Near the end of the Civil war, some German-speaking immigrants met in Terre Haute to establish a parish for the city’s sizable German Catholic population. A cornerstone was laid in October, 1864 and the original building facing Ohio Street was blessed and dedicated as St. Benedict Church.
First served by the Benedictine priests, the parish came into the care of the Franciscans in 1872. When it became apparent that the original structure needed to be replaced by a larger one, a building committee traveled to Quincy and Chicago. In Chicago the committee found a church whose style of architecture corresponded to what they had in mind. Created by the architect Adolph Druiding, the plan was a surprising departure from the German Gothic tradition for it featured a Romanesque design. Final plans approved by the committee in 1895 expressed the Teutonic heritage of the parish through two large towers with distinctive cupolas rising 125 feet.
On the feast of St. Francois of Assisi, Sunday October 4th, 1896, the cornerstone was laid for a cruciform structure 130 feet in length, with a nave 60 feet wide and a 120 foot transcept. Eighteen months later, the general contractor handed the keys to the pastor and the work of decorating and furnishing the interior began.
The walls and ceiling were frescoed, the vault of the apse above the main alter was filled with a painting “Salus Mundi” which depicted the Risen Christ in glory, and the high alter ( similar to the one now in the church ) had a crucifixion group in the reredos with statues over six feet tall. The Kimball Company of Chicago manufactured the great organ and at the time it ranked among the largest church organs in the country. The three bells of St. Benedict’s were blessed with names St. Francis (the largest at 3,559 pounds) St. Benedict (1,822 pounds), and The Blessed Virgin ( at 1,027 pounds).
Finally, after three years of painstaking attention to detail, the church was blessed and dedicated. The dome of the massive structure was topped by a huge statue of St. Michael the Archangel, protector of the Church. At 6:00 a.m. on June 18th, 1899, the high altar was consecrated in a three hour Solemn Pontifical Mass.
The next thirty years saw continued growth for St. Benedict’s. By 1930, the physical plant included the church, a school, a rectory, and a convent for the Sisters of Providence. In the years following World War I the parish flourished. Services attracted large attendance and the beauty of the liturgical functions was enhanced by the choir which was to become a parish tradition.
And then disaster: at noon on Wednesday, July 30th, 1930 smoke poured from the great dome where painters were at work. Fire equipment, with great streams of water falling far short of their mark, could not reach the dome where the fire was centered. As the great bronze statue of St. Michael crashed through the blazing roof to the basement below, the magnificent church was reduced to a smoldering heap. With only walls left standing, the splendid interior was completely devastated.
Phoenix-like, St Benedict’s rose from the fire’s ashes. Though in the midst of the Great Depression of the “30s, parishioners decided almost immediately to rebuild. The walls and towers survived, so the building’s exterior was altered little. In December of 1931, the church was again ready for use but economic realities had taken their toll: the great dome was not replaced nor was the interior so lavishly redecorated. The main alter, similar in lines to the former, kept its majesty, and another mural of Christ in glory replaced the destroyed painting.
With the emphasis of Vatican II on increased involvement for parishioners in their celebration of the liturgy, some interior alterations were made. In 1989 the major work was completed. The sanctuary was extended by a thrust platform reaching beyond the former communion rail, and the Baptismal font was brought into the sanctuary. In addition, the tabernacle was moved from the reredos to the southeast corner of the transcept. The church was re-carpeted, the sound system was vastly improved, and appropriate lighting was added to complete the most recent phase in the growth of this beautiful building.