A brief history of Gethsemane Episcopal Church Marion, Indiana by William F. Munn
The Pioneer Parish 1850-1890
In 1850, Marion, Indiana, a small village founded only 19 years earlier, had it first Episcopal service the second Sunday in June. The Rev. Joseph Large of Trinity Fort Wayne wrote that there was “…a large congregation, responses good and chants well sung.” Church records list the names of five members from that early date.
By 1874, the city had expanded to a bustling county seat of around three thousand. The Episcopal mission in Marion had grown along with Marion, a pattern that continued until the late twentieth century. Services were held for as many as seven families in 1874 and 1881. The first baptism was held in county courthouse in 1884.
Early parishioners were from New York, Ohio, Virginia, and Canada. Most were local businessmen and their families. One of the more notable persons in the group was Julia Norton, the area’s first school mistress who was noted for her opposition to the use of the rod as a motivational tool.
In 1887, a vast deposit of natural gas was discovered in central Indiana, resulting in the rapid growth of business, industry, and the population of Marion. It is at this time that Gethsemane Episcopal Church became a reality. The first location of regular worship was a chapel in a rented room in downtown Marion. The small but growing congregation established a Sunday school, and held regular services both morning and evening. Eleven baptisms were recorded during that period.
The increase in membership gave rise to the move to establish a permanent place of worship. Not far from the downtown chapel on Washington Street was a lot with a rundown building. The building in its earlier days had been a meeting place for anti-slavery Quakers, a Sunday school for freedmen and women, and a Wesleyan chapel. It was also located in an area between the new railroad depot and the public square. Washington Street was becoming the Main Street of Marion. Lined with businesses, the elegant homes of Marion’s rising banking community, and later a Carnegie library, the area was a source of civic pride and hope for future development. Thus, this piece of ground would become the place for Gethsemane Episcopal Church.
This choice established another lasting pattern, a commitment to the city center that has lasted to the present day.
The Family Parish 1890- 1990
In 1890 work was started on a stone church at the lot at Ninth and Washington. The Romanesque revival building was designed after the home church of Bishop David Knickerbacker, formerly of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Rev. Lewis Cole became rector in July of 1890 and the church was completed July of 1891.
The church was a center for family and neighborhood life during its first century. Activities during this era were documented in the diaries of long time parishioner Mary Cole from 1920-1930. The Girls Friendly Society included young women from Gethsemane and neighboring churches and maintained a busy round of teas and dinners, establishing the church’s reputation for hospitality that continues to the present day. It is during the early years that Gethsemane parish adopted an increasingly “high church” style of worship, vestments and candles were introduced.
Parish members were active in the Marion community. In 1912, parishioner Field Sweezey, mayor of Marion, alongside Samuel Plato pioneer African American architect, organized and spoke at a memorial service for Booker T. Washington attended by over two thousand area residents.
The city was hard hit by the Depression. Factories closed,laying off hundreds. During that time, the rector’s wife was the county’s public health nurse who struggled to provide for the city’s destitute. She contributed to helping to deal with a major tuberculosis epidemic among Marion’s school children.
Marion was the scene of a tragic lynching in 1930. As was the case with all of the churches in the city, Gethsemane records are silent regarding this horrendous crime.
In 1941 Gethsemane members, including the rector, went to war. The postwar parish experienced major growth. Marriages and baptisms were celebrated in record number. Sunday school classes were full.
The 1950’s were another boom time for Marion. Major industries such as RCA and General Motors brought new people to town and to Gethsemane. It should be noted that the parish during this era was more diverse than the average church community in Grant County. The parish had members of Greek, African- American, Chinese, and Ukrainian backgrounds, which greatly enriched the worship and hospitality of Gethsemane. The Episcopal Church Women played a major role providing funds and work in providing for this hospitality and continues to do so.
This period also marked the construction of a parish hall and a major restoration of the sanctuary. The new parish hall provided a parish meeting space, Sunday school rooms and a modern kitchen. The expansion was a predicated on a conscious decision to remain in the central city at a time when other denominations choose to move away from the downtown.
Gethsemane also expanded its commitment to neighborhood ministry. Alcoholics Anonymous and related groups met regularly in the facility as did the first adaptive kindergarten which would later grow into Carey Industries, a major provider of services to developmentally disabled people.
In 1990 the church was refurbished and long-delayed repairs were made. Care was taken to preserve as much as possible the historic nature of the building. The stained glass windows were restored through gifts from parish families and a memorial garden was started.
During this time the church purchased an adjoining property with an 1890 Victorian home on it. The house was extensively renovated as was an adjoining warehouse. The house has been used as a church office, a meeting place for spiritual formation, and most recently a residential facility for students from Taylor and Indiana Wesleyan universities working on inner city ministries. The adjoining warehouse has been used as a teen live music venue and as artist studios.
A major ministry of the church that began in the 1990’s was the Lunch Box. The last two Sundays of every month, church members prepare a meal for the poor in the immediate vicinity of the church. Numbers served range from 40 to 100 per Sunday. This ministry has also created opportunities for assistance in obtaining services for those in need by putting a “face” on the issues confronted by our neighbors.
The 90’s were also a period of challenge to Gethsemane. The church was dealing with several issues at the same time: the demographic challenges of an aging parish, a community in economic decline, and a hundred year old building in need of repair. The parish recommitted itself to remaining in the central city in a rapidly declining neighborhood.
Gethsemane had in its history called members to the priesthood with two being in turn called to be bishops. In 1992 Peg Harker was called to the priesthood from the parish, and our commitment to the role of women in the church was further confirmed by the calling of Megan Traquair to be the rector of Gethsemane.
In the last few years, the parish continues to serve the needs of the neighborhood through the Lunch Box, an endowed children’s fund for medical needs, neighborhood prayer walks, and counseling offered by our present candidate for the diaconate. Several of our neighbors have become valued members of the parish.
One of the most positive developments in recent years has been the large number of students and faculty from Taylor and Indiana Wesleyan University. The result has been that the church has become active in the arts, with recitals, plays, and discussions that have enriched our life together and have brought the larger community to our doors.
Through the leadership of our present rector, a series of workshops have been held dealing with reconciliation. The first one dealt with the on-going Arab – Israeli crisis; the second with faith and women’s issues, and another with faith, gender, and sexuality ( another workshop on this topic is scheduled for March 2016).
In 2016 the present rector was the recipient of a Lilly grant for clergy renewal to spend an extended time in Israel with his family gathering materials for a video presentation to be used in updating workshop materials on Jewish, Muslim, Christian relations.
A place called Gethsemane has been true to the original vision of its founders in ways that they could not have imagined. We are still at the corner of 9th and Washington where we have been for 125 years. We have continued worship in the Episcopal tradition, we serve the poor, and provide hospitality to all.