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|St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church|
St. 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Above, from left: the priest's cap, or biretta, worn by Fr. Lenk; at right, his ordination certificate.
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...
Above: the stained glass windows...
...and a sampling of the Stations of the Cross on the walls.
Above: the interior of the church...from left, the tabernacle, behind the altar, and a view of the sanctuary from the altar.
Above: statues from the head of the church sanctuary.
Above: the exterior of the church (note Culver Academy insignia above the east doors).
Above: images from the altar area, including the altar rail and choir room.
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.
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.
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.