Searching for truth: IU McKinney law librarian publishes book detailing historic Indianapolis churches

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Lee Little holds a copy his book inside Christ Church Cathedral, which is featured in the book. (IL file photo)

Light filtered gently through murky multicolored glass on a weekday afternoon at the Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle as law librarian Lee Little expertly described the intricacies of the historic structure.

Built in 1857, the Gothic Revival cathedral’s tall windows illuminated an otherwise dimly lit building tucked on the corner of Indianapolis’ central hub. The nave was quiet, with the exception of occasional footsteps softly moving in and out of the door.

A quick drive around the surrounding blocks reveals a host of other aged churches and cathedrals — some large, some modest, but each with its own unique history.

Enthralled by the rich, complex and at times painful pasts of churches in the Indianapolis area, Little — a research and instruction librarian and adjunct lecturer in law at the Ruth Lilly Law Library at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law — decided to put pen to paper and document the city’s churches and congregations.

After strenuous research, travel and waiting, Little recently published a two-year-long project titled, “Circle City Steeples: An Old Churches Indy Project,” featuring 35 of Indianapolis’ oldest churches.

The process

After attending law school and separately receiving his library degree, Little secured a job at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP as a research services specialist. Having excelled in his legal research classes, Little knew that niche was a place where he could hone his skills.

“Even though people think that you’re going to be having an easy time finding stuff, you still need people that can do it efficiently, which is difficult,” Little said.

Five years later, a job opening at IU McKinney’s law library drew Little back into academia. Today, he teaches first-year law students about the basics of navigating legal databases and how to properly research.

“I love teaching,” he said. “I love the research aspect.”

In his spare time, to entertain his brain, Little writes hefty articles and conducts research on a variety of topics, including the history of religious congregations in Indianapolis. Part of researching, Little said, includes determining what you want to know about a particular subject and what process you will need to go through in order to get that information.

“I’ve got a spreadsheet and a map and have information on about 600 religious congregations throughout Marion County,” he said, simultaneously scrolling through a thoroughly detailed spreadsheet on his mobile phone. “And all of it is from this process. It’s taken me 4½ years at this point.”

The idea to document churches began in January 2018, but serious conversations about creating a book with all the information didn’t begin until March 2020. Little started an Instagram account during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic called “Old Churches Indy,” where he posted photos of local historic churches with a blurb of information to accompany them.

It wasn’t until he met friend and photographer Kati Gaschler during an Indianapolis church tour that the concept of designing a book began evolving into concrete plans.

Set in stone

Little’s love of old churches stems back to his deep appreciation for architecture. That interest, coupled with a passion for religious communities, forged his desire to learn more about historic churches in his hometown.

“I think it’s fascinating in a really, really interesting way to see how communities have developed,” he explained.

Little’s research skills aided in the book’s development, beginning with intricate documentation of every church standing in Indianapolis beginning in 1952 that remains standing in 2022. That’s roughly 280 churches today, he said.

The alphabetized list of Indianapolis churches includes additional information about their congregations, the style of each church, what construction materials were used, the structure’s architect and so on.

While researching, Little said he relied on and the Hoosier State Chronicles database, among other sources. From there, he created a comprehensive map including each church’s location. Then he, and eventually Gaschler, ventured out to take high-quality photos of the structures.

“We contacted about 100 congregations and heard back from about 40. We were able to confirm with the 35 that you see in the book,” Little explained.

Among the churches featured are two owned by Indiana Landmarks, the oldest Jewish house of worship in Indianapolis and several churches or cathedrals that are now privately owned. Many of the structures still have active congregations, while others are abandoned and falling into disrepair.

The book contains a variety of churches on a wide timeline across multiple denominations, with structures built before the 20th century, like St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, to one of the city’s only remaining historically Black churches, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist, built in 1960.

Cementing history

In the roughly two years it took to create, Little said the design process was exhausting. So far, he said he’s pleased with the book sales. While Little wrote the history and blurbs for each individually named church, Gaschler took all the internal and external photos.

Taking photos that best display the authenticity of each church is an organic process, Gaschler explained. When she takes photos, she likes to be alone so she can wander through the church and find unseen nooks and crannies.

“It’s a lot about the way the light might come through and the way it rests,” she said. “I like finding perspectives maybe the average person might not see.”

Gaschler’s favorite church to photograph was Woodruff Place Baptist Church on the city’s east side. The current building, reconstructed after a building fire in 1926, isn’t ornate like many of the Catholic cathedrals, she said, but it had a spark to it.

“It’s very old and the light that came through their geometric windows was just magic,” Gaschler gushed. “I return to those photos so often — it was endearing to me. I loved the way that it photographed and the way that it was so lovingly cared for by its congregation.”

For Little, the fascination comes with the fact that so often, city dwellers routinely pass by the historic structures without a second thought.

“There are buildings that I have driven past hundreds and hundreds of times. I’ve lived here most of my life and I’ve never been inside them. I’ve never dug deeper into the where, what and why, the context of it,” he said. “A lot of the history is really painful. But there’s a lot to be learned so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes of the past.”•

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