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St. Peters Parish at 518 East DeWald Street, Fort Wayne, IN 46803 US - The History of St. Peter's Parish

The History of St. Peter's Parish

The Early Days

The years following the American Civil War saw a great increase in the numbers of people moving from the central section of the City of Fort Wayne. One of the areas seeing the greatest influx was the immediate southeast area. By the early 1870's, it was evident that a new parish to serve the predominantly German and French speaking peoples was needed. (In fact, this particular area was known respectively as "Germantown" and "Frenchtown".) In the summer of 1871, a group of Catholics assembled for just this purpose. The initial meeting, chaired by Peter Mettler, who for many years had shown great interest in just such a project, unanimously decided to approach Bishop Joseph Dwenger in order to receive the necessary Episcopal approval. The approval was immediate in coming and it was decided to name the new parish (the city's fourth parish and third basically German speaking parish) Saint Peter's. In making this choice, the new parish would be placed directly under the protection of the Prince of the Apostles and the first Pope, but also, would in an indirect manner, honor the man who for so many years led the crusade to have this parish established, (Peter Mettler). Father John Wemhoff was appointed by Bishop Dwenger as Saint Peter's first pastor. Born in Minster, Germany in 1837, he had come to America in 1858 and had been ordained to the holy priesthood by our Diocese's first Bishop, John Henry Luers in 1862. Fr. Wemhoff immediately set to work procuring land for the newly formed parish. Eventually enough property was purchased in what was known as the LaSalle Addition for the parish to have an entire city block, which became known as Saint Peter's Square.

The First Church/School Building

The first structure was erected in the middle of the block facing St. Martins Street and was a brick combination two-story building intended to serve as both a church and a school. The first floor provided for four large classrooms, while the second floor was used as a church, which could easily hold 300. This structure was dedicated on December 27, 1872. In the same year, Fr. Wemhoff caused to have built the first rectory, located at 2001 South Hanna St. Unfortunately, the pastorate of Fr. Wemhoff did not last long. He died suddenly, on December 1, 1880 and is buried in Fort Wayne's Catholic Cemetery. Father Anthony Messman was immediately appointed as the second pastor of St. Peter's by Bishop Dwenger. He, like Fr. Wemhoff, was a native of Germany, having been born there in 1839. He came to America at the age of 20 and was ordained to the holy priesthood by Bishop Luers in 1870. Fr. Messman's first efforts were focused on liquidating the parish debt, which he was soon able to accomplish. He succeeded in bringing to the parish in 1881 the School Sisters of Notre Dame of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to teach in the parish school. He caused to have built a new convent for the Sisters and also obtained a new rectory.

The Present Church is Built

Fr. Messman served St. Peter's as its pastor for some sixteen years. During that time, he accomplished much in a material as well as in a spiritual way. However, unquestionably, his most outstanding accomplishment was the building of the new and present church. The church was begun in 1892 and was completed the following year. The plans for this building were drawn by architect Peter Diedrich (1856 - 1924) of Detroit, Michigan and the building contract was let to John Suelzer, Sr. (1852 - 1932), parishioner, (and builder of not only St. Peter's Church, but also its current rectory, which served as the Suelzer Homestead from 1911 to 1949, and builder of St. Mary's Church which was destroyed by fire in 1993). St. Peter's new church was dedicated by Bishop Joseph Rademacher on November 4, 1894. Gothic in style, it measures 190' x 80' and is surmounted by a steeple towering over 200'. Still today, architects and building experts as well as ordinary people marvel at its structure and beauty. Even more marvelous was its cost: built and furnished at a total expense of $75,000.00! In July of 1896, Fr. Messman was transferred to St. Joseph's Parish, LaPorte, where he continued to serve the people of God until his death on May 22, 1912. As the successor to Father Messman, Bishop Rademacher appointed Father Ferdinand Koerdt as St. Peter's third pastor. Like the first two pastors, Fr. Koerdt was also born in Germany and came to America in 1875. One year later, he was ordained a priest by Bishop Dwenger. Fr. Koerdt immediately turned his attention toward education and the building of a new and larger school, which he directed and supervised. Much to his regret, he was able to complete only one wing of his proposed school (the St. Martins Street wing, built in 1904 at the cost of $18,000.00). Early in 1905, because of failing health, Fr. Koerdt asked the Bishop to give him a temporary leave of absence. This request was granted and Fr. Koerdt went to Los Angeles, California, where he died on May 7, 1905 at the age of fifty-two.

The School and Church Are Completed            

On the patronal feast day of the parish, June 29, 1905, Father Charles H. Thiele entered upon his duties as St. Peter's fourth pastor. Like his predecessors, Fr. Thiele was born in Germany in 1862 and came to America at the age of three. He was ordained by Bishop Dwenger in 1888. From 1905 until his death in 1941, Fr. Thiele worked tirelessly for St Peter's and its people. His accomplishments were many. He worked with the City of Fort Wayne to have the streets surrounding St. Peter's extended and improved. He installed a central heating plant for all the parish buildings. He enlarged the convent and completed Fr. Koerdt's original plans for the school. His greatest accomplishment, however, was inside the House of God, St. Peter's Church. Exteriorly, the church was an architectural gem, but inside, much work needed to be done. Fr. Thiele had the entire church frescoed. He had installed the hand-painted Stations of the Cross and in the same year, 1908, he caused to have installed the three beautifully illuminated altars. These were designed and built by the Emil Hackner Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, at a cost of $8,000.00. Fr. Thiele was also fond of music. In 1929, he purchased a new organ, a Teller-Kent, made in Erie, PA. It was a gem, containing all the stops required for Church Liturgical accompaniment. It could produce most of the instruments found in a symphony orchestra. It contained a set of chimes of 21 notes, and a harp of 48 notes. In all, there were 54 stops and a total of 3,311 pipes. At the time of its installation, it was recognized as second to none in the city and one of the outstanding organs in the Diocese of Fort Wayne. This Teller-Kent organ served the parish well for some 70 years until its replacement in 1999. Also in 1929, Fr. Thiele was honored by Pope Pius XI for his many achievements with the title of Very Reverend Monsignor. In 1936, due to advancing age and failing health, Msgr. Thiele asked Bishop John Francis Noll to relieve him as pastor and Father John Bapst was appointed as St. Peter's fifth pastor. Msgr. Thiele died at St. Joseph's Hospital on April 17, 1941. In his funeral remarks, Bishop Noll said of Msgr. Thiele: "He was a real spiritual father in every parish in which he labored for fifty-three years: building, developing, working for others, but garnering very little for himself".

Changes

Fr. Bapst has the distinction of being St. Peter's first native born, American pastor, having been born in Garrett, Indiana on June 19, 1894. He was ordained to the holy priesthood by Bishop Herman Alerding in 1921 and served at a number of parishes in the diocese before coming to St. Peter's in 1936. It can be said that Fr. Bapst inherited a strong, vibrant parish from Msgr. Thiele and it was Fr. Bapst's duty to guide the parish through the turbulent years of World War II and the years following. Because of his zeal and outstanding capability as pastor, in 1945, pope Pius XII honored Fr. Bapst with the title of Very Reverend Monsignor. In 1949, Msgr. Bapst acquired the John Suelzer Homestead at 518 E. DeWald Street to serve as the parish rectory. The 1950's and 60's began to see a dramatic change in parish demographics. For the first time in its history, the parish began to lose membership and the neighborhood started a serious decline. In 1972, St. Peter's School, after 100 years of continuous operation, closed its doors. In 1970, due to declining health, Msgr. Bapst resigned as active pastor, but was named as pastor emeritus, a position which he held until his death in the rectory on January 11, 1972. He is buried in Fort Wayne's Catholic Cemetery. Since 1970, St. Peter's has been served by the following pastors: Fr. Lawrence Kramer, 1970-1971; Fr. Eugene Koers, 1971-1973; Fr. Richard Hire, 1973-1974; Fr. Jacob Gall, 1974-1988; Fr. John Delaney, 1988-1998; and by Fr. Phillip A. Widmann, 1998-present.

Restoration and Renewal

It was during the pastorate of Fr. John Delaney in the early 1990's that both the parish and the neighborhood started to return from their decline. In 1991, St. Peter's Church, school, and rectory were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Beginning in 1992, and completed in 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the building of the church, the entire church interior was cleaned and redecorated. Additional work was also done to the church exterior and grounds. 1997-98 saw the forty-six stained glass windows totally restored. In 1998, St. Peter's acquired a 1958 model Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1337 Organ. The parish had this entire organ rebuilt and installed in St. Peter's organ loft. The organ has three manuals containing 37 ranks and 2,218 pipes. Some of the parts and pipes of the old Teller-Kent were salvaged and put to use in the new organ. The entire cost of this almost ten years of restoration was in excess of one milllion dollars. In 1997, in close cooperation with the City of Fort Wayne, Project Renew and nearby Zion Lutheran Church, St. Peter's entered into a partnership to help revitalize its neighborhood. Deteriorated housing and other structures have been removed from the neighborhood. New homes (the first in almost 80 years!) have been built with more scheduled to be built. A number of homes have been repaired and restored. At the east end of St. Peter's Square, a new branch of the Allen County Public Library, a new headquarters for the Fort Wayne Urban League, and new facilities for CANI Headstart and the Pontiac Youth Center have recently been built. In April 2004 ground was broken for the new St. Peter's Pavilion, which was dedicated by Bishop John D'Arcy on April 17, 2005. St. Peter's former school building has been renovated and reopened in 2005 as the Meetinghouse at St. Peter, with secure and comfortable apartments for senior citizens on low or moderate incomes. While times and faces and landscapes change, St. Peter's remains. The impact of St. Peter's Parish to revitalize itself should stand as an inspiration to others. The heritage of those early pioneer parishioners remains. The age-old Catholic belief that nothing can be too beautiful for God's House can be seen in St. Peter's, "the splendour of the South Side since 1872", "perhaps the most beautiful church in the Diocese, if not the entire Midwest".

 
-adapted from text originally published in St. Peter's Parish Directory, 2003.

                

        



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