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A grand structure: Providence Hall

This Archives photo shows Providence Hall in 1904.

Providence Hall, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, rose from the ashes of the convent built by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin after a horrific fire on Feb. 7, 1889.

The annals of the Sisters of Providence describe the start of this inferno:

“The bell rings in its clear tones the hour of nine which notifies the sisters that it is the time for the Reunion Prayer to which all respond. Ten minutes pass, the deep familiar tones of the bell are again heard. What can mean this untimely peal? Every face wears an anxious look and all hasten to ascertain the cause of this second call, when lo! From the roof of the little infirmary are seen issuing forth little puffs of smoke which presently become immense black volumes, succeeded by giant flames, which spread so rapidly that in less time than it takes to tell the story the roof is all ablaze and the ceilings have fallen.”

Plans for replacing the ruined edifice immediately began under Mother Mary Euphrasie Hinkle (1883-1889). The cornerstone was laid July 26, 1889. The beautiful brick three-story structure with modern amenities was finished under the leadership of Mother Mary Cleophas Foley (1890-1926). Bohlen Architects of Indianapolis, a firm first used by the Congregation in 1860, was employed to oversee construction.

This is a stone that was saved from the foundation of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s 1853 convent.

To link the new hall to the past, a stone from Mother Theodore’s convent built in 1853 was inserted into the foundation outside the dining room near the west wall. The stone is still visible today because it is darker than the other stones.

In the files of Archives, there are several bid sheets and copies of bills from many contractors. The plumbing bid from W.R. Thompson Plumber & Gas Fitter & Dealer in Gas Fixtures in Chicago assured the sisters theirs would be “a strictly first class job.” Frederick Noelke of the Architectural Iron Works of Indianapolis, Manufacturers of Jail and Court House Work, submitted a bid of $4,684 for the first to third floor rear and main slate stairs as well as the cellar stairs underneath these staircases.

Providence Hall was blessed Sept. 8, 1890, by the Most Rev. Francis Silas Chatard, bishop of the then-Diocese of Vincennes. Following the day of blessing was a great spectacle that attracted crowds of people from surrounding communities. Illumination Day was when all the electric lights in the building were tested for the very first time. The “Souvenir of the Golden Anniversary of St. Mary’s Academic Institute,” published in 1891, states, “The fine structure, rendered brilliant by six hundred lights, was certainly a most imposing scene. …”

Throughout the 20th century, the Congregation improved and renovated Providence Hall. But in the 21st century, the Congregation leadership realized that a more extensive remodeling was needed, and a capital campaign for the renovation of Providence Hall was initiated. While most of the interior of the building has been gutted, Sister Rose Ann Eaton, associate director of Facilities Management, notes that much in the stately old structure was saved, starting with the bricks on the outside which were tuck-pointed where needed.

On the first floor, baseboard, trim and doors have been left unless something was damaged beyond repair. The tile floors on First, Second and Third South halls have been saved. The slate stairs along with the banisters have been kept, and the east wooden stairs are also original. Even the statue of St. Joseph in the courtyard is staying put (pictured this page).

Amazingly, the drainage for Providence Hall was “green” long, long before being green was a buzzword. In the courtyard is a large cistern where some of the drains empty and then seep out from drainage pipes to the sewage system. Of course rainwater is also removed by downspouts.

Indeed, what a grand structure to save!

(Reprinted from the winter 2011 issue of HOPE.)

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Connie McCammon

Connie McCammon worked in the communications office for the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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