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St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church

St. Mary of the LakeSt. Mary of the Lake Catholic church was first built in Culver in 1897. In those days, it was located on the northeast corner of what is today Lake Street and Lake Shore Drive (an empty lot today occupies the spot). A lightning bolt to the steeple started the September, 1903 fire that destroyed the building and effectively ended St. Mary’s as an active parish with a church as its base.

 Mass was celebrated off and on in Culver in the 40 years following, sometimes in the lower level of the Carnegie library on Main Street, and apparently sometimes in the El Rancho movie theater (today, Culver’s only theater, on Lake Shore Drive).

 It wasn’t until 1948, with the arrival of the legendary Father Joseph Lenk, that St. Mary of the Lake began to take shape as the parish it is today.

Fr. Joseph LenkAt left: Fr. Joseph Lenk in 1953.

 From a biographical sketch of Fr. Lenk in the July 2, 1954 Culver Citizen:

Father Lenk was born in Fort Wayne.  He prepared for the priesthood at St. Joseph’s College, St. Mary’s College, and Notre Dame University, with theological studies at Mr. St. Mary’s Theological Seminary at Norwood, Ohio. 

He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop John Francis Noll, D. D. in the Cathedral at Fort Wayne on June 3, 1939.

 He had served for three years as assistant pastor at St. Lawrence Church at Muncie when he entered the U. S. Army as a chaplain.  (Tour of duty, foreign service: Chaplain School at Harvard University:  appointment with the 91st Infantry Division on the West Coast.  Then overseas duty in M.T.O.,

North Africa and Italy.  In recognition of the work of the chaplains of the 5th Army after the armistice was signed, he enjoyed a trip to Athens, Greece, Cairo, Egypt, and spent a month in the Holy Land.)

In March 1945, Father Lenk was separated from the service with the rank of Major. 

He became a staff member of the Veterans Administration hospital at Hines, Ill., becoming senior chaplain the same month.

 In 1947 Father Lenk was appointed first assistant to Msgr. John S. Sabo, the Catholic dean of the South Bend area at Our Lady Church.  In September 1948, Father Lenk was appointed first resident pastor of St. Mary’s Mission Church in Culver with the work of establishing a Catholic parish and church in this community.

 In December of 1948, Fr. Lenk oversaw the construction of a “new” St. Mary of the Lake Church at the corner of College Ave. and Plymouth Street, the present location of St. Mary’s. Fr. Lenk’s military background probably contributed to his choice of church, a sheet metal building in military Quonset hut style. One assumes that Fr. Lenk intended from the start to eventually raise money to build a more permanent and suitable church building.

 On January 28, 1954, flames forced his hand. From the Culver Citizen: 

Knox, Monterey, and Plymouth Firemen Aid Culver at $25,00 Conflagration

Father Joseph A. Lenk, Pastor, Carries on in Inspiring Manner

Culver’s most disastrous fire in many years totally destroyed St. Mary’s of the Lake Roman Catholic Church at the corner of College Avenue and Plymouth Street early Thursday morning.

The loss was $25,000, fully covered by insurance.The original Catholic Church in Culver met a similar fate in 1905. 

 Aroused by barking dogs at about 5:30 a.m. Mr. And Mrs. Sam Strang, 122 College Avenue, were the first to discover the roaring pyre.

 When the Culver Fire Department arrived in quick order the Quonset-type metal and laminated wood building was a mass of flames and the heat was intense.

Firemen from Knox, Monterey, and Plymouth soon joined in the heroic battle to control the conflagration and successfully kept it from spreading to the surrounding homes.

 Only the gutted vestibule of the 72 X 36 foot building still stands.  The church was built in December 1948 when Father Joseph A. Lenk first came to Culver.

 Cause of the fire is still undetermined but a faulty space heater may have been responsible.  Father Lenk found everything in order when he left the church at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

 Father Lenk lost many cherished personal belongings in the tragedy, including a chalice given him by his parents at his ordination as well as several mementoes from Army service.

 Until a new church is built Catholic services will be held at the El Rancho Theatre on Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m.  Holy Mass will be celebrated on weekdays at the rectory on College Avenue.

Basic construction cost of a new Catholic Church in Culver has been placed at $165,000, according to previous announcement. 

The ultimate cost of the proposed church and St. Thomas More off-campus club will be $250,000.  The church will have a seating capacity of 310.

 Father Lenk, who also has a great personal following among Culver Protestants, will celebrate the 15th anniversary of his priesthood on June 3 of this year.

FireThe actual cause of the fire may be never known, though there seems to have been some speculation that arson was a possibility.

 Protestant attitudes towards Catholics in America had evolved a great deal since the days of 1920s Indiana, when the Ku Klux Klan gained power in the statehouse and swelling numbers (it is said that one in every three white, male ,Protestant Hoosiers was a member of the group between 1921 and 1925), largely on an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform. But nonetheless, during Fr. Lenk’s early years in Culver, a cross was burned on his lawn, according to several residents of the area at the time (the story never made the press). Clearly, there was some negative reaction to the arrival of a permanent Catholic parish in Culver.

Our Sunday Visitor

Above: The Feb. 7, 1954 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper reports on the St. Mary's fire.

 Catholic Mass was not allowed to be celebrated on the campus of Culver Academies during this period, either (hence the creation of the St. Thomas Moore Club in the basement of St. Mary’s church, at the time of the Church’s construction. The Club functioned as a social and religious gathering place for Academy students and their families).

 If Father Lenk felt that the fire was intentional, he never said so publicly, and the newspaper accounts of the day are notably positive about Fr. Lenk, the parish, and the subsequent, successful efforts to build a permanent St. Mary of the Lake Church in Culver.

 In the same Culver Citizen that reported the fire, Fr. Lenk took a moment to address readers:

 At a time like this I am reminded of the challenging words of Father Sorin, the founder of the University of Notre Dame, who, after the institution had been razed by fire for the third time, said to the brothers of the Holy Cross Order and the priests on the faculty:  “If everything were gone we would still rebuild.”

 We have our faith, our health, our talent, our people.  The Catholic Church is composed of people, not real estate.  There is only one way to look: ahead.

With confidence in Almighty God and in our own ability, coupled with the warm hearts of people of all faiths, we can look forward to a beautiful new church in the foreseeable future.

 I am particularly grateful for the kindly interest of Culver’s ministers, the splendid work of our local firemen, and the fine expressions of our non-Catholic friends.  I have witnessed a solidarity in our community spirit that is a genuine inspiration to me.  In my six years in Culver I have not seen its equal.  Thank you all.

Indeed, whether an accident or arson, the fire that consumed St. Mary of the Lake church in January, 1954, rather than signaling a disaster for the parish, instead brought about the construction of the structure that stands today.

The Oct. 13, 1948 Culver Citizen contains some interesting facts about the parish at the time: “Ground will be broken within the next two weeks for the erection of a new church structure for the Culver Catholic parish, now officially known as Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, according to Rev. Julian L. Lubo, pastor ...the decision was made at a meeting of 55 members and friends of the parish at the East Shore Inn Sunday night. Also attending the gathering were Rev. Jude, superior of Divine Heart College at Donaldson, and Rev. Bernard Rotterman, superior of the major seminary at Hales Corners, Wisc.

     “The church will be built on the land the parish purchased some time ago at the corner of  College Avenue and Plymouth Street, which is 180 by 170 feet in size, and will face on the former street. The central structure will be 80 feet long and 36 feet wide, with a parish hall on one side and a rectory on the other, both adjacent to the church proper. Each of these will be 24 by 52 feet in size, with the parish hall including a kitchen and restrooms besides the main social room. The rectory will be a complete home for the parish priest.”

     The article goes on to describe a structure closer to our present-day building than what wound up being built: the plan was for a brick building with a Romanesque interior and “plaster walls in panels and Doric pilasters.” Obviously, something changed between the plan and what finally happened. It is also interesting to note that the parish priest at the time was not Fr. Joseph Lenk, who would lead the building project, but Fr. Lubo. If the parish was actually named “Immacualte Heart of Mary,” this was a temporary change…it had been “St Mary of the Lake” since at least 1897.

     The article noted that, “Since the reorganization of the Culver parish (perhaps resulting in the temporary name change? — ed.), it has been meeting in the library auditorium most of the time, with the community building being used when the number of Culver Summer School boys required the move a room with a larger seating capacity.”

     By Dec. 3, 1948, Fr. Lenk had arrived in Culver, having been sent- according to Today’s Catholic from July, 1995, by Bishop John F. Noll partly at the request of the Culver Academy administration, as CMA had an increasingly Catholic populace in the form of Latin American students- Lenk wrote the following to Bishop Noll:

“Just a few lines to inform you of our process at Culver. Monday evening of this week I invited the members of the parish to the rectory. After discussions of our problems at Culver in regard to the need for a church, twenty one of the families expressed their desire to begin construction of the church immediately on the plans I had shown you.

 W.R. Baker from South Bend is our architect, and David Burns from Culver, Indiana is our contractor.  Labor is rather cheap in Culver and it is very likely that the total cost of the new church will not exceed $10,000.00.

I have not seen your friend, Mr. Radign, of Gary, Indiana in regard to furniture. I have a stove to cook on, a table to eat from, and a bed to sleep in, so additional furniture will be procured as soon as there is a lessening of parish activities. Incidentally, it is our hope and prayer that we will celebrate Midnight Mass in the new church.

 I have made initial contacts at the Academy, and I am making up a spiritual report as to the number of cadets who are not Confirmed, have not made their First Communion, etc.

 May I take this opportunity to thank you for your generosity, understanding, and kindness in naming me pastor of Culver.

 Begging a moment in your prayers for God’s blessings on our work, I am your son as you are my father in the Mystical Body of Christ…”

      The letter’s return address was listed at 227 South Main Street in Culver, where Lenk resided at the time.

According to the same Today’s Catholic article, “the outgoing (Lenk) soon became well-known in Culver, although some Protestants called him Mr. Priest or asked when Mrs. Lenk would be joining him. Underterred by that, and the cross said to have been burned on his lawn, Lenk worked on. The December 8, 1948 Culver Citizen reported:

A temporary structure to house the Catholic Church of Culver is under construction at the rear of the, church property at College Avenue and Plymouth Street.

According to Rev. Joseph Lenk, pastor, the temporary building will cost $10,000 and seat 300. It is being built in anticipation of a permanent church to be con­structed as soon as materials are available.

The foundation is now being being completed and the erection lot the aluminum, drome shaped auditorium will, start next week. It is hoped that it will be coun­pleted in time :for Christmas mid­night mass.

The building will be 36 by 78 ,feet with a vestibule of brick. W. R. Baker, of South Bend, is the architect, and David Burns, of Culver is the contractor. The aluminum building may be sal­vaged when the permanent church is completed, Father Lenk said, left as a. recreation center, or whatever use the parishioners de­sire.

A sanctuary, communion rail, pews, baptismal, confessional, al­tar and choir loft will be placed in the church proper with the al­tar boys' sacristy adjoining. A nursery also will be included.

     In a feat of construction speed, Lenk managed to get the Quonset church built in record time, writing his Bishop on Dec. 16:

“Monday, Dec. 20, construction of our temporary church will be finished. It hardly seems possible but it will take only 18 working days. So far we have spent $8,000.00. Our labor cost is below our material cost up to now. The contractor estimates the total cost of construction to be $11,500.00 when we are finished. We are planning our first Mass in the new church on Christmas Day.”

     St. Mary’s of the Lake

Recalls the July, 1955 Today’s Catholic:”(the church was) officially called St. Mary’s of  the Lake but often known as St. Quonset or “the Pressure-Cooker Church” because of the summer temperature inside.”

Nonetheless, the church was there, and by September of 1949, was preparing fro its formal blessing by the Bishop, as reported in Our Sunday Visitor in October, 1949:

 “The temporary church building of the first permanent parish in this city was blessed by the Most Rev. John F. Noll, D.D., Bishop of Fort Wayne, at ceremonies held here Sunday afternoon, September 25.

     Following the blessing and preceding the concluding Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop Noll addressed a near capacity audience composed of the parishioners and their non-Catholic friends. There are 30 families in the Culver parish.

     Briefly outlining the history and development of church enclosures from the days following the Roman persecutions until the present, Bishop Noll states that size and elegance is of minor consequence as far as the Church is concerned in appearances. She regards each structure as a “serving station” or Almighty God, he said, and that was of prime importance.

     He complimented the Rev. Joseph Lenk, pastor, his parishioners and their friends in the city of Culver for their great accomplishment than explained the lack of better understanding of the Church’s teaching in rural areas. More information on Catholic tenants, he said, is the best way to promote harmony in a community of diverse faiths, and he concluded parish such as St. Mary of the Lake would serve that purpose.

     Bishop Noll was assisted by the Very Rev. Msgr. Charles Feltes, Chancellor, Ft. Wayne; the Rt. Rev. Msgr. John S. Sabo, district dean and pastor of Our Lady Church, South Bend, for the blessing of the exterior and interior of the church.

             Celebration of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was the Very Rev. Father Jude, S. J.C., Superior, Divine Heart Seminary, Donaldson; deacon, the Rev. Martin Horvath, assistant Our Lady Church, South Bend; sub-deacon, the Rev. Leonard Cross, assistant, St. Michael Church, Plymouth; master of ceremonies, the Rev. Harvey W. Lamonthe, S.C.J., Donaldson. The cross bearer was the Rev. Michael J. Noonan, S.C.J.  Donaldson and the schola cantorum composed of students from the Divine Heart seminary, was directed by the Rev. William L. Nolken, S.C.J.

     …Members of the committee arranging the service were Mrs. Joseph McCarthy, Mrs. Marvin Gorss, Mrs. Walter Busart, Mary Frances Mahan, John Marsm Raymond Gass, Walter Busart, Joseph Ritchie, Frank Amond and Louis De Angelis.

     After the blessing Bishop Noll addressed the 120 Catholic students at the Culver Military Academy. It was the Bishop’s first official visit to the academy where he was welcomed by Col. McKinney, adjunct. He was introduced by Chaplain Sexton of the academy and Jon Meyer extend(ed) the Bishop the greetings of the faculty. Captain Simon, senior ranking cadet, presented the Bishop with a spiritual bouquet in behalf of the students.” 

According to the Diocesan records, following the dedication, the year 1949 in the parish included the first Mission Week held October 9, 1949. The Sisters of Saint Agnes taught grade school children Catechism on Saturdays, and the Church had tow social groups recorded on the record for 1949, The Holy Name Society and the Alter Rosary Society.

1955 Article

In 1955, St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church opened on the corner of College Ave. and Plymouth Streets in Culver, in its present brick form.

Dedication Program

Click here to read the entire dedication program for the new church building in 1955.

Chalice Architect's Plans

Above, from left: a chalice made for Fr. Lenk which includes what was believed to be a melted remnant of the chalice given him at his ordination, which was damaged in the 1954 fire that claimed the quonset hut church. At right: original architect's plans for the 1954 church building.

Cap Certificate

Above, from left: the priest's cap, or biretta, worn by Fr. Lenk; at right, his ordination certificate. 

St. Mary of the Lake Catholic St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church on College Ave., as depicted in a 1960 postcard (courtesy Jim Croy).

InteriorThe interior of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church as it appeared in June of 1971; photographed by White Photography.

Interior 01 Interior 02

Above: Two 1950s photos of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church on College Ave. and Plymouth Streets, Culver. Above: an undated shot from the 1950s of a First Communion Mass, taken by William Taber. Below: shot of the church from a 1955 edition of the newsweekly Our Sunday Visitor.

Below: Images of the 1955 church building (still current today) as presented in the 1955 dedication book...

Window 01 Window 02 Window 03 Window 04 Window 05 Window 06

Above: the stained glass windows...

Cross 01 Cross 02 Cross 03

...and a sampling of the Stations of the Cross on the walls.

Interior 01 Interior 02 Interior 03

Above: the interior of the church...from left, the tabernacle, behind the altar, and a view of the sanctuary from the altar.

Statue 01 Statue 02Statue 03 Statue 04

Statue 05 Statue 06

Above: statues from the head of the church sanctuary.

Exterior 01 Exterior 02 Exterior 03 Exterior 04

Above: the exterior of the church (note Culver Academy insignia above the east doors).


Interior 01 Interior 02 Interior 03 Interior 04 Interior 05 Interior 06 Interior 07 Interior 08 Interior 09 Interior 10

Above: images from the altar area, including the altar rail and choir room. 

Interior 01 Interior 02 Interior 03 Interior 04

Above: the St. Thomas Moore club for Academy cadets was once located in the basement of the church. The club included an ice cream and snack bar, as seen at top right.

Boiler Confessional

Bells Olea Sancta

Above, from left: the church's "state of the art" boiler; the confessional; the electronic bell system; the "Olea Sancta" housing holy oils.

Below: Images from a 1995 profile of the church in Today's Catholic, including (at right) a photo of longtime pastor Fr. Jeff Largent, who left the church in 2001.

1995 Profile Fr. Jeff Largent

Special thanks to Agnes Bramfeld for her assistance in typing the historical articles from The Culver Citizen newspaper.

Special thanks must also go not only to Fr. Glenn Kohrman for his sharing of some of the material from the church itself, and for his lead in contacting the Diocesan Archives, but also to Janice Hackbush, the South Bend-Fort Wayne Diocesan Archivist, who spent quite a bit of time in the archives, researching material on the parish’s history at my request.