Neglected Indiana church once an engine for change

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Thieves have stolen its finery. Fire has ripped open its roof, and time has scattered rubble where prayers once rose. Still, the long-abandoned City Methodist Church of Gary faces its future with a battered dignity.

According to the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, the cornerstone of the church was laid in 1925, prosperous times in a city just 20 years old and flexing its considerable steelmaking muscle.

It cost $650,000 to build, and United States Steel Corp. put up more than half of the money. The company's chairman, Elbert Gary -- who also gave his name to the city -- donated the church's Skinner pipe organ.

In its heyday, 950 worshipers would fill the sanctuary for a service. There were 3,000 members of the congregation.In the '20s, with the influence of the Ku Klux Klan on the rise in Indiana, Pastor William Seaman, who led a dominantly white congregation, spoke out against a screening of the film, "Birth of a Nation," because of its sympathetic portrayal of the Klan.

Though African-Americans then were usually turned away from non-black churches, City Methodist opened its doors to them. But in the '60s, the church once known as the First Methodist Church began to see economic decline taking over the area.

By 1973 the congregation was down to just 300 members. Unable to pay the upkeep on the building, the remaining Methodists left in January 1975.

Indiana University took over the space for a while, but never used it. A variety of uses for the church and its community center, meeting hall and classrooms followed -- another congregation, a local dance center, a halfway home for underprivileged children and single parents, office space, storefronts. Finally, though, the place was left to fire, rain, wind, pigeons, vandals and memories.

The neo-Gothic building by Chicago architects Lowe and Bollenbacher has become a skeleton, actually a skeleton of skeletons.

The Bedford limestone -- quarried in south central Indiana -- of which it is made is composed of fragments of prehistoric marine shells.

But City Methodist may have a future after all. Tiffany Tolbert, director of the Calumet region of the Landmarks Foundation, said, "The old school will be torn down. There's no date set for that. But the sanctuary will be, not restored, but shored up to become a relic garden."

When ivy twines through window frames that once held stained glass, and flowers turn their faces to the sun where worshipers once bowed their heads, a quote improbably from George Bernard Shaw, who questioned traditional religion, may seem appropriate.

In "The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God," in 1932, Shaw said:

"The best place to seek God is in a garden."

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cleroux@tribune.com

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