Bailey Roberts, Heritage Interpreter
(Originally Published in the January 25, 2018 edition of The Beacher)
The Gilded Age.
A period in American history between the 1870s and early 1900s. It was a time of great material progression. Industry was becoming a powerful force in society, dominating towns and cities across civilized America, even right here in Michigan City with the Haskell & Barker Freight Car Co., as well as Chicago’s Pullman company.
But while the material world was rapidly progressing, social life was amid great upheaval. Large waves of immigrants came to the great United States in search of work, many arriving in Michigan City for factory jobs. Women, aware of their social standings, began the fight for suffrage. Even children were at the center of this upheaval as child labor became a contentious matter. That is why this period was coined “the Gilded Age,” for it was a book by Mark Twain, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, that this period took its name. Specifically, it was because America’s corrupt system was masked by the gilded beauty of industry and material progress.
Michigan City was not devoid of such tensions. Along Washington Street, large ornate homes such as Barker Mansion dominated the landscape in front of the billowing smokestacks of Haskell & Barker. This area became known as the Silk Stocking District — the street on which Michigan City’s wealthy landowners thrived.
But it was here, among these wealthy landowners, that the fate of Michigan City’s population was decided. They were the ones who hired and brought in the many immigrants from across the globe. Traveling with these ambitious young laborers were their many gods and stories, eager to take root in a new city. Mr. Barker’s own factory indirectly contributed to the melting pot of religious and spiritual life in Michigan City.
The Civil War, of course, was a tumultuous time in American history, yet it also saw the origins of a rapidly growing Jewish community. Mostly from Germany and eastern Europe, these new settlers established themselves and worshipping in rented warehouses before finally becoming a large, flourishing congregation in 1907. The Jewish community would continue to grow, and the Sinai Temple we know today on Franklin Street would not be dedicated until 1953.
For the Christian community, the story begins in 1849 in an old warehouse-turned chapel called St. Ambrose — the first Catholic church in Michigan City. It opened to accommodate the large influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants. Mass would be celebrated by a priest who traveled all the way from South Bend. Nine years later, in 1858, a second church was constructed to accommodate the large German population and was named St. Mary’s Church.
The Gilded Age saw a continuation of this large wave of immigration. While the Irish and German communities grew larger in Michigan City, both churches could not support their growing parishes. Thus, under the same priestly leadership, two churches became one with the opening of St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception in 1867. The land used for this new church was once an old Catholic cemetery. The bodies were exhumed and moved to Calvary Cemetery, which was attached to Greenwood Cemetery. And that same first building was incorporated into this new one. The large, ornate stained-glass windows were added at this time.
St. Mary’s had grown so extensively, it became the center of Catholic life in Michigan City. But what about the other religious communities?
A prime example would be Michigan City’s famous family, the Barkers. John Barker Sr. came to Michigan City from Massachusetts in 1836 with nothing but his name and some money. Being the youngest of 11 children and of five sons meant he needed to make a living for himself. He settled here in Michigan City, which was your average frontier town. Barker Sr. descended from a long line of English Puritans, so he was bringing his faith here as well. When he had a son, another John Barker we will refer to as Mr. Barker, he had to share the faith. Mr. Barker eventually took over the factory, becoming president of his father’s empire. But with his wealth, Mr. Barker contributed much to Michigan City’s spiritual community.
Kitty corner from Barker Mansion along Seventh and Franklin streets (the Silk Stocking District), Mr. Barker helped build Michigan City’s first YMCA, which was a powerful tool in spreading the gospel. It acted as a place where interfaith dialogue between many different denominations could take place. It also provided activities, shelter and an overall safe harbor for Michigan City youth. His money also went to building Trinity Episcopal Church, which was strategically placed in the city’s geographical center. He even had a room in his own mansion that was used to house the Episcopal bishop when on important duties within the area.
Later, Mrs. Barker funded the Bishop’s Mansion attached to the church. It also was his factory, a symbol of what great spiritual leaders saw as a threat to religion, that brought in the faiths of Michigan City. Just as the German and Irish Catholics worshipped at St. Mary’s, the Polish immigrants established themselves at St. Stan’s, and even immigrants from the Ottoman Empire established the first Islamic Center in Michigan City. Mr. Barker used his material empire to create a melting pot of faiths in Michigan City. Even the Barker household was a melting pot of faiths. Mr. Barker was an Episcopalian, but his wife, Katherine Fitzgerald Barker, was an Irish Catholic.
Katherine Fitzgerald came to Michigan City after answering an advertisement for teachers for hire. Mr. Barker had just built a school called Barker Hall, attached to Trinity Episcopal, after his wife and three children died. Katherine Fitzgerald, born in New Hampshire of Irish immigrant parents, fell in love with Mr. Barker. They got married within two years, an Episcopalian and Catholic making a home and family together.
During her marriage, Mrs. Barker was not very active in the Catholic church, based on mansion archival records. It is theorized she kept her beliefs private and in the home. During this time, Catholics were not well-liked within the community. Irish Catholics were the most targeted and hated. So, Mrs. Barker’s faith, married to a wealthy Episcopal man, would be seen as incompatible with her husband. She seemed more involved with the Episcopal community for this reason. For instance, in 1908, Mr. and Mrs. Barker went to London with the Episcopal Bishop of the Indiana Diocese.
But with the birth of a daughter, Catherine, the Catholic faith was picked up again. In 1907, Catherine was baptized at 11 in St. Anne’s parish in New Hampshire. A year later in 1908, Catherine held her first communion in St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception, right at the end of the magnificent Silk Stocking District.
As Catherine grew older, the more she became involved in the Catholic church and their causes. She gave large donations to the Catholic church and donated furniture to St. Mary’s, such as the Bishop’s chair we see today. In 1927, she donated the Katherine Barker Memorial Altar. The lime- stone altar was dedicated to her mother, where it stands proudly in a parish Mrs. Barker would have loved to attend.
The Gilded Age of America was marked by a turbulent period of material progression and corruption, but most of all, the importance of faith in the community. The lives of Michigan City’s factory workers and wealthy elite were sculpted from the blending of immigrant communities, marriages and social outlets.
Religion from all corners of the globe thrived in the Silk Stocking District.
Thanks go to our friends at The Beacher for originally publishing this work.