Madison was officially surveyed by Colonel John Paul in 1809. Surveying was intended to establish the town boundaries to mark out where white settlers could establish homes and churches. Some early settlers to Madson practiced the Catholic faith and the first Catholic Mass was celebrated in Madison in 1815. The building of the Madison-Indianapolis Railroad brought a large number of Irish-Catholic immigrants to the city. German Catholics were immigrating to Madison as well, brought in part by the earliest wave of German settlers to the area who started businesses that attracted them, including brewing, wood working, and pork producing. With the influx of immigrants, Bishop Simon Gabriel Bruté de Remur of the Vincennes, Indiana Diocese was determined to bring the Church to Madison permanently. Bruté sent missionary priests through town occasionally, but eventually called upon an Englishman, Michael Edgar Shawe, to serve the Catholics as their first resident priest. As a British officer, Shawe had fought Napoleon Bonaparte’s men at the Battle of Waterloo where he was wounded. He then immigrated and was the first Catholic priest ordained in Indiana. Bishop Bruté wrote to Father Shawe at the beginning of Shawe’s time in Madison, telling him to “try with your usual, gentle and effective manner to make the best impression and beginning that you can in Madison.”
Shawe's assistant pastors were encouraged to travel throughout the country and Canada to solicit funds for the building of Madison's first Catholic Church: St. Michael the Archangel. A vacant lot for the church was donated by one of Madison's Presbyterians, Mr. McIntyre. One account credits Father Shawe with using his own family money to fund much of the construction. At the eastern end of Third Street pressed against the bluffs that overlook and enclose historic Madison, the building of St. Michael the Archangel Church was begun in 1838. This first Mass was celebrated on December 22, 1839. Many of the same men working on the railroad incline were part of the founding congregation. Most of the founders were Irish or German immigrants. Among them was William Griffin, the Irish immigrant supervising the construction of the railway. Famed architect Francis Costigan, who is given credit for influencing the design of the building, was also a parishioner.
This simple Gothic Revival design house of worship is the second oldest Catholic Church building in Indiana. It is believed to be the oldest Gothic style building in the state with the south part of the church the earliest construction. In 1865, the church’s nave was extended twenty feet to the north. In order to do this without disruption to the church’s interior, much of the addition is built into the hill so that the stained-glass window high in the apse is just a few feet above ground level on the exterior. The bell tower is in the rear of the building, an unusual feature. The most prominent architectural detail of the church’s interior is its ogee-arch, or “open book,” ceiling. The exquisite art glass windows replaced the original clear glass in the early 1900s. The balcony still retains a working Tracker pipe organ built by August Parante and Sons, a rarity from c. 1895.
The increased influx of Catholics to Madison that led to the construction of St. Michael the Archangel church was part of a nation-wide trend. Until 1845, the majority of white immigrants to the United States were Protestants who came from England and Scotland. Small groups of Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic migrants were in the minority in America in the 19th century. Animosity developed between Protestants and Catholics in the United States based on different religious beliefs and social practices (Protestants were more likely to be opposed to the consumption of alcohol than were Catholics, for example).
Catholics in Madison kept their faith quiet due to the animosity. Catholic immigration to the United States would increase after 1850, with the onset of the Irish Potato Famine (which drove many Irish Catholics out of Ireland to the United States) and the expansion of immigrant waves from other Catholic countries in Europe. The Catholic-based population in America would expand from roughly five percent in 1850 to more than seventeen percent by 1906. It was not just the number of Catholics but a shift in class that these new immigrants represented. Early Catholics were often land-owners of wealth; new waves of immigrants were poor and working-class and often arrived without any resources to support their new lives. Animosity between Catholics and Protestants developed new dimensions: Protestants distrusted these new immigrants not just because of their religion but because they were perceived as foreigners who did not adhere to the vision of America that Protestant Churches espoused. Churches, like St. Michael the Archangel in Madison, gave Catholics visibility on the landscape and a place to form communal, familial, and religious bonds with each other.
St. Michael the Archangel was in continuous use as a church until the Archdiocese of Indianapolis closed it in 1993 during parish consolidation. The church was then donated to Historic Madison, Inc. (HMI). HMI, a preservation organization, maintains the building and has begun a restoration of the windows. The earliest trompe l’oeil painting on the walls of the sanctuary designed to “trick the eye” by giving the impression of 3D on a flat surface is currently being restored. HMI opens the church to the community for special occasions and for tours by appointment, preserving an important part of the community’s religious history.