Jennifer Barton
Assistant Publications Manager
August 16, 2022 // Bishop

From Humble Wooden Church to Cathedral – St. Matthew Celebrates 100 Years

Jennifer Barton
Assistant Publications Manager

Honoring a century of Catholic history in South Bend, St. Matthew Cathedral Parish celebrated its 100th anniversary as a parish at a Mass with Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades on Aug. 14. 

Northern Indiana began as mission territory to the Potawatomi, with French priests establishing chapels, followed by Holy Cross priests who founded the college. Catholicism then spread to the surrounding area as immigrants began pouring in. Eventually, South Bend grew because of the jobs created by factories such as Studebaker, leading to the demand for a new church on the city’s southeast side. Following World War I, 175 families petitioned for the creation of the first St. Matthew’s church, a humble wooden structure built in 1922 by its own members in a section of Oak Park. Father Theodore J. Hammes was its first pastor.

From that simple beginning, who could predict that the church would one day be designated as the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend’s co-cathedral?

Yesterday

According to the “History of St. Matthew Cathedral Parish,” written in 2013 by parishioner (now priest) Father Bob Garrow, the church began with capacity for 240 people, but the population almost tripled within the first year, and the building was expanded. Its rapid growth soon necessitated a school for the parish’s children, which was dedicated by Bishop John F. Noll in 1929. 

It was under the leadership of the parish’s second pastor, Msgr. Arnold Wibbert, who served for 36 years, that the church would go “from a wooden frame church to a Cathedral,” as Father Garrow wrote. Father Wibbert created Central Catholic High School on the second floor of the school, which remained open until 1951. After that, the upper floor became additional classrooms for the growing grade school.

By 1959, the “tiny wood frame church had run its course,” according to Father Garrow. In its place was erected a larger brick church, completed on May 29, 1960. Due to the growth of South Bend, Bishop Leo A. Pursley petitioned the Vatican to include that city in the diocese’s name. His petition granted, St. Matthew was elevated to the lofty title of co-cathedral for the newly designated Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in a ceremony celebrated by Bishop Pursley 100 years after the dedication of its sister cathedral in Fort Wayne. The bells were the only parts retained from the old church and put into place in the new one.

The change in the diocese’s name was reflected in changes to the lower half of the diocesan crest. A six-winged angel added to the crest symbolizes the evangelist St. Matthew, the co-cathedral’s patron.

After becoming a cathedral, St. Matthew served as the home to three auxiliary bishops of the diocese: Bishops Joseph Crowley, John Sheets, SJ, and Daniel Jenky, CSC. Bishop Jenky undertook many efforts to improve and expand the cathedral and its grounds before being appointed Bishop of Peoria, Illinois. Then Msgr. Michael Heintz took over as rector for more than 10 years. It was under his leadership that the parish began hosting the yearly Thanksgiving Dinner for those in the surrounding neighborhood, which continues to this day.

In his homily for the day, Bishop Rhoades expounded on much of this history, from the parish’s early days up until the modern age. He spoke at length about Bishop Alerding’s part in establishing St. Matthew as a parish, which was indicative of the diocese’s growth at that time. 

“Bishop Alerding also had to face the increasing anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry during those years, which included the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. He faced those challenges with faith and courage and shepherded the diocese with much wisdom and zeal, even as his health declined.”

Bishop Rhoades even used Bishop Alerding’s chalice during the celebratory Mass – a beautiful artifact to honor the man who made the anniversary possible.

He continued by recognizing others who aided in the parish through the years. “We remember in our prayers today all the bishops, priests, deacons, religious brothers, and religious sisters who served here at St. Matt’s these past 100 years.” He also commented on the impact of the aforementioned pastors.

Photos by Jennifer Barton
Father Terry Fisher, Pastor of St. Matthew Cathedral Parish, proclaims the Gospel at the 100th anniversary Mass for the parish on Aug. 14, celebrated by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades along with Father Fisher and Father Mark Thesing, CSC, Weekend Associate at St. Matthew.

Today

Father Terry Fisher is the current pastor of St. Matthew Cathedral. A son of the parish himself, he stated that: “I joined this parish in 1971, and I first started teaching here and I’ve been here ever since.” He was even ordained to the priesthood there in 1985. 

During his tenure of the past seven years, additional improvements to the school and church have been made. The area surrounding the parish has changed, becoming more diversified and a home to families of various cultural backgrounds.

“Our school has grown. We gained 35 new students this year, so it the largest we’ve had for eight years, so everything is growing,” he continued. The school currently serves around 350 students, not including a full preschool class, and takes pride in its Catholic identity through programs like Mission Fridays, where students actively participate in deepening their faith life. Sister Gianna Marie Webber, OSF, serves as principal, and four Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration teach at the school.

St. Matthew maintains outreach to poorer members of the community, both within and outside of the parish. “Our parish is changing rapidly, we’ve become more of an inner-city parish, and so we’re trying to do what we can to keep up with that; to make those changes in the parish,” Father Fisher said.

Many more Hispanic and Black families have joined the parish. Father Fisher is proud of the diverse population, calling it “a reflection of the neighborhood we live in.”

Another aspect of the charitable work practiced at St. Matthew is “a special fund that we collect that helps families in need.” Once called a “Quarter Collection,” the once-a-month-collection now brings in more dollar bills than quarters, according to Father Fisher.

Bishop Rhoades also spoke about the parishioners in his homily. “Of course, it is faith-filled lay people who form the community of a parish. You, following your ancestors in the faith here at St. Matt’s, strive to live the Gospel of Jesus as a community of faith, hope, and charity.”

“Thank you for your commitment to the parish and its future. Thank you for your generous sacrifices of time, talent, and treasure for your parish, a sign of your love for Christ and for the Church.”

Bishop Rhoades converses with parishioners outside St. Matthew Cathedral after the centennial Mass on Aug. 14. The parish has grown since its founding and membership has become as diverse as the population of the area surrounding it.

Tomorrow

Father Fisher hopes to see continued growth in the parish for years to come. One plan that members of the parish hope to accomplish would be to tear down the old convent and build a parish center connected to the church so that parishioners can easily access events after Mass without leaving the shelter of the building.

Ending his homily by speaking of Jesus’ desire to set the world on fire, Bishop Rhoades expressed his deepest expectation for the continued future of the parish. “I pray that, after 100 years, building on the legacy of all the faithful who have gone before you, you will continue to spread the fire of God’s love, so needed in the world today. As a parish under the title of St. Matthew the apostle and evangelist, may you have the apostolic fire and evangelical fervor that comes from the Holy Spirit to grow and flourish in your holy mission. May God bless you and may St. Matthew intercede for you!”

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