The St. Louis Catholic Church was one of our first stops during a recent road trip along the Lincoln Highway in Indiana, and it turned out to be a great way to learn about the French heritage of the historic settlement of Besancon.
You can see the church with its tall steeple from quite a ways off, making it seem especially impressive given its rural location about 15 miles out of Fort Wayne.
We seem to spend a lot of time in churches and cemeteries when we travel because we're intrigued with the architecture and history of places we visit, so it should surprise no one that we slowed to stop when we spotted St. Louis' tall steeple in the distance shortly after crossing the state line from Ohio into Indiana.
St. Louis sits along a spur called Besancon Road off of Old U.S. 30 through northwestern Indiana. This little side road is part of the Lincoln Highway's original 1913 route that hasn't been subsumed a more modern multi-lane road like U.S. 30. The spur is about a mile long, but the detour is worth taking to see church with its school and cemetery, an abandoned school house and another local cemetery before rejoining the main highway.
As we wandered through the church's cemetery, we learned that many of St. Louis' nineteenth-century parishioners emigrated from the northeastern region of France and Switzerland, naming their new Indiana home for the capital and principal city of the French-Comte region near the Switzerland border.
I found a lot of interesting genealogical information and links out from the St. Louis website that include the cemetery's death records, a list of the origin of the early parishioners' surnames that shows many of them came from northeastern France and Switzerland, and a wealth of other local information from the Allen County Genealogical Society of Indiana.
French, Swiss and German immigrants first settled the area in the 1840s. They cleared the land, drained a lake and established a thriving farming community in what is now the Maumee River Valley.
The French families established a French American Society in Allen County in 1903, meeting in a saloon near Fort Wayne. The group had about 600 members who paid $1-per-year dues and organized an annual picnic that drew as many as 6,000 people in the early 1900s. The Society changed its name to the Lafayette Legion around the time of World War I and, although it disbanded in 1923, it paid death benefits of $200 to the estates of its members as late as 1947.
St. Louis Besancon Catholic Church began as a small a log building on the site of the present church in 1846. As the community grew, parishioners saw the need for a more permanent building and built it in 1871 with bricks from a kiln that was just across the road from the site.
The church doors were open during our visit, so we were able to step inside to see the high-ceilinged interior. The stained glass windows date from the 1871 construction and bear the names of many of the parish families who donated the money to purchase and install them.
They sealed the brick exterior with a cement-and-mortar mixture, and a 1998 rehab of the building sealed it with cement paint for a bright, creamy white finish.
The church is also restoring many of the grave markers by placing them on concrete foundations.
The church and its cemetery earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
And so, now you see why churches and cemeteries are often among our most interesting road-trip stops!
Check out The Lincoln Highway Across Indiana (Images of America) by Jan Shupert Arick and the Indiana Lincoln Highway Association or The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate by Michael Wallis to learn more about the Lincoln Highway through Indiana.
© Dominique King 2012 All rights reserved