Presbyterian Church celebrates sanctuary’s 50th anniversary, recalls church’s 186-year history

This modest log cabin, the home of Alexander Blackburn in Rolling Prairie, is where seven Presbyterian members gathered for the first time in LaPorte County to worship on Nov. 28, 1832 — the same year LaPorte was formed as a town. (Photo provided)

The former Presbyterian Church of LaPorte is shown in this 1960s photo. Presbyterians worshiped at the church, located at Noble Street and Michigan Avenue, from 1871 to 1968. Until it was razed in 1969, it had been the oldest remaining church in LaPorte. (Photo provided)

(Photo by Bob Wellinski) The current church sanctuary, where the inaugural worship service was held 50 years ago. It shows modern-tending features: heated slate flooring and the immovable pulpit (left), communion table (center) and baptismal font (square gray block, right). Unusual window placement at the rear of the sanctuary allows light to shine on the central focus of worship. A recent renovation includes new overhead lighting and padded pews. The massive pipes of the Moller organ can be seen at right.

50th anniversary celebration

What: Anniversary of the first service in the new sanctuary

Where: The Presbyterian Church of LaPorte, 307 Kingsbury Ave.

When: Sunday, Nov. 18, at a combined 10 a.m. worship service

By Julie Dean Kessler

On a recent afternoon as a brisk wind rustled leaves turning autumn yellow, inside the pastor’s office on Kingsbury Avenue there were reminiscent smiles. Under discussion was the upcoming 50th anniversary of the current sanctuary of The Presbyterian Church of LaPorte. On hand were Rev. Dr. Sally Wicks and three members of the 1968 building committee, two of them 81 years old, the third 82: committee chair Dan Lewis Jr., Ross Lawrence, and Tom Boyd.

All were contemplating the Nov. 18, 2018, celebration — a long way from the Presbyterian Church’s original founding in 1832, when seven souls met to worship in a log cabin in Rolling Prairie. In succeeding months they and other followers met at various places before permanently moving to LaPorte, itself founded in the same year.

With its now-familiar refrain of “order and ardor,” the church’s carefully kept records of its growth through its 186-year history reflect the ardor of those first worshipers.

Good thing the ardor was there, since in those earliest days LaPorte was a collection of barely more than shacks, with farm animals roaming with distressing frequency through the dirt streets. Attendees of “the church of LaPorte” were also distressed that not all the folks attracted to the area’s natural beauty shared their Christian values. Drunkenness, violence, and other affronts to the faithful were combined with a discouraging illiteracy. With no schools nor law enforcement, The Presbyterian Church quickly became a center for social reform.

By 1840 the congregation was meeting in LaPorte’s oldest formal church, at Maple and Monroe streets, still standing in 1982 though hidden within the exterior of the Christian Church. An hour and a half sermon was the norm, and some Sundays were entirely devoted to all-day church, the rigors of which were lightened by the pleasant combination of “preaching and picnicking.”

All was not rosy, though. The schism of 1844 occurred, creating First church, Second church, and United church. After 27 years the split, blamed on revivals that led some folks to different biblical understandings, was amicably resolved and the Presbyterians were under one roof again. An odd separation was to happen later, though in a good cause.

By 1870 the congregation’s church was at Noble Street and Michigan Avenue. Through the years – at various sites in LaPorte — loved and respected ministers had presided with vigor and vision, described in newspaper accounts and the church’s sesquicentennial booklet of 1982. One such was Rev. William Scofield, who in 1871 delivered an address that still guides The Presbyterian Church of LaPorte, including, “… though strongly attached to our simple and Scriptural forms of worship, yet we are not so bigoted as to claim that the Presbyterian is the only true church … Into this house when complete we hope to welcome, as hearers of the Words … the poor as well as the rich, the foreigner as well as the home born …”

The Michigan Avenue sanctuary was “often described as one of the most beautiful in Northern Indiana,” according to the church’s sesquicentennial booklet. With a 1952 renovation, membership had swelled to 789. Expansion was needed to accommodate the burgeoning Christian education classrooms and the current location at Kingsbury and Indiana avenues was selected. On Thanksgiving Day 1957, then-Gov. Harold Handley participated in the laying of the cornerstone at the new location for the Christian Education building and eventually the Michigan Avenue location was sold to St. Peter Catholic Church across the street.

Here’s where the unconventional separation occurred – between buildings and not among the congregation: Parishioners had Sunday school at the new location and afterward went over to worship at their Michigan Avenue church. Attendance suffered at first. Yet there was sadness as the congregation attended the last worship service at the Michigan Avenue sanctuary on Easter Sunday 1967. Thereafter worship services were held in the Fireside Room – now called the Gathering Room — of the Christian education building. But excitement began to build in contemplation of a brand-new sanctuary.

On the recent autumn day in Wicks’ office, octogenarian church members Lewis,  Lawrence and Boyd marveled that, as much younger men, they’d been entrusted as building committee members to choose the design of the new sanctuary.

Lawrence chuckles, “We were in our 30s, and this important project was up to us to decide.”

“We were lucky, really, to have Mr. Edward Dart working with us,” says Boyd. “He understood what we envisioned.” Dart, architect of Chicago’s Water Tower Place, was known for understanding his clients’ vision while offering often unique ways of expressing it. For the LaPorte Presbyterian church, Dart chose materials reflecting those from the time of Jesus, including wood and stone, used in wooden pews and slate flooring.

“It was quite a responsibility to serve on that committee. I think the cohesiveness of the committee was in part because we all knew each other well. We moved forward rather rapidly once we knew the architect understood what we wanted,” says Boyd, the great-nephew of William Boyd, an elder in 1871, according to church records. Lewis, whose father Daniel Lewis Sr. was also an influential church member, was out of town when this went to press and unavailable for further comment.

“The sanctuary was built in Presbyterian simplicity. It has a clean, spacious feel with light falling on the focal points of pulpit, communion table and baptismal font. In this way worshipers’ attention is directed to the presence of God as we encounter God in the scriptures and the sacraments,” says Wicks. She nods at the three in her office. “You  were very forward thinking in the 1968 design of the sanctuary. The church left a very traditional sanctuary on Michigan Avenue and intentionally sought a modern design in its new location here on Kingsbury Avenue.”

Wicks said the design continues to look contemporary 50 years later. “The design suits the Presbyterians in LaPorte who are a forward-thinking bunch.”

A heating system lies underneath the flooring to help keep the sanctuary comfortable in winter. “Quite modern for its day, and the slate is still beautiful,” says Wicks.

Looking forward continues: The sanctuary was recently refitted with new lighting, sound and projection systems. Pews have cushioning on seats and backs. A large wooden cross commissioned a few years ago by member Marcia Morris and crafted by the late Jack Beck is the only adornment on the wall facing the congregation. A video screen is lowered for the 9 a.m. contemporary worship service.

Church records show music has been a key aspect of worship, with a robust choir that continues. In the sanctuary is a massive Moller pipe organ, installed in 1968. The George Mathis Memorial Organ was made possible through a gift from his family. Its visible 1,200-plus pipes range in length from more than 16 feet to less than a half inch.

Outside, passersby can’t miss the 56-foot-tall carillon, designed by LaPorte’s late Herman Terzino to echo the church’s exterior. Its 36 bells, weighing from 28 to 1,000 pounds, were each cast using a method ensuring each bell will stay in tune for centuries. The Children’s Carillon name was derived from the 1,502-pound, $600 Children’s Bell, hoisted in 1871 at the Michigan Avenue church and named for the Sabbath school children who paid for it, pennies and nickels at a time. It now hangs over the main entrance at Kingsbury Avenue, its deep tone calling the faithful to worship.

Installation of a 50th anniversary commemorative plaque was included in a Nov. 17 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the church.

One Response to “Presbyterian Church celebrates sanctuary’s 50th anniversary, recalls church’s 186-year history”

  1. Nancy Porter

    Nov 17. 2018

    What a beautifully writte mini history of the LaPorte church! As a life long (almost) Presbyterian it speaks to my heart.

    Reply to this comment

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