Profane, But Not Sordid

While sitting in church one Sunday last month, the pastor spoke the words you don’t want to hear, “I’ve got some bad news.” I settled back in the pew to hear about what is now broken and what small fortune it will take to get it fixed, but instead of a monetary crisis it was an emotional one; the former St. Bernadette Catholic Church was to be sold! It was to be “desacralized” and relegated to “profane, but not sordid use” — church-speak meaning that which was once for sacred use can now be used for common purposes, except a brothel. This announcement was the final act in a process that began three years ago when St. Bernadette closed and its parishioners united with those of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.
Sixty-five years earlier, the parish of St. Bernadette had been established in the fall of 1952 in the Christian Park community under the leadership of the Rev. John Herold to serve the southeastern part of Indianapolis between Sherman Dr. and Emerson Ave. A building at 4838 Fletcher Av, designed by architect Charles E. Brown and erected by F. A. Wilhelm Construction Co, to serve both as a school and a church was dedicated in February 1953. A convent for the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg was ready that fall. Over the years St. Bernadette became very cohesive, a tight community of 500 families, but a declining enrollment led to the school’s closure in June 1988. Under the leadership of Fr. Carlton J. Beever, the facility was transformed into a conference and retreat center with the former classrooms becoming dormitory space. This helped to maintain the parish for the next quarter of a century.
In 1994, St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes began sharing a single priest as pastor of both parishes. When the decision to close St. Bernadette was made, Fr. Noah Casey helped to ease the transition until he became ill, and Fr. Mike Welch came out of retirement and as parish administrator successfully completed the union. The former St. Bernadette then served the Archdiocese of Indianapolis as its Intercultural Institute.
St. Bernadette is only the most recent sacred building to transition to “profane, but not sordid use.” While the fate of another Eastside church building, the former St. John United Church of Christ at German Church Road and East Washington St, is still to be determined — the stunning stained glass windows are gone; the spaces boarded up — other former houses of worship in Indianapolis have made the transition from the “sacred to the profane.”
One of the most prominent of the city’s former sacred sites stands on a point of land that overlooks the intersection of East St., Fletcher Ave., and Virginia Ave. Known in later years as Fletcher Place United Methodist Church, the Gothic Revival style church building was dedicated in 1880 for use by the congregation of Fletcher Place Methodist Episcopal Church. A little more than a century later, the building’s sacramental use came to an end. However, it continued to serve the neighborhood as Fletcher Place Community Center. Today this near south side landmark has been transformed into Fletcher Pointe Condominiums.
Another notable sacred space transformed is Buggs Temple on West Eleventh St. at the north end of the Central Canal. Originally the home of Simpson A. M. E. Church, Rev. James C. Buggs moved his Church of God in Christ congregation to this church building after a fire destroyed his previous church in June 1967. The building’s religious use ended in the early 1990s, and the city acquired the property at the “turn-around” area at the end of the canal. After extensive renovation the space initially opened as a restaurant in 2007, but today it is Canal 337, a venue for special events.
One little noticed former sacred building is at 122 N. College Ave. When constructed in 1886 by the German Evangelical Reformed Salem (First German Reformed Church) congregation, this church building was “to form a part of a more commodious and pretentious structure to be erected as the church’s needs demand.” After 30 years the congregation relocated, but this church building continued to house worship services for other denominations until after World War II when it was transformed to commercial use.
Continuing a few blocks north on College Ave. is the former St. Joseph Catholic Church at 540 N. College Av. Built in 1879, this church building served as a site of sacred worship until 1949. However, after St. Joseph’s closed, the church and school buildings served the Indianapolis Catholic community for over thirty years as a Catholic Community Center and the home of Catholic Charities, CYO, and Catholic Social Services. The old church building was then rennovated for the offices of A2SO4, an architectural firm. Today the former St. Joseph Church is St. Joseph Brewery & Public House. A few might question this once sacred spot’s conformity to being relegated “profane, but not sordid.”
Unfortunately, many of the once sacred buildings in Indianapolis have been lost, but for memories; and memories are also disappearing. One such former building for worship was St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, 2245 Shelby St. The combination church building and school was dedicated in 1910, and served Catholics in the Garfield Park neighborhood for nearly ninety years. A separate school building was built in 1922. In the mid-seventies, several nearby parishes consolidated their schools with St. Catherine’s and became Central Catholic School. Two decades later St. Catherine’s parish consolidated with St. James parish, which was a little farther south at Shelby and Carson Ave. and the new parish was called Good Shepherd. Worship was also consolidated at the former St. James Church building.
The former St. Catherine’s Church and school were relegated “to profane, but not sordid use” in 1997 and subsequently demolished. A CVS drug store was built on the site, and knowing what a drug store offers some have expressed the opinion that this use may not be appropriate.