The Founding of St. George Syrian Church in the 1920s

The goal was “Easter service in the first and only Syrian church in the city.” But it would not be easy. In 1925, the Syrian Christian community needed to raise $15,000 to build their own Orthodox church. That’s the equivalent of hundreds of thousands today.

So, these first-generation Arabic-speaking immigrants and their American-born children got to work. The women of the congregation organized a tag day. They “wore white ribbons marked Syrian orthodox church,” according to the Indianapolis Star, “and armed with tiny American flags,” they solicited donations around downtown Indianapolis.

Adua Joseph and Mary Joseph (front row) and Mrs. Sam George and O. Joseph (back row) were among those who raised money for St. George. Credit: Indianapolis Star, March 28, 1925, 23.

The Knights of St. George, the Syrian Christian group in charge of the campaign, asked Hoosiers to support their efforts by signing a petition and contributing to the cause.

The first to do so was Indiana Gov. Edward Jackson. Like many Hoosier politicians in the 1920s, Jackson was closely associated with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white nationalist group that discriminated against and committed acts of violence against Black people as well as Catholics and Jews–in short, anyone who was not white and Protestant. Jackson secretly peddled bribes on behalf of the KKK and coveted their political muscle. In public, however, Jackson tried to reassure racial and religious minorities that he was not prejudiced against them.

By the 1920s, Syrians were increasingly accepted as white people in Indiana, but their Orthodox religion and federal policies restricting immigration from their homeland still set them apart from the white Christian establishment. Jackson’s explicit endorsement of their effort to build a church was part of his broader attempt to support equality–at least in name–and expand the Republican Party’s base.

And it worked. In May, 1926, the Knights of St. George endorsed two Republicans for the U.S. Senate. One of them, James Watson, would go on to serve as U.S. Senate Majority Leader in the era of Herbert Hoover. The Knights also publicly supported Republicans for the U.S. House, Marion County recorder, and Center Township Assessor.

That same year was a particularly important one for the growth and expansion of religious congregations in the city. Over a million dollars was spent on building and renovating religious congregations, including Carrollton Avenue Reformed, Fairview Presbyterian, Fountain Square Disciples of Christ, Greater St. John Baptist, and St. George: “The dedication of the St. George Syrian Orthodox church at the corner of Twenty-eighth Street and Sherman Drive,” according to a December 31, 1926, article in the Indianapolis Star, “awaits the arrival of the church officials.”

The First St. George Syrian Orthodox Church. Photo Credit: George Freije, courtesy of St. George.

By establishing their own congregation, Syrians sought not only to preserve their religious traditions but also to participate in the philanthropic, economic, and social life of Indianapolis. Religious congregations have been Americans’ most popular voluntary associations, and in addition to conducting religious services, they have functioned as social and business networks, educational institutions, missionary groups, and charities. At the same time that Syrians were raising money for their church building, for example, they were also soliciting funds to aid Syrian Christians who were victims of the battle for independence in French-occupied Syria and Lebanon.

Metropolitan Anthony Bashir, a frequent visitor to Indianapolis, became leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Church of North America

In May, 1926, the Indianapolis Church Federation and Republican Mayor John Duvall endorsed this relief campaign. Duvall proclaimed, “The natives of Syria who have become citizens of our city and are interest[ed] themselves in the welfare of the people of their native villages are worthy of our consideration.” In November, national relief leader A. G. Cory of Indianapolis arranged for Archimandrite Anthony Bashir to address an open meeting at Holy Innocents Church. Speaking in colloquial Arabic and English, he hoped to inspire charitable giving among Syrians and non-Syrians alike. 

In April, 1927, the community’s new religious congregation was officially incorporated as St. George Syrian Antiochian Church Indianapolis. The “Antiochian” refers to the original church at Antioch, the branch of Orthodox Christianity whose headquarters has been located in Damascus, Syria, since the middle ages.

The church and clubhouse on St. George’s lot are colored purple in the 1941 Baist Atlas

The new church was located in the Brightwood neighborhood near the intersection of North Sherman Drive and 28th Street. Surrounded by a few brick buildings and wood-framed homes, it was just two and a half blocks north of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad repair shops.

In June 1935, the church built a clubhouse for the Knight of St. George just behind the church. Indianapolis Mayor John W. Kern spoke at the dedication ceremony. The 750 people in attendance also enjoyed an “oriental” or Arab dinner at 1 o’clock.

Things have changed a great deal for the church since then. Its third building, a Byzantine structure featuring a large gold dome and colorful icons, is now located in Fishers, Indiana. Built at a cost of about $7 million, it is nothing like the modest brick church that once stood in Brightwood. The congregation is also more ethnically diverse. But St. George still celebrates the heritage of its founders. Its annual Middle East festival cooks up Levantine food and invites guests to dance the dabke the way its founders once did—a fitting celebration of the hard work it took to create the city’s first Syrian church.

Read more about the history of St. George and the life of this Orthodox Christian congregation.

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