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A Brief History of Sacred Heart Parish and Church


Historical Foundations


Sacred Heart Parish in Indianapolis, Indiana is the daughter parish, St. Mary's German-Speaking Church, located on the south side of Maryland Street between Pennsylvania and Delaware Streets. In 1875, it was the only German-speaking parish in the downtown area.  The Franciscans priests and brothers (known as friars) who resided in Indianapolis were of the Holy Cross Province in Saxony, Germany.   Soon after the friars began ministering in the area, they quickly became entrusted with other parishes in Quincy and southern Illinois, and on to St. Louis, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio and Memphis, Tennessee.  The headquarters or Motherhouse of the Franciscan Commissariat was located in Teutopolis, Illinois.  In 1879, it became established as the Franciscan Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.  By 1888 it moved the Provincial Offices to St. Louis.


In 1875, the Franciscans were invited to the parish of Sacred Heart by Bishop Jazques-Maurice De Saint Palais to minister to the German-speaking Catholic community. It came during the Kulturkampf in Germany, a cultural revolution spearheaded by Chancellor Otto van Bismarck, between the German government and the Roman Catholic Church in control over central education and ecclesiastical appointments.   It was also a time when the Franciscans were being exiled from their homeland.  In 1875 and 1876, 99 friars and 22 candidates arrived in America during the expulsion.    


On July 14, 1875, at the Franciscan Chapter meeting, it was decided to send the Franciscans to Indianapolis.  By the end of July, five friars took up residence and began parish work with the German-speaking community of Sacred Heart parish.  65 families made up the original church, but by 1892 there were at least 350 German families in the area around Sacred Heart, and in 1900 there were 650 families. 


There were a wide variety of German-ethnic communities, including those of German-Jewish decent. The entire area was totally German-speaking for about a one-mile radius.  Even Jewish Germans settled there.




Sacred Heart Parish was intended to be for all German-speaking Catholics south of McCarty Street, (named for the McCarty Subdivision which bordered its southern boundary) stretching all the way out into the country, as far even as Edgewood and Meridian, where Xavier and Clara Buergler had a farm.


The entire northwest block of Union and Palmer Streets was purchased in 1875 and the church complex was built in three sections, all designed and supervised by Br. Adrian Wewer, OFM.

  1. The first section was the Monastery, with classrooms on the main floor, a Chapel on the second, and the residence on the third for the friars.  The cornerstone was laid in August, 1875 and the entire building finished by Christmas.1

  2. The second phase was the Main Church, also done in three parts.  The first section was the Transept, (front part of the church where the altar stands) (it lies across from the main edifice nearer to the main altar) built back to the side doors; the second was the Nave of the church (where the pews are now), (the central body containing the pews) and the third section was the two Towers and bells.  The cornerstone for the Transept was laid in 1883, and finished by late 1884.  The Nave was completed in 1885.  From 1890-91 they added the two front towers and in 1891 the bells were blessed dedicated 2

  3. The final phase was the School, which was started in 1894 and completed and dedicated in 1895. 3


The mortgage was burned and a solemn Consecration of the Church took place in 1895 The Church was debt-free through the efforts of the pastor, Father Bernardine Weis, ofm, and many parishioners.  On October 4, 1891, the feast of St. Francis, the community joined together to celebrate the solemn consecration of the church building.


From 1898 to 1902 the side altars were added, along with a larger main Altar.  Finally, in 1899 the Organ and steam heat were added, so that by the year 1900 Sacred Heart was ready for its 25th anniversary celebration, of which Henry Ritter had a part. 4


There was one incident that was a possible disaster on Easter of 1898. 1891.  A lightning bolt struck the church steeple and started a fire.  It went across the whole church and a fire started in the basement under the Communion rails.  If they could not have put it out the fire would probably have destroyed the entire structure.  Thanks be to God it did not.


The church remained essentially unchanged between then and the end of Vatican Council Two in 1965.5


In the 1960’s Between the years of 1962-1965, the confessionals were moved from under the Tower stairs toward the front of the church, and several pews were removed.  The Baptismal font was also moved to the front of the Church as part of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.6


A tragic electrical fire in 2001, destroyed the main altar and caused smoke damage to most of the church.  Artisans were brought in to reconstruct and repaint the ceiling, the pews were removed and refinished, and the main altar was entirely rebuilt.  Air Conditioning and a bathroom was added to the church.  Gratefully, all of this was paid for by the insurance company and the repair was deemed completed 18 months after the fire.


Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Parish has been a stable and beautiful influence on the Old South Side of Indianapolis for over 140 years.  With the neighborhood experiencing regentrification, the parish will continue to provide a sacred space, faith filled community, and opportunities for social activism in the neighborhood for many years to come.




  1. The second-floor chapel is where Urban Ritter and Agnes Lipps would have been married in 1879.

  2. Since John Mayer and Theresia Koenig were married on October 15, 1890 they would have been married in the newly completed Church. 

  3. Grandma Ritter said that the boys and girls were always separated.  Until third grade grandpa Henry Ritter attended the boys’ school which was located on Palmer and Meridian where the convent was later built.  The girls were housed in the newer school.

  4. By the time that Clara Mayer and Henry Ritter were married, October 15, 1919, the church they were married in was the full and complete church as we know it today.

  5. Jack Starks and Therese Ritter were married in the Sacred Heart Church in April, 1947.

  6. Steve Starks and Rosina Laker were married there in February, 1968.

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