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A historical look at The Church of the Immaculate Conception

With the upcoming Fall Architectural Tour at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods coming soon, we thought it might be of interest to take a look at some of the buildings that contributed to the National Register of Historic Places.

Among those buildings is the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

A photo from 1907 featuring the inside of the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

In her book, “The History of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Volume II,” Sister Eugenia Logan (RIP) wrote that many buildings had to be moved before the first cornerstone of the church was laid, including a small frame brick chapel built in 1862 and some utility buildings. In addition, trees had to be cut down to provide the dimensions of the church and the wooden walk connecting Providence Hall and the Institute, had to be taken down.

The first of the foundation stones for the church arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in March 1886. Seven days later, the moving of the bakery, pharmacy and the men’s house was completed. The moving of the chapel took longer, but the moving operation took only 40 days. During that time, the Community Room in Providence Hall was used as a chapel.

In a letter written to Madame De la Corbiniere in June 1886, then Sisters of Providence General Superior, Mother Euphrasie Hinkle, provided the information for the new church. Mother Euphrasie said the plans called for a “Romanesque-style church,” and also provided the dimensions.

A photo from 1910 featuring the Church of the Immaculate Conception and Providence Hall, along with the bridge connecting Providence Hall to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Sister Eugenia continued writing that with consultation from then-Diocese of Indianapolis Bishop Silas Francis Marean Chatard, the laying of the cornerstone was to take place on September 14, 1886. Bishop Chatard arrived in the morning of that day to arrange documents, a list of participants, newspaper clippings, coins and all other information to be placed in a copper box prepared by head architect, Diedrich A. Bohlen of D.A. Bohlen and Son of Indianapolis, for insertion in the stone. The first cornerstone of the church was laid at 4 p.m., that day.

A fire destroyed the Providence Motherhouse in 1889. The church, which was being built next to the Motherhouse, was damaged but not destroyed. Only months later, Mother Euphrasie died at the age of 41. In 1890, Mother Mary Cleophas Foley was elected General Superior and under her leadership, the church was completed.

Diedrich Bohlen died in 1890. However, his son, Oscar D. Bohlen, moved forward with the project, and the exterior of the church was completed in 1891, by using Indiana limestone. By June of 1892, the plasterwork was completed and the installation of a temporary wooden floor, along with seats and altars allowed the sisters to begin worship in the church.

In 1902, Mother Mary Cleophas and General Councilor Sister Mary Alma O’Donald traveled to Europe and visited many churches to help inspire the interior design. Specifically, they were inspired by the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, and the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris.

The church was officially dedicated by Mother Mary Cleophas in 1891 and the interior was completed in 1907. It was consecrated on October 23 of that year.

The paintings inside the church were created by Thaddeus von Zukoynski. The Bavarian Art Institute, located in Munich, Germany, created the stained glass windows in the church, and the Stations of the Cross were also crafted in Munich. The original organ within the church was purchased from William Schuelke Church Organ Builder, then located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was later replaced and the current organ was installed in 1953.

The sculpted figure of Jesus rising from the crucifix in the front of the church was created by Champaign, Illinois, resident Harry Breen.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception is the fourth church to be constructed at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods since the Sisters of Providence arrived in 1840.

When the sisters arrived in 1840, there was no church on site. They decided that a log cabin would serve as the first chapel. The cabin was dismantled in 1853.

The second chapel was a room in the Providence Motherhouse, which was used until 1863, when a simple frame church designed by Diedrich Bohlen was completed.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception has undergone some renovation since its inception, including in 1986, when it was redesigned to conform with liturgical changes that had been adopted after the Second Vatican Council and to also help strengthen the church’s floor joists.

At the time of the writing of Sister Eugenia’s history book, it was said that many sisters often asked where the exact location of the first cornerstone was as no stone is now visible. Sisters Agnes Clare Cassidy, Geraldine Mullen and Catherine Marie Daily (all since deceased) were able to point out the location as all three were in the novitiate at the time of the dedication of the church and were able to take part in the ceremony.

Don’t forget to spend your Sunday, October 21, with the Sisters of Providence and take part in the Fall Architectural Tour of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, from 2 to 4 p.m.!

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Jason Moon

Jason Moon

Jason Moon serves as media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence. Previously, he spent more than 16 years in the newspaper industry.

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