The third installment of out 175th Jubilee History Project is about Father Ralph Larson, pastor at St. Mary’s from 1963-1969. It was written by Ken Yahne with research assistance from Maryilyn Horrell. The article notes Father Larson’s acknowledgement of the changing demographics in the neighborhood, and the new direction of ministry that largely shaped who we are as a parish today.
Ralph Harry Larson was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on July 16, 1922 to Harry and Cecilia (Voors) Larson. He became a Catholic priest in 1948, having graduated from St. Lawrence College in Wisconsin and St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. Before coming to St. Mary’s in 1963, Father Larson served as Assistant Pastor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fort Wayne, where he was known for taking potential seminarians on a Saturday morning bike-hike adventure to his family farm, doffing his trademark coonskin cap, jeans and a sweatshirt (very unusual attire for a priest in the 1950’s!).
Father (later Monsignor) J. Nicholas Allgeier served as Pastor of St. Mary’s from 1935 until 1963. His emphasis was to minister primarily to the German descendants of those who founded the Church in 1848. Later in his tenure, however, most of these German families had been assimilated into the community and moved out of the nearby neighborhoods surrounding the Church. They were replaced by poorer whites, blacks and Hispanics who were unable to afford a “move to the suburbs”. It was this environment that Father Larson faced when he was appointed Pastor of St. Mary’s succeeding Monsignor Allgeier.
Father Larson should get credit for being the first to recognize that St. Mary’s was no longer “the German Church” that it once was and that its dwindling membership needed to be revitalized if it were to survive what eventually became the destiny of many inner-city churches in Fort Wayne and other cities. The St. Mary’s School closed in 1963 since there were few Catholic families who were being served. Undaunted by its closure, Father Larson launched an “experimental” school that he dubbed “the Mission School” which he re-opened later in 1963. Its goal was to minister to the central-city residents, those that he identified as his new constituency.
Classes were small and parents were charged tuition on a sliding fee scale based on their ability to pay. The target clientele was the east-central neighborhood surrounding St. Mary’s. Both of the St. Mary’s school buildings (the “girls” school adjacent to the Church and the “boys” school located across Lafayette Street) were utilized. There was a 12-month program that included a summer camp, home visits and a tutorial program. Its purpose was to increase interest by the students in school and foster increased parental involvement. The school was run in large part by volunteers and by dedicated teachers who were being paid less than half of what conventional teachers were paid. Unfortunately, the school ran a deficit each year and after four years of operation the school board unanimously voted to close the school in 1967 before an even larger debt were incurred.
Undaunted again by the school’s closure, Father Larson appointed a committee to investigate the feasibility of a Montessori school. In August of 1968, after much community input and debate, the Martin Luther King Montessori School came into being. The School was opened, using the basements of St. Mary’s Church and First Wayne Street United Methodist Church for classrooms. The School was created for the purpose of educating the culturally-deprived children of the east-central neighborhood to better prepare them for entry into traditional schools. The Program had an enrollment of more than 200 children. While St. Mary’s continued for many years to allow use of its facilities for classrooms, St. Mary’s Church was financially unable to support this Montessori effort beyond its formative years. Fortunately, others stepped up to maintain the Martin Luther King Montessori School, and it became a very successful effort to provide special help and guidance to economically-disadvantaged youth.
Following this effort by Father Larson, he moved on from St. Mary’s in 1969 and was replaced as Pastor by Father Tom O’Conner. Father O’Connor’s successes at reaching out to the neighborhood are catalogued separately in another article. However, Father Larson is to be fondly remembered as the priest who first recognized that St. Mary’s outreach to a German constituency was no longer viable and that St. Mary’s needed to direct its efforts to a new neighborhood constituency, even though few members of that constituency were practicing Catholics.