Rev. Robert J. Center, rector of Trinity Michigan City, 1964-19881 media/Rev Robert Center, Trinity Michigan City_thumb.jpeg 2020-06-26T07:49:47-07:00 John David Beatty 85388be94808daa88b6f1a0c89beb70cd0fac252 32716 1 Rev. Robert J. Center, rector of Trinity Michigan City, 1964-1988 plain 2020-06-26T07:49:47-07:00 John David Beatty 85388be94808daa88b6f1a0c89beb70cd0fac252
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Trinity Episcopal Church, Michigan City
Trinity Episcopal Church, Michigan City, is officially the second oldest congregation in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. It was actually the first to be established in 1837, but through a technicality in its first year its official organization was delayed until after St. Paul's Mishawaka had been organized.
In the 1830s, pioneers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs began arriving at the new town named Michigan City, platted at the end of the Michigan Road near Lake Michigan. The new road that began at Madison, Indiana, was fulfilling its purpose of encouraging settlers to move from southern Indiana into the scarcely-populated northern part of the state. In 1830, Isaac C. Elston, a real estate speculator, purchased land at the mouth of Trail Creek as the site of his town, which was called Michigan City. In 1832 only one cabin stood, but by 1833 enough settlers had arrived to hold an election for a justice of the peace and to name a postmaster. The stage coach ran through the town three times each week, bringing new residents. In 1834, Charles Cleaver stayed in the local tavern and wrote that in Michigan City, “the buildings consisted of one small brick tavern, a frame one opposite, a blacksmith shop, and half dozen houses built in, on, above and below the sand. It then contained about fifty inhabitants.” However, no church had yet been built. With few people living in the area between Niles, Michigan, South Bend, Indiana, and Michigan City, there were few resources to support a church. Those few clergy who had moved to the area traveled frequently to serve the needs of the new settlers.
The first Episcopal Church service held at Michigan City occurred in October 1834, when the Rev. Palmer Dyer preached what is considered the first sermon in town. However, Bishop Philander Chase is given more formal credit for getting church services going. Chase, formerly Bishop of Ohio, had settled with his family for a time on a farm near Niles, Michigan. In the same month that Dyer preached, Chase visited the town and recorded in his diary that he “stopped in Michigan City, read the service, visited with a few people, drove through the sand dunes along the lake, and in the evening again read the service.” By this date there were about 700 residents. A few months later in 1835, Chase was elected Bishop of Illinois. On his way to Illinois from Niles, he again stopped in Michigan City and recorded the event in his diary: “Preached the first sermon ever delivered there from an Episcopal minister. This was in a large schoolhouse well filled with attentive auditors.”
With a lack of clergy from its inception, Michigan City's community of Episcopalians depended on the work of its faithful members reading Morning Prayer. The first recorded communicants who arrived in 1835 included Dr. H. T. Maxon and Schuyler Pulford, who later served as wardens and vestrymen of the fledgling church. Arrangements were made with the Rev. Joseph Selkrig, missionary at Niles, Michigan, to travel periodically to serve the spiritual needs of the new community. On December 11, 1835, he held services in the building used by the growing congregation as the first church in Michigan City. This structure was located at the corner of Fourth and Pine streets and housed the congregation until 1858.
In 1836 Michigan City was incorporated as a city, and the pioneer Episcopalians organized themselves under the name of “Church of the Advent.” Records show that there were twelve communicants. Due to a conflict with state law it was necessary for the congregation to organize again, and the name was changed to “Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church.” Shortly afterward in 1837, the Rt. Rev. Jackson Kemper, Missionary Bishop of the Northwest, visited the newly-named parish. With his encouragement, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of New York sent the Rev. Daniel Van Mater Johnson to do missionary work, becoming the town's first settled priest on February 1, 1838. In his first report to the society he wrote: “The large room which the congregation has neatly fitted up is almost full of attentive listeners to the preached gospel.” Regular participation in the sacraments thus began with the first baptism in February 1838, the first marriage in April, and the first confirmation in January 1839. After two years the society concluded that its aid was no longer necessary and that Trinity could be self-supporting.
The history of Michigan City and that of Trinity Episcopal Church are inseparably intertwined. The strength and prominence of the church was due to the faithful service of its wardens and vestry, many of whom were also civic leaders. Zebina Gould, the first Senior Warden in 1837, also served as the city harbor wheat inspector for the growing shipping industry. T. B. W. Stockton, Samuel Mower, Charles Palmer, and H. I. Rees all served as early mayors. Augustus Barber was an early postmaster and city treasurer. Urial C. Follet also served for many years as treasurer.
More than any other lay leader, Follet had the most significant influence on the growth and development of Trinity Church. He served for 25 years as a vestrymen from 1849 to 1862, and again from 1864 to 1872. He served as Senior Warden for 24 years in 1863 and from 1872 to 1896. His generosity made the present endowment fund possible. In spite of the tragic loss of all three of his children, his faith endured. The memorial gift of the white marble baptismal font in honor of his children is used to this day. He led the parish through the Civil War, economic depressions, and panics, as well as through the industrial growth of Michigan City. During his years of leadership, Trinity had 15 rectors, and two churches were built.
By mid-century, the pioneer church on Pine Street was no longer adequate to meet the needs of the congregation or the growing importance of the Episcopal church in the social and political life of the city. The rector at this time was the Rev. Caleb A. Bruce, formerly rector of Trinity Fort Wayne, who in his long career built six new churches from Michigan to Arkansas. Under the patriarchal leadership of Zebina Gould and Urial Follet, the vestry resolved to seek subscriptions for a new church. The congregation acquired the property at the corner of Sixth and Franklin streets, essentially the geographic center of the town. A new wood frame church was built in the prevailing architectural style of the time called “Carpenter Gothic.” It was a demonstrative statement of the church’s prominence in the community.
The fortunes of Trinity Church rose with the growth and development of Michigan City as both a port of commerce and an industrial manufacturing site. The largest and most significant industry was the manufacture of railroad cars by the Barker and Haskell Company. Three generations of the Barker family left their imprint on Trinity as major patrons. The marriage of John Barker Sr. and his wife Cordelia in 1841 was one of the first recorded at Trinity. Both his son, the industrialist John H. Barker, and his granddaughter, Catherine Barker Hickox, donated buildings and many improvements to the property at 6th and Franklin streets.
Success as an industrialist did not insulate the younger John Barker from personal tragedy, when his three children by his first wife all died in infancy. The construction of the first Barker Hall, a building attached to the church, became his memorial to his children. It served the congregation as both community center and school with classrooms and an auditorium.
During the 30 years between 1858 and 1888, the Trinity Church congregation experienced a six-fold growth. Under the continuing leadership of Follet as Senior Warden and the influence of Barker and banker W.W. Vail as vestrymen, the old wooden church was deemed no longer adequate in size or style for the congregation. In 1889 the third Trinity church seating 450 was built of Indiana limestone. Designed by Chicago architect Henry Starbuck in the Romanesque Revival architectural style, it matched the grandeur of any Chicago building of its day.
In 1898 the Diocese of Indiana was divided with the northern portion of the state becoming a separate diocese. The vestry, under the continued leadership and financial backing of Barker, voted to offer Trinity as the cathedral church. Bishop John Hazen White took residence in the rectory as both rector of Trinity parish and the first bishop of the new Diocese of Michigan City. The Very Rev. Walter S. Howard served as the first dean and associate rector. In 1901, Barker, at his expense, replaced the old rectory with a grander eight-bedroom mansion as a residence for the bishop. In 1910 Mrs. Barker donated the Gothic arched cloister that connects the church to the bishop’s residence. However, changes in liturgical style and lay leadership brought conflict to Trinity parish. Bishop White was too High Church for the parish's taste, and the vestry demanded that the dean of the cathedral be Low Church against the bishop's wishes. Relations between the bishop and the vestry festered and eventually ruptured. John Barker died in 1911, and by 1918, Trinity's cathedral status had been revoked. The diocese was renamed Northern Indiana, though it had no designated cathedral at that time.
It is a testament to the spiritual fortitude of the Trinity congregation that in its first 100 years the parish thrived without clergy leadership for 15 years and nine months. Twenty-five rectors served Trinity with each staying an average of one year, nine months. Only five rectors served more than five years.
The 20th century brought stronger clergy leaders who served for much longer terms, resulting in congregational development. New buildings and renovations were added to the Trinity church complex. Lay leadership remained as a core strength of the congregation, with several parishioners serving multiple terms as senior warden. The beauty of the church and its worship services were enhanced through numerous furnishings, gifts, and memorials from parishioners. Ministries included choir and organ, Altar Guild, Acolytes, Youth Group, and Women of Trinity.
By the 1920s the congregation had outgrown the space provided by the first Barker Hall. The Rev. Earl Ray Hart coordinated the gift of a new Barker Hall, financed by the railroad car heiress Catherine Barker Hickox, daughter of John H. Barker. Her gift included a substantial endowment for the maintenance of the hall. The new facility was constructed in 1929 as a memorial to her father and his deceased children. Dedicated “for the use of the people,” the building became a social and cultural center for the entire community. Along with the “Great Hall.” meeting rooms, classrooms, and offices, a chapel expanded the opportunities for worship.
During the rectorship of the Rev. David Reid in 1956, significant alterations were made to the layout of the 67-year-old church in the name of modernization and to fit better with changes in liturgical style. Entrances were rearranged, the choir and organ were moved, and open arches were closed, changing the essential character of the sacred space. At that time, growth of Michigan City’s lakefront communities and a desire to offer alternative liturgical worship lead several Trinity’s lay leaders to found St. Andrews by the Lake Church.
The long rectorship of the Rev. Robert Center from 1964 to 1988 provided stability for the parish during the time when Michigan City was undergoing both economic and urban transformation. The departure of manufacturing industries, combined with the forces of urban renewal and changes in consumer shopping, left the historic center of the city with mostly empty storefronts. Trinity Church and Barker Hall were no longer at the cultural, social, and geographic center of the city, as new city development occurred to the south. Nonetheless, Trinity’s congregation supported extensive repairs and maintenance projects, including a new slate roof for the church. An additional endowment fund was established to support the ongoing maintenance of the church and rectory. Throughout the ten-year rectorship of Father Stephen Gerth, Trinity maintained its identity as a locus of traditional Anglo-Catholic worship.
In the twenty-first century, Trinity has been sustained by the faithful service of its lay leaders and the visiting ministry of the Rev. Canon Hugh Page Jr., Vice President of the University of Notre Dame. Recognizing its important role in servicing the community, Trinity leaders established a Food Pantry program, continued its Thrift Shop ministry, and hosted community events in Barker Hall.
As Michigan City heads into the third decade of the century, it is once again at the center of an urban development: Michigan City’s revitalizing Arts District. The beauty of Episcopal worship remains at the center of parish life. A youth music program provides spiritual growth and education for children. Service to neighbors continues to make Trinity integral to Michigan City community life. Under the guidance of dedicated wardens and vestry, and the ministry of Father Joseph Tamborini Czolgosz, Trinity remains a loving community dedicated to serving the spiritual, social, and cultural needs of Michigan City in the name of Jesus Christ.
Daniel Van Mater Johnson, 1838-1841
Solon Wines Manney, 1841, 1843-1847
George Bartly Engle, 1841-1843
Fortune Charles Brown, 1847-1851
Henry Monroe Safford, 1852-1855
Caleb Alexander Bruce, 1855-1859
William Henry Stoy, 1859-1860
Edward Purdon Wright, 1860-1861
Richard Leo Ganter, 1863-1865
Thomas Lloyd Bellam, 1865-1866
John Frank Winkley, 1868
Abraham Reeves, 1869-1870
Richard Brass, 1870-1873
Samuel Johnson French, 1875-1879
Charles James Wood, 1879-1881
John Jacob Faude, 1882-1890
Herman Baldwin Dean, 1890-1891
Niles Wright Heermans, 1891-1898
John Hazen White, 1898-1905
Walter Simon Howard, (dean and associate rector), 1898-1905
Frank Ernest Aitkins, 1905-1910
Walter Stephen Trowbridge, 1910-1917
James Andrew Miller, 1918-1922
Jesse Ketchum Brennan, 1922-1927
Earl Ray Hart, 1927-1938
William Aaron Driver, 1938-1943
Russell Garfield Flagg, 1943-1950
David Joseph Reid, 1950-1963
Robert June Center, 1964-1988
Stephen Shea Gerth, 1988-1999
Eugene Edmund Kohlbecker, 2001-2007
Anthony F. M. Clavier, 2010-2012
Tanya Scheff, 2014-2017
Joseph Tamborini Czolgosz, 2018-2020
Kathy Townley, 2021-2022
Robert Rhodes, 2022-
Text adapted from from "History of Trinity Church [Michigan City]"
Robert J. Center, Trinity Episcopal Church, Michigan City, Indiana, 1834-1984: A History of the First One Hundred Fifty Years. Michigan City: Trinity Episcopal Church, 1985.
Centennial, Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church, Michigan City, 1834-1934
Parish Registers (Forthcoming)
Book 1, 1838-1872
Book 1 transcription (to correct legibility problems)
Book 2, 1873-1882
Book 3, 1882-1914
Book 4, 1914-1927
Book 5, 1928-1947
Book 6, 1947-1955
Rev. Robert J. Center
The Rev. Robert J. Center was born on 28 April 1924 in Metropolis, Illinois, the son of Jame Perry and Reba (Cagle) Center. He graduated from the Texas College of Mines and later the Southwestern Theological Seminary in 1953 and was ordained a priest the same year by Bishop Clough. He married Helen Louis Nichols on 21 August 1949. He began his career as priest in charge of St. John the Baptist Church in Mount Carmel and St. John's in Albion, Illinois, from 1953 to 1956. He then became rector of St. Mary's Church in Robinson, Illinois, from 1955 to 1956. He came to the Diocese of Northern Indiana in 1956 to become rector of Gethsemane Church, Marion, serving there from 1956 to 1964, and then as rector of Trinity Church, Michigan City, from 1964 to his retirement in 1987. He remained inthe diocese as its rector emeritus, served as president of the Standing Committee, and was the founding archivist/historiographer of the diocese in 1973. He was the author of Our Heritage, the only published history of the diocese.He died on 26 June 2010 in Michigan City.