History Project – A Tour of the Church Part 2 of 2

Andrea Thomas completes the tour in her second installment.

The gathering area of St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church includes portraits of every pastor since 1848—except for Father Weutz, who, after a long tenure as pastor, returned home to his native Austria. There is no photo of him in the diocesan archives.

The gathering area provides access to the Soup Kitchen, office space, the Allgier conference room, and Oechetering Hall, the latter two named in memory of  early pastors. Oechtering Hall is a multi-purpose space that includes secure dividers that can be configured in different ways to provide individual classrooms, a choir practice room, and social gathering space. It is the place where the Thanksgiving dinner for the community takes place.

Between Oechtering Hall and the east entrance is a plaque listing the names of five parishioners who mortgaged their family farms to purchase the land for a permanent church building where they could worship in ways consistent with their German heritage. They weren’t thrilled with the Irish and French at St. Augustine—which later became the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

In interesting bit of history (or legend) notes that in keeping with the tradition that the Cathedral must be the largest church in the diocese, a team came to measure the 1858 St. Mary’s, but mixed their measurements so that the interior measurement of St. Mary’s became the exterior of the new 1860 Cathedral.

The first St. Mary Mother of God Parish was a small frame structure. In 1858, a large brick structure replaced the frame church, but it was destroyed when the  boiler exploded and killed the janitor and a young girl walking along the sidewalk. Because of this, the boiler for the “new” 1886 church was placed in a separate building. After the 1993 fire (caused by a lightening strike), that boiler house was converted into the soup kitchen.

Also near the east entrance area (between the two sets of glass doors) is a large   banner depicting the Mother of God Tenderness, patterned after the ancient  Our Lady of Vladimir Icon and created for us. In the wider Fort Wayne community, one of the most recognized aspects of St. Mary’s is the Soup Kitchen. An old Catholic tradition decreed that the back doors of rectories and convents were places were persons in need might find emergency food. In 1975, after Father Tom O’Connor’s budget for groceries ran out, the music director, David Fyfe, suggested that the grocery help be converted into a carry-out soup kitchen operation. In the early days, all the soup was prepared on a four-burner kitchen stove in the rectory kitchen. Many volunteers still remember when that stove (and the three others than gave up the ghost in the process) cooked 1100 servings of soup daily. There was always soup and bread, and generally peanut butter also. The soup kitchen, out of necessity, eventually moved into the church basement and remained there until the 1993 fire. Not a single day of help was lost, with canned soup being distributed immediately after the fire, and the eventual conversion of the old boiler house. As construction on the new church progressed, a stop-gap kitchen operated out of a house where the church offices re-located until the new church was completed. That house, 1100 Clay Street, was used by the parish in various ministries over the years and was the site of the first Matthew 25 Dental Clinic.

The Gathering Area includes portraits of Pope Francis, Bishop Rhoades, and Fr. Wimal Jayasuriya, as well as a Father Tom O’Connor Memorial, including some of the many awards he received during his pastorate. He served St. Mary’s from 1970 until his death on March 17, 2004. Of particular interest is the Lumen Christi award presented to Father O’Connor by the Catholic Extension Society. It is the Church’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Included with that memorial is a plaque listing the 10 winners of the Father Tom O’Connor Light of Christ Award. After Father Tom’s death, Bishop John D’Arcy asked the parish to create an award in his memory that would honor “The next generation of Father Toms.” By design, and with only one exception, this award honored persons outside the parish.

The landscape surrounding the church building features several carved stone artifacts that were salvaged from the 1993 destruction of the 1886 church, and twin crosses flanking the east entrance are also from the old St. Mary’s. These crosses were installed and dedicated during the 25th commemoration of the fire.

Take a few minutes the next time you are at St. Mary’s to investigate this wonderful church and ministry complex.

Andrea S Thomas, June, 2023