Because of its rich religious heritage, Fort Wayne is known as the “City of Churches.” Visitors observing the city’s skyline can spot the spires and domes of many religious buildings belonging to a variety of denominations. The story of religion in northeast Indiana dates back to the Miami tribe, who lived in the area well before the seventeenth century and worshipped a Great Spirit or Manito, which emanated from the Sun. Jesuit missionaries visited the region along its rivers as early as the late seventeenth century but had little success in Christianizing the Miamis. Some members of the Miami tribe did became Catholic in the eighteenth century, however, after intermarriage with French settlers and traders.
The earliest account of a Christian religious service in the area took place on December 20, 1789, when Henry Hay, an English trader, observed in his diary that the French settlers of the region were called to worship by the loud ringing of three cow bells. Hay was asked to play his flute at Christmas services and was accompanied by another Englishman on the fiddle. At that time there was no resident priest, though occasionally one would pass through the region. Not until the early 1830s did Father Stephen Badin, a missionary in the diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, make regular visits. A few years later, a Catholic parish was established, which later became a cathedral and the seat for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Today, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1858, is the city’s oldest downtown church. On its grounds are believed to be the burial site of Miami Indian Chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville. Read more at http://cathedralfortwayne.org/About-photos.php.
Protestant missionaries also made early visits. The Reverend Isaac McCoy, a Baptist minister, arrived in 1819 and established a school in the blockhouse of the decommissioned fort. He was welcomed warmly by the local Miami tribe and remained until 1822. The Reverend John Ross, a Presbyterian, visited the area the same year, and after the arrival of more settlers from the East, First Presbyterian Church, was founded in 1831. The membership later divided between Old School and New School Presbyterians, and for a time in the 1840s, the Reverend Charles Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, served as a local pastor and assisted fugitives on the Underground Railroad. Methodist missionaries also preached in the region, beginning in the 1820s, and many supported both temperance and abolition. Today, First Presbyterian Church is directly across Wayne Street from the Allen County Public Library. (http://www.firstpres-fw.org/)
The influx of immigrants from Europe spurred the formation of many more congregations. New arrivals from France, Ireland and Germany supported an expansion of the Catholic Church, whose congregations were often dominated by particular ethnic groups. The first Lutheran Church was organized in 1837 and later split between members who favored English language services and others with more conservative views who supported a German liturgy. Large numbers of Germans poured into Fort Wayne throughout the nineteenth century, and by 1900 the city was called “a most German town” with many businesses catering to a German-speaking clientele. The city also became a major center for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and is the site of Concordia Theological Seminary with its present campus designed in the 1960s by the renowned Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen. (http://www.ctsfw.edu/)
Many other religious groups have left their mark on Fort Wayne. German Jews, arriving in the 1840s, established Indiana’s first synagogue, Achduth Vesholom, in 1848. The following year, a group of African Americans organized an African Methodist Episcopal congregation under the leadership of the Reverend George Nelson Black, an agent with Charles Beecher, on the Underground Railroad. This became Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church, still in existence on Fort Wayne’s near east side. (http://blackchristiannews.com/news/2009/10/turner-chapel-ame-church-in-fort-wayne-in-celebrates-160-years-of-working-for-mind-body-and-soul.html) Episcopalians formed a congregation, Trinity Episcopal Church, in 1844, and built a church in 1865, acclaimed as fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. (http://www.trinityfw.org/) English-speaking Lutherans erected Trinity English Lutheran Church, now part of the ELCA, in a commendable design by the New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in 1924. (http://www.trinityenglish.org/) The itinerant Swedenborgian missionary, John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, established nurseries of apple trees along the Maumee River in the 1830s, distributing seeds to early settlers. He died here in 1845, and his gravesite may be visited on the grounds of Johnny Appleseed Park, where there are also campground facilities. (http://www.fortwayneparks.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=173%3Ajohnny-appleseed-park&catid=38%3Apark-page-links&Itemid=33)
Visitors to Fort Wayne can walk the Heritage Trail, which will take you past many of the
city’s landmark churches and other historic sites. Many religious artifacts can be seen on exhibit
at the History Center (http://www.fwhistorycenter.com/) and at the Cathedral Museum
(http://www.diocesefwsb.org/bookstore-museum/cathedral-museum/), both downtown.