Like a number of communities along the Ohio River, Evansville was growing. The decade between 1860 and 1870 saw the population of the city double from a little over 11,000 people to almost 22,000 people. Of these 22,000, four fifths were either direct German immigrants or had German ancestry. Some belonged to the Evangelical tradition, but most were either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. Between 1834 and 1857, Evansville had only one Catholic Church, Assumption, to serve all Catholics regardless of nationality. It was an “English speaking” church, generally. In 1857, Holy Trinity became the second Catholic Parish in Evansville, and it was “German speaking”. While the Mass, most sacraments, and even Benediction were conducted in Latin, certain other aspects of spiritual life were conducted in the language of the people. Preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, wedding vows and most popular devotional activities were conducted in the vernacular. Holy Trinity was the only German speaking church between St. Philip in Posey County on the west, and Rockport in Spencer County on the east. Soon Trinity too was bulging at the seams. In 1866, James Maurice de St. Palais, bishop of the Vincennes Diocese, recognized the need for another “German speaking” Catholic church in Evansville, and appointed the Reverend Johannes (John) Viefhaus, assistant pastor at Holy Trinity, to found it and serve as pastor.
Fr. Viefhaus purchased five lots in the old eastern subdivision which had been platted by Robert Evans and John Shanklin in 1839 and erected a brick school building at the corner of Upper 6th and Cherry Streets. This two-story brick building cost $5,000.00 The siting of the parish facilities was important, because the new parish boundaries would stretch from Main Street in Evansville all the way to the Warrick County line on the east. The immediate area surrounding the new church ground was already densely residential on the standard average 25 foot wide lots. There were lots of people to take care of.
Plans began immediately for the erection of a large brick church. Ludwig Reidinger of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, was the architect and Bishop St. Palais laid the cornerstone on 28 October 1866. The church was placed under the patronage of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Holy Eucharist was first celebrated in the church on 23 December 1867 and the building was dedicated on 1 January 1868. The cost of the building and its furnishings, including altars, pews, bells and organ, was $60,000.00. In use daily, this worship space remains now as the oldest standing Catholic church within the city of Evansville.
In 1871, the Franciscan sisters of Oldenburg, Indiana erected a second brick school building on the property. This three-story facility provided school rooms for female students and housed the sisters’ residence. The older school building, in true Germanic custom, was allocated for the education of the male students. By 1880, there were approximately 400 students at St. Mary School taught by four Franciscan sisters and one lay teacher, Professor Steinhauser, who did double duty as principal.
The Parish House, a two story edifice, also of brick, was erected adjacent to the church in 1881, to house the pastor and new assistant.
After 26 years as pastor, Father Viefhaus resigned in 1892. He retired to a Carthusian monastery in Germany where he died in 1916.
Over the next 50 years, many changes and upgrades were added to the parish plant. The facades of the buildings received a faux stone veneer called “sham-rock” about 1900, and the other exterior walls were coated with a stucco. The chancel of the church received its initial marble floor around 1916 and a new Estey Pipe Organ was installed in the loft in 1918. This instrument cost $9,300.00. During this era also, a steam heat boiler and electricity were introduced.
A fire in 1937, probably the result of faulty wiring, caused significant smoke and water damage, but overall structural damage was minimal. The cost to repair and renovate the church in that depression time was $33,000.00. Records from that period tell us that the Chancel was expanded somewhat and more marble flooring added, that the choir loft was cut back some 20 feet, and that decorative capitals were added to the ribbed columns that form the nave. The stained glass window in the ceiling of the apse is thought by some to have been added at the same time. The 1937 flood did not reach into the buildings, but did puddle on Cherry Street directly in front of the facilities. New windows, by Frei Studios of St. Louis, were installed in 1941, and a new Wicks pipe organ the following year.
In 1940, a new suite of rooms, including the “tower” corner were added to the Parish House, and in 1944, the boys school building was remodeled into a facility with a large dining room, kitchen, club rooms and auditorium. The old boys’ school is now named Rager Hall after Reverend John C. Rager who served the parish for 26 years as pastor.
The 1950s saw the installation of the Terrazzo floor in the church and the Bedford stone vestibule additions to the front church. The church became the first Catholic church within the city of Evansville to be air-conditioned in 1962, with the AC units placed in the choir loft.
Because of substantially declining enrollments, the grade school closed in 1973. The building was remodeled in 1996 to provide administrative offices, meeting rooms, Christian education space, a chapel, a library and a food pantry. It is now called the Ministry Center.
By the 1980s, Evansville’s downtown area had seen residential flight to the suburbs. The fabric of the church building was showing its age with crumbling plaster and peeling paint; the steeple was leaning; there were no immediate rest room facilities; wiring posed a huge risk; and the changes in Catholic liturgy demanded more than a stop-gap fix. A capital campaign to remedy all these conditions was undertaken, both within the parish itself and significantly, within the community at large. Rather than stripping the church, as so many had done, the interior décor was lovingly preserved and adapted for reuse. The cream/gold/beige color scheme dates from this time. This period also saw the development of Our Lady’s Chapel in a former sacristy and the creation of a large baptistry. This newly refurbished space was dedicated in 1990.
2006 was the next major step in the ongoing evolution of parish life at St. Mary. A strategic plan was developed that allowed for endowments to be established to fund ministries of Christian Education, Parish Life, and Outreach. In addition, items that could not be completed during the 1990 refurbishing likewise received attention, including replacing the 45 year old air-conditioning, making building structural improvements and realigning of some interior spaces. Included is the eventual purchase of a replacement pipe organ for liturgy and related uses.
St. Mary’s has been served by 11 resident pastors since its inception, including both Frs. John F. Viefhaus and John C. Rager, who each served 26 years. Fr. Stephen P. Lintzenich, who retired in January of 2014, had been at St. Mary since 1983. Fr. David A. Martin was appointed pastor of St. Mary in January of 2014 and is the current pastor.
On July 1, 2014 the parishes of St. Mary Catholic Church and St. John the Apostle Catholic Church were merged into one parish by order of Bishop Charles Thompson of the diocese of Evansville, IN. Fr. Dave Martin was appointed pastor of the new parish, Sts. Mary and John Parish.
St. John the Apostle was established to serve African-American Catholics in 1941. It became a vicariate in 1967, but was restored in 1978. In 1996, it became the first parish in the city of Evansville to be led by a Pastoral Life Coordinator. St. John Catholic Church is located in the Evansville East Deanery and is now part of the new parish, Sts. Mary and John, created by the merger of St. Mary Parish and St. John Parish.
Through the generosity of Mr. John H. Fendrich of H. Fendrich, Inc, Cigar Factory, on August 27, 1940, seven lots and part of an eighth lot were purchased on Bellemeade Avenue. Ground was broken in October, 1940, and the cornerstone was laid by Rt. Rev. Frederick Ketter, December 1, 1940. On May 4, 1941, Most Rev. Joseph Ritter dedicated St. John’s Church. The church was called St. John’s in honor of Mr. Fendrich’s patron Saint, St. John the Evangelist. He erected the church in memory of his beloved parents, Herman F. Fendrich and Mary Reitz Fendrich. Fr. Herman Mootz was Pastor from 1940 to 1967.
St. John’s Church and School consisted of a Church and two classrooms. The basement of the church was used as a Parish Hall. The Church’s interior was a modified English Gothic style. The exterior was of red tapestry brick laid in white mortar and is trimmed in Indiana limestone. The Church property is 56×38 and the seating capacity is 175. The interior was finished in Haydite stone and the trusses are exposed with open timber work. The ceiling and trusses are decorated in light oak finish in harmony with the altar and choir loft,m organ and communion rail and pews. the art glass windows are of cathedral glass with medallions in each of the side windows. The round window over the entrance has an art glass of the Patron, John the Evangelist.
In August, 1941 on the Feast of the Assumption, the rectory was started and completed on February, 1942. The house was a gift from Mr. Fendrich and his sister, Mrs. McCarty of Chicago. Again the bishop came to bless the house.
Materials were scarce during the war, so a partition was put in the basement for a third classroom. The enrollment of the school increased rapidly so in 1947 a new school was started. Only the basement was completed at this time. In 1951, the outside walls, roof and plumbing of the two classrooms on the first floor were completed. In 1953, the other two classrooms of the first floor were completed. In 1953, the Parish was given boundaries to serve a certain geographical area, and St. John’s lost members and students to other Parishes. In 1955, the four classrooms on the second floor of the building were finished.
The church attendance steadily rose and so in 1956 the Church moved to the school basement and most of the original church building was torn down to the shell so that the Church could be made twice the original size also adding air-conditioning.
In September, 1967, St. John’s became an Apostolic Center, without boundaries, with a mission to serve people from any and all geographic areas. Fr. Patrick Foster was appointed administrator. The school was closed and Marion Day School moved into the school building and remained until 1983.
In 1968, Fathers Charles Meny and Earl Rohleder were named co-administrators. A midnight Mass was offered on Saturdays, popular city-wide appealing to young adults.
In 1973, Fathers Sylvester Loehrlein and Clark Field were appointed co-administrators. In 1978, St. John’s was returned to parish status with territorial boundaries.
Fr. Bob Nemergut was named pastor June 17, 1988 and Fr. John Davidson was appointed co-pastor in 1991. Fr. Earl Rohleder was named pastor January 1993.
In 1996, Sr. Jane Nesmith, SBS, was named Pastoral Life Coordinator by retired Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger. Fr. Steve Lintzenich was later named Administrator of St. John and then in August 2013 he was named pastor. Fr. Steve retired in January 2014 and Fr. David Martin took the helm. St. John Parish and St. Mary Parish were merged July 1, 2014. Fr. David A. Martin is the current pastor of Sts. Mary and John Parish.