For any lover of Indiana history, a trip to Vincennes -- the state’s oldest town -- is almost compulsory. Settled on the Wabash River as a fort and trading post for French Canadian fur traders in the 1700s, the city offers sites that span more than two centuries of history.
St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church -- Indiana’s oldest extant church, also known as the Old Cathedral -- dates to 1826. Inside, Catholic history and tenets are depicted in murals, sculpture, and stained glass. The pillars that support the cathedral’s ornate arched ceiling are made from giant yellow poplar trees harvested from a nearby farm and encased in plaster painted to resemble marble (an art known as scagliola). Regardless of your religious inclination, it’s hard not to feel moved surrounded by such exquisite beauty.
A few years ago, artisans from Conrad Schmitt Studios uncovered and replicated the painted decorations on the sanctuary’s walls and vaulted ceiling. The firm also restored the church’s 1904 altar.
The cathedral complex includes an 1841 rectory and a French and Indian cemetery, where more than four thousand of the state’s earliest settlers are buried, including soldiers and patriots of the American Revolution. Pope Paul VI elevated the Old Cathedral to Minor Basilica status in 1970, an honor reserved for only the most historic Catholic churches.
St. Francis Xavier, 205 Church Street in Vincennes, is open daily for self-guided tours. For more info visit http://www.vincennescvb.org/attractions/16/historic/44/old-cathedral-complex.
About Hidden Gems Indiana
Each week Indiana Landmarks uses insider knowledge to highlight historic places worth a visit, from the quirky to the sublime: small towns, neighborhoods, restaurants, shops, parks, cemeteries, scenic drives, museums—you get the idea. Learn more about Indiana Landmarks at www.indianalandmarks.org.