VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) - For over 150 years, one of the oldest Baptist churches in Indiana sat nestled in a grassy glade on the banks of Maria Creek on the outskirts of Vincennes, slowly succumbing to Mother Nature until history nearly passed it by.
But in 1963, thanks to Vincennes University, Maria Creek Baptist Church was given new life and more importantly a new home.
Today scores of students and locals walk past the Maria Creek Chapel on campus without giving it a second glance, not knowing the fascinating history behind the simple brick building.
The founders of Maria Creek Church came up to the Vincennes area from Kentucky in the early years of the 1800s, local historian Richard Day said, and formed a Baptist congregation around 1807 just north of Indiana’s first city.
It’s considered by some to be the first Baptist church in the Indiana Territory.
“That was when people started moving up into that area,” Day said. “The Emison family came from Georgetown, Kentucky, and they established their mill up on Maria Creek. Then the small group of Baptists got together and established the church.”
Maria Creek became the name of the church, pronounced like the name “Mariah,” thanks to the way Americans warped the original pronunciation of the creek. Originally, Maria Creek itself had a French name: Riviere a Marié, after a French fur trader who had set up a trading post on the creek.
“When the Americans came along, the way Americans would phonetically write ‘Marie’ was ‘Maria’ and over time, they would pronounce it ‘Mariah,’” Day said.
From the very beginning, Maria Creek Church stood out. One of its original charter members was John Morris, identified in church records as “a man of color.” Morris was a freed slave whose name lives on in Morris Hall at VU.
Morris and his 12 fellow founding members created the Articles of Faith in 1809 to guide the church moving forward. Among those resolutions was one that stated: “We believe that African slavery, as it exists in some parts of the United States, is unjust in its origin, oppressive in it consequences and inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel.”
Consequently, Day said, church founders wouldn’t allow slaveowners to become members of their congregation.
“It really wasn’t common for churches to take a strong anti-slavery stance,” he said. “That was very unusual.”
Founding members also took a strong stance against alcoholic drinks in another resolution: “This church will not extent fellowship to any person who is in the habit of visiting saloons or using intoxicating drinks as a beverage.”
Around 1810, Isaac McCoy, a strong advocate of missionary activity with the Native Americans, visited the church to preach and was so well received, according to a history of the church written by Judge Curtis G. Shake, that the members formerly ordained him as a minister, marking the first ordination by the Baptist denomination in Indiana.
That same year McCoy became the church’s first minister, members decided to erect a permanent meeting place. A humble and small log church was built on the banks of Maria Creek - a woods now occupies the original space - to accommodate the modest congregation. The building was replaced in 1822 by a small brick meeting house and in 1835, the meeting place was changed to a schoolhouse in the area.
In 1859, a large and substantial brick church was built a couple miles to the east of the original log church. That building served the congregation until 1947, when it was largely abandoned due to a declining membership.
Over the years, the church remained the same even as the landscape around it changed. More and more settlers moved into the area, using the land as a way to make a living, a transformation that was described in a history of the church written by Dr. Ben Keith.
“The forests that once surrounded (it) have all disappeared, and fields of grain, blue-grass pastures and apple orchards have taken their place,” he wrote. “Neither the screaming wild-cat nor the howling wolf are longer heard, but instead the crowing cock, the bleating lamb, and lowing kine.”
Every year after the congregation disbanded in 1947, the surviving former members met for a commemorative service. The last service was held in 1958.
By 1963, according to Shake’s history of the church, the little brick building had been overtaken by nature.
“Poison ivy vines have almost closed its doorways. The roof leaks, the windows are broken and the floor sags under its own weight,” Shake wrote. “The uninformed visitor would little suspect that this crumbling old building once housed one of the most significant and influential religious groups ever assembled in what is now the State of Indiana.”
Upon seeing the historic church in such a state of disrepair, Shake came up with the idea to move it from its location on Maria Creek to campus.
“So they took it apart, brick by brick, and for a number of years in the 1960s, there was a big pile of bricks about where the church is now” at 36 E. Harrison St., Day said, “The university had this association to raise money for (its reconstruction), particularly appealing to the Baptists, but they got contributions from all over.”
Finally, VU was able to start rebuilding the church - but soon ran into a significant snag.
“They found that the bricks were these old-fashioned, fairly soft bricks. When they’d cook them in the kiln, the outer surface would cook up, but the inside was too soft,” Day said. “It was determined that these bricks were too soft to use, so they used modern bricks instead but they drew up plans to reflect the outside appearance of the original church.”
The church was rededicated at last on May 24, 1970. A program from the service notes that the pews used in the new building were original to the 1859 brick church and “refurbished in a manner in keeping with the colonial period.”
The pulpits were also original to that church.
Ever since then, the renamed Maria Creek Chapel has served as a nondenominational gathering place for the VU and Knox County community. Weddings and different types of services and meetings are still hosted within its walls.
Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, https://bit.ly/2iQqYJ9
Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, https://www.vincennes.com
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