leading to a
stronger spirit of "100 percent Americanism" and the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the
1920s. The Klan sought to revitalize what they perceived to be the "traditional" values, beliefs,
and sense of community espoused by white Protestant culture. By appealing to middle- and
lower-class white mainstream Protestants, the Klan targeted Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and
African Americans, all of whom were considered to be threats to the Klan's view of
society. Under the leadership of David C. (D.C.) Stephenson, the Klan responded to the influx
of new immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe by arguing that Roman Catholics were "a
curse to humanity and the freedom of conscience" and Jews an "un-American parasite." Despite
these vicious attacks, local Catholic Church officials took no public stance on the
matter. Individual Catholics, however, often joined in boycotts of known Klan businesses and
demonstrated at public events where the Klan was present. Morris Feuerlicht, rabbi of the
Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, became the spokesman for the local Jewish community’s
opposition to the Klan and its beliefs. While the Klan eventually lost influence by the mid-
1920s, its beliefs in the perceived dangers posed by foreigners, Catholics, and Jews continued to
permeate many Protestant churches through the loyalties and activities of sympathetic pastors.
As the 20th century progressed, there was growing evidence of interdenominational and
interfaith cooperation, achieved primarily through the work of the Church Federation of
Indianapolis (established 1912) and the National Conference on Christians and Jews (established
1928). With the emergence of a more ethnically and religiously diverse city, however, there
continued to be occasional interfaith disagreements. In the 1970s, for example, the Jewish
Community Relations Council and the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the
city regarding the placement of a Nativity scene on public property. They argued that the city
had violated the constitutional prohibition against mixing religion and governmental
functions. Although many Protestant churches supported the traditional display, the parks
department ended the presence of a Nativity scene on public property. Likewise, when the
Islamic Society of North America in 1978 selected Plainfield as the site of its new mosque and
cultural center, many local residents contested the plans by launching a protest with overtones
distinctly reminiscent of the early 20th century.
RELIGION AND ETHNICITY IN THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
The clearest and most obvious expression of religion in the city can be found in the
architecture of church buildings. While often reflecting the architectural styles popular at the
time of their construction, these edifices also express the ethnic-cultural traditions of the
congregations themselves. San Giorgio in Velabro Cathedral in Rome served as the inspiration
for Holy Rosary Catholic Church, the Italian national parish constructed in 1925. The architect
of St. Mary's Catholic Church appropriately designed that structure after the great Cathedral in
Cologne, Germany, to serve a German parish on the eastside of Indianapolis. When faced in
1921 with meeting the needs of the north side’s growing Catholic population, the building
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committee of St. Joan of Arc parish rejected plans for a Gothic-style structure, more commonly
used by Protestants. Instead, they called for a design based upon a Roman basilica, which
represented more clearly the roots of their Catholic faith. In the early 1990s, an African
American Muslim group selected a site along Cold Spring Road, adjacent to a Baptist church and
only blocks from Marian College, and erected a mosque, which gave physical expression to their
ethnic and religious heritage.
Close attention to religious sites will reveal other expressions of the diverse immigrant-religious
heritage of Indianapolis. A small brick structure standing a couple blocks south of
Holy Rosary Catholic Church served as the home of the first Danish Lutheran congregation in
the United States. Currently occupied by a Pentecostal congregation, the building still possesses
the original Danish inscription above the front door that clearly identifies the church's
founding. Cornerstones of other religious buildings also reveal the heritage of their initial
occupants and identify the foreign-born community that once supported the church or
synagogue. Stained glass windows, a common feature of many church buildings, also tell stories
about the culture and traditions of their current or previous occupants. Those found in the Greek
and other Orthodox churches are excellent representations of the close ties that exist between
religion and the congregation’s foreign origins.
Although structures may provide insights into the existence and footprints of earlier
communities, the absence of buildings removes visible evidence of the people and cultures that
once thrived in a given location. In the Indianapolis of the 1990s, the original immigrant-religious
enclaves have long disappeared, victims of urban renewal, assimilation, and suburban
sprawl. Through the efforts of a state agency and local historians, however, historical markers
dot the urban landscape, marking the sites of former immigrant neighborhoods and their
churches and testifying to the importance that religion and nationality once played in maintaining
a sense of common identity in the Hoosier capital.
During the 1960s and 1970s many nationality-based congregations capitalized on both their
internal appreciation of heritage and the public's curiosity and interest in the culture and practices
of the city’s increasingly international community. Since 1974, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox
Church has hosted an annual Greek Festival, which welcomes thousands of people to the church
grounds to sample Greek food, music, and art and to educate the public about the Orthodox
faith. From this annual event, the congregation has raised sufficient funds to build and maintain
a cultural center for the Greek community. Given the success of this venture, other
congregations, such as Holy Rosary (Italian), St. George Orthodox (Middle Eastern), and St.
Constantine & Elena Orthodox (Romanian), among others, regularly sponsor ethnic festivals as
fundraisers and as an educational outreach to the broader community.
For almost two centuries, generations of newly arrived settlers to Indianapolis have found
ways of maintaining their unique sense of community. In most cases, they established their lives
based upon the culture and religion of their homelands. By transplanting their beliefs, traditions,
and institutions to the new land, they sought to perpetuate the traditions they had known at
home. They also saw the opportunity to pass along to their children and future generations
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elements of life they considered essential for the survival of their faith and culture. Many
immigrant-religious communities, characterized by parish, benevolent and fraternal associations,
schools, and other relationships, survived for several years but soon faced the threat of
Americanization. As people slowly assimilated into society or passed away, the old immigrant-religious
neighborhoods and their distinct institutions faded, existing now only in memory or in
the structures that once served the ethnic community.
Amidst the booming years of the early 20th century, Indianapolis leaders, choosing to ignore
the emerging diverse society, emphasized the city's "all-American" and religious character in
their promotions. At the time, they considered diversity to be a hindrance to a strong
American—and Protestant—society. Today, both national origins and religious identities are
recognized as elements that have made Indianapolis truly a more diverse and global
community. The city continues to witness an influx of foreign-born individuals and
cultures. Drawn by business and educational opportunities and the presence of family members,
Indianapolis' new foreign-born population is clearly evident in the proliferation of ethnic
restaurants and businesses, the growing number of foreign students and employees, and the
founding of religious institutions tied closely to nationality.
Indianapolis begins the 21st century as a more complex and diverse city than it was one
hundred years ago. Despite the characteristics that have contributed to its stereotypical
midwestern and agricultural image, the Hoosier capital has come to represent the truly global
nature of modern life. New arrivals continue to search for a sense of rootedness and place within
their distinct national and religious identities. Out of concern for the preservation of faith and
culture and the well-being of future generations, many residents have replicated some semblance
of their institutional and relational networks that provided sustenance for their
communities. This is comparable to what immigrant groups did a century ago. The question
remains whether the new arrivals in the city will experience the similar cycle of Americanization
and the eventual loss of national-religious identity encountered by the immigrant groups in the
early 20th century. Or whether in the coming years there will be a new paradigm, rooted in the
global character of contemporary society, that will help to shape and sustain communities in
Indianapolis and in American society as a whole.
Questions for discussion
1. In what way did national origins/ethnicity serve as a bond in creating and sustaining
community? Is this same feeling important today? Why or why not?
2. What are some of the factors that unite people today? Do they have the same intensity and
cultural depth as those of the early 20th century?
3. Art and architecture are means of expressing both ethnicity and religion. Given the examples
within the essay, think of other examples by which faith and nationality may be expressed.
4. Examine the history of your own family, congregation, and/or institution. How has it
responded to social changes over the years?
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Bodenhamer, David J. and Robert G. Barrows, eds., The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (1994).
Cafouros, Carl C. Seeds of Faith: Holy Trinity Hellenic (1980) – Orthodox Church,
Divita, James J. The Italians of Indianapolis: The Story of Holy Rosary Catholic Parish, 1909-
__________. Slaves to No One: A History of the Holy Trinity Catholic Community in
Indianapolis on the Diamond Jubilee of the Founding of Holy Trinity Parish, (1981).
Endelman, Judith E. The Jewish Community of Indianapolis, 1849 to the Present (1984).
Probst, George T., The Germans in Indianapolis, 1840-1918 (revised ed., 1989).,
Taylor, Robert M. Jr. and Connie McBirney, Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience, (1996).
Acknowledgements: I would like to extend my appreciation to the following individuals for
reviewing this manuscript and offering their most helpful remarks: Wilma Gibbs, Director of the
African-American Collection at the Indiana Historical Society; Dr. James J. Divita, Professor of
History at Marian College; and the late Dr. Robert M. Taylor, Jr., Director of Education at the
Indiana Historical Society, to whom this publication is dedicated.
Author: David Vanderstel
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