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Interfaith and Church Heritage: Special Insights into Faith Traditions in Central Indiana
Wednesday, April 22, 2015

By Nelson Price | Photographs by Randy Lehman

Special opportunities to explore a diverse range of faith traditions in the Indianapolis area were the highlights of the Spring Pilgrimage, which featured several historic religious sites associated with pioneers. The trip included tours of a Baptist church near the Old National Road and the oldest Catholic church in Indianapolis.

About 40 travelers, including Pioneers and their guests, participated in the pilgrimage, which also featured a mock Seder at a Jewish synagogue, a visit to a Sikh temple, and a tour of Second Presbyterian Church, home of one of the largest Protestant congregations in the Hoosier capital.

The pilgrimage on April 22, an unseasonably chilly Wednesday, began with a visit to Cumberland First Baptist Church, where the congregation began in 1832. Rev. Wyatt Watkins greeted the Pioneers; his associate pastor, Kevin Rose, and Joannie Curtis, the Cumberland town historian. (The town straddles the line between Marion and Hancock counties.)

Despite the brisk temperatures, the group toured a pioneer cemetery next to the church with gravesites of early settlers of Hancock County. Several tombstones have birth dates from the 1700s.

Sanctuary of Cumberland First Baptist Church

The current church building dates to 1913. In the sanctuary, which slopes and was designed with the floor plan of a European opera house, Rev. Watkins, Rev. Rose, and Ms. Curtis shared insights about the history of the congregation.

The congregation today is rather small, with a typical Sunday attendance of about 80 people – but many commute from downtown Indianapolis and other distant neighborhoods. In addition to being a minister, Rev. Watkins is an author and an accomplished musician; his harpsichord is a centerpiece of the sanctuary.

The next destination was one of five Sikh temples built in Central Indiana during the last 20 years. Founded in India more than 500 years ago, the Sikh faith is now the world’s fifth-largest religion and is practiced by 20 million people. At the temple, called a Gurdwara, the Pioneers were guests of well-known artist K.P. Singh, a native of India.

K.P. Singh (left) in the Sikh Temple

Mr. Singh arranged for a Sikh priest and Indian musicians to join him at the temple. That meant, in addition to learning about the history and culture of the Sikh faith, the Pioneers heard spiritual music and scripture. For the presentations, the Pioneers sat on the carpeted floor of the sanctuary, covered their heads, and removed their shoes, just as Sikhs do when they enter the worship area.

In the colorfully decorated sanctuary, which includes an orange and blue canopy, Mr. Singh discussed the differences between Sikhs and other faith traditions, such as Hinduism. He stressed that Sikhs are monotheistic and welcoming, warm people.

The Pioneers departed the Gurdwara to travel to downtown Indianapolis for a multi-course luncheon. The sumptuous meal was at Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian steakhouse that has become popular in recent years with Hoosiers as well as international visitors to Indy.

The restaurant is only a few blocks from a downtown Indy landmark that was the next destination on the pilgrimage. St. John’s Catholic Church is the oldest parish in Indianapolis, with its twin steeples that are a distinctive part of the city’s skyline. Irish immigrants founded the church in the 1830s.

The current church building of St. John’s, with its stunning interior, was completed in the 1870s. Because the church is located near Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center, tourists and other visitors to the city typically account for about two-thirds of the worshipers at Mass.

St. John’s Catholic Church

Parish members took subgroups of the Pioneers on tours of the church, with stained glass windows installed in 1924 (they depict various saints) and a pipe organ with 2,138 pipes.

From St. John’s, the Pioneers traveled to Temple Beth-El Zedeck, a conservative Jewish temple on the Northside of Indianapolis. Seated at an array of tables, the Pioneers experienced a mock Seder thanks to the congregation’s cantor. She explained the symbolism of food eaten during a Seder, including parsley, bitter herbs, eggs, and matzo. That experience was followed by a tour of Beth El-Zedeck’s sanctuary.

The final destination was Second Presbyterian Church, where the congregation celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2013.

Choir loft, organ, and rose window at Second Presbyterian Church.

Second Presbyterian’s historian, Fred Kortepeter, led the group on a tour of the church, discussed the congregation’s history, and pointed out special features of the massive building. They include a Tiffany window created in 1903, an eye-catching feature in the sanctuary. Also in the sanctuary, the church organist, Dale Caldwell, played a pipe organ for the Pioneers, concluding an eventful day that won’t soon be forgotten.