Finding a source of fuel
Fueling the Congregation’s needs at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods has always been of utmost importance, starting in 1840 when Blessed Mother Theodore Guerin, the foundress, first stepped foot on this sacred ground. Wood sufficed in the early years, but as the Congregation grew, so did the need for dependable, reliable fuel.
In 1890, the Sisters of Providence opened Providence Convent (Providence Hall today), a technological wonder with running water and electricity. An alumna of the Academy, the forerunner of today’s Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, captured the excitement of this new building when she wrote:
“The joy of occupying new Providence was quickly followed by another, known at Saint Mary’s as the ‘illumination,’ when the electric lights were tested for the first time. The fine structure, rendered brilliant by 600 lights, was certainly a most imposing scene … .”
Four years later, the Congregation no longer needed to rely on outside sources of coal to fire the boilers in the power house that produced steam to generate electricity. In 1894, the Congregation began operating Saint Mary’s coal mine.
Initially, work in the mine was completed by hand after blasting with black powder. After being hauled up to the tipple and sorted, the coal was put into carts that were pulled by mules. These coal-filled carts, which were on rails, were then taken approximately one-half mile to the power house. In November 1920, the tipple caught on fire, causing the mine to be shut down temporarily while repair work was done.
Like any other mine owner, the Sisters of Providence had to pass rigorous inspections by the federal government. Additionally, the mine workers were affiliated with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) once the labor organization took root in this area. Eventually, the Congregation upgraded to coal-cutting machinery and permissible explosives in order to meet the requirements of the Federal Mine Safety Code.
Due to many reasons, including safety concerns, the Congregation closed the mine Aug. 31, 1954. The coal tipple, a concrete structure that still stands today, served as one place of storage for coal purchased elsewhere. The coal was now transported via electric rail carts, not with mules.
By the 1990s, the boilers in the power house were fired by natural gas, not coal.
In 1959, the Viking Coal Corporation wanted to purchase the coal rights for the old mine. A forward-thinking administration under General Superior Mother Gertrude Clare Owens (RIP) nixed this idea in a memo:
“At some time, possibly many years hence, scientific development may bring about a method of distilling gas from coal reserves within the ground. This could prove to be a source of fuel for the needs of the Sisters of Providence.
“The Viking Coal Corporation says that it might have to discharge water from the workings to the surface of the ground. If this were done, it would result in stream pollution and a detriment to livestock, trees and vegetation in the area.”
This winter, the Congregation considered the possibility of making a reality of that forward-thinking of Mother Gertrude Clare’s administration through exploratory testing of the old mine for methane recovery. The search for dependable, reliable and clean fuel — that doesn’t harm the environment — continues.
Did you know?
Due to a nation-wide coal strike by the United Mine Workers of America in 1943, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, the solid fuels administrator during World War II, was directed by President Franklin Roosevelt to seize all bituminous coal mines in the United States. Saint Mary’s mine fell into this category. The government had possession of the mine from May 1 to Oct. 8.
Via a telegram, General Superior Mother Mary Bernard Laughlin (RIP) responded to the takeover to the regional manager of the Bituminous Coal Division in Indianapolis:
“The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in compliance with your telegram dated May first undertake to serve the United States and devote itself to the task of producing coal so that the work of winning the war may not falter. We are flying the flag of the United States on the mining premises to show that property is being operated exclusively for the United States and that all employees, including our superintendent, who serve the mine are serving their country … .”