Chapter 5


Southern Indiana

    Indiana also witnessed a surge of German immigration in the 1830's and 1840's. For the German Catholic newcomers to the frontier state, it was important to be associated with a church, where they could practice the religious life they had been accustomed to in their homeland. A resident German-speaking priest and a school with German teachers were their foremost goals for a continuation of German culture and tradition.

    Many of the nineteenth century German churches in Indiana no longer exist. Shifts in ethnic neighborhoods and urban sprawl have contributed to their disappearance. Along with the buildings, the altars, pulpits, murals, and statuary have been lost. The remaining churches have undergone major alterations, since changes in liturgy were introduced in the 1960's after Vatican II. Yet much beauty can still be admired in a number of southern Indiana German-Catholic churches.

   Southern Indiana witnessed a rapid growth of the Catholic population, due to the arrival of Germans in the river counties and the eastern counties of the area. The Germans developed rural immigrant communities, where they established farms and small businesses. New parishes were founded and new churches needed decorations. By 1860, eight southeastern counties had twenty-seven Catholic churches.[1]

    Missionary pastor Franz Joseph Rudolf had arrived from the Alsace in Oldenburg, Franklin Figure 57 County, Indiana, in 1844. (Figure 57, Portrait of Pastor Franz Joseph Rudolf, 1863). A German Catholic parish had already been established in the small settlement in 1837 with a log church. The German newcomers built a new stone Romanesque Revival church between 1846 and 1848. In 1862 it was replaced by a red brick Victorian

Figure 58 Figure 59
Gothic edifice, dedicated to the Holy Family and administered by the Franciscan Order.[2]    (Figure 58, Holy Family Church, Oldenburg, IN). (Figure 59, Plaque dedicated to the Reverend Franz Joseph Rudolf, on the exterior of the Holy Family Church, Oldenburg, IN). The interior decoration of this parish church became the second task for the Covington Altar Building Stock Company. St. Francis Seraph church in Cincinnati had been their first. Brother Cosmas Wolf's three altars and Johann Schmitt's altarpieces still enrich the sanctuary of the Holy Family church in Oldenburg. The commission to decorate it, was the Covington Company's first in Indiana, and marked the beginning of a life on the road for the artists located in Northern Kentucky.

    It would be enlightening to describe how the church artists traveled to their destinations in the early 1860's and how they transported the altars and altarpieces to be installed in the new Catholic churches. Since no records of their travels exist, one must assume that they used horse-drawn wagons on the rural roads, where no railway connection linked small towns and villages. Once they arrived at a small town such as Oldenburg, local parish members most likely aided them in the final placement of the art works. There is no way to make a statement about the time frame for a completion of church decorations in remote towns. How many weeks or months did the itinerant artists spend away from Covington while fulfilling a specific commission? Did they entrust local artisans to put the finishing touches on their altars and paintings? In any event, one must marvel at the organization that facilitated the beautification of distant sacred sites.

    At Oldenburg's Holy Family church Johann Schmitt's altarpieces are charming examples of the Figure 60 painter's artistry. The central panel of the high altar portrays Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child on his mother's lap in an open landscape setting. The child St. John the Baptist kneels before the seated Virgin. Three angels hover above the group, and God the Father presides over the idyllic scene. (Figure 60, Johann Schmitt, main altar paintings, Holy Family Church, Oldenburg, IN). The placement of the main protagonists is basically in the tradition of Western European Christian art. The infant Figure 61 Jesus lifts his right hand in a gesture of blessing. St. John points to Jesus, thus proclaiming the arrival of the Son of God and mankind's Savior. St. Joseph stands in the immediate foreground of the painting looking out at the congregation. (Figure 61, close-up of Johann Schmitt's altarpiece of the Holy Family). This central scene over the high altar is flanked by two narrow panels featuring St. Boniface and St. Louis the Crusader. Over the Marian altar, Schmitt painted the Immaculate Conception, and over the St. Joseph altar St. Joseph with the Christ child receiving homage from St. Aloysius. (Figure 62). Figure 62  As was the tradition of altarpieces, these are oil paintings on canvas that fit seamlessly into the  wooden altar structures. The presence of St. Boniface alongside the Holy Family is not surprising in a German Catholic church. The saint is said to have left his British homeland in the eighth century A.D. to teach the gospel to the heathen tribes of Germany. He was active in Hesse, Bavaria, Westphalia, Thuringia, and Wuertemberg and is buried in Fulda, where he founded a monastery.[3] It is a little difficult to rationalize why Johann  Schmitt included an image of the French king Louis IX in the Oldenburg church. However, the soldier-king is an important figure for Roman Catholics. He led two crusades to the Holy Land during the thirteenth century and is venerated as a saint for his deep religious faith, his courage, integrity, and perseverance. [4]

<< previous chapter   next page >>

Return to Table of Contents
Return to Top of Page


[1]  L. C. Rudolph, Hoosier Faiths, a History of Indiana Churches and Religions, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, (1995)  pp. 29-30.

[2]  Joseph M. White, Where God's People meet, a Guide to significant religious places in Indiana, Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Religious History Association (1996)  pp. 28-29.

[3]  Donald Attwater, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, New York, NY: Penguin Books (1976)  pp. 71-72.

[4]  Donald Attwater. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints,  pp. 219-220.