An unbreakable promise
Among the strange and often bizarre tourist sites described in the book “Weird Indiana” is a page devoted to the Shell Chapel at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
This tiny, quaint chapel is very distant from Mother Theodore Guerin’s home near the seashell covered, wind-swept Breton shore of northern France. But it is a monument to Saint Anne as patroness of the sailors of Brittany. And to the shells that once littered the shores of Indiana’s Wabash River and to faithfulness to a promise. Every Sister of Providence can tell you the story.
The building of a chapel
Returning from a fundraising trip to France in 1843, Mother Theodore’s ship, the Nashville, ran into a terrible storm. Mother Theodore promised to build a chapel to Saint Anne. She also promised and to hold an annual procession in her honor if she would save the ship from the raging sea.
Why Saint Anne? Mother Theodore had spent her childhood in the coastal village of Etables sur la Mer. Her father was a naval officer and she knew well the devotion of sailors to Saint Anne. Since 1623, they had turned to her for protection from the sea.
True to her word, after her safe arrival at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Mother Theodore had a small log chapel built on a little hill in the forest east of the convent. A statue of Saint Anne with the child Mary, possibly brought from France by Mother Theodore, was placed above an altar.
A sketch made by Sister Maurice shows this first tiny chapel embraced by a wild grape vine.
In 1875, the logs of the original chapel had begun to decay. The sisters replaced the exterior with a by a 15-by-15 stone structure. Sister Mary Joseph Le Fer who designed the Chapel had also come to Indiana from a town on the shores of Brittany. Perhaps this is why she had the idea of decorating the interior of the new chapel with mussel shells from the Wabash River. In those days, the Wabash was full of mussels and beautiful shells were abundant.
So, when the Wabash River was low, the novices would walk four miles to gather shells at the sand bar at Durkee’s Ferry. Sister Mary Joseph then guided them as they set the shells in soft plaster.
Tradition is that the patterns they followed were made by Mother Theodore. These include the ship the Nashville, a map of Indiana showing the missions established up to 1876, the story of the ship voyage and the promise, intertwined initials, floral patterns and the all-seeing eye of God.
An annual procession
Every year since 1844, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Anne, the Sisters have processed to the Chapel. Many recall the days when an endless line of sisters in black and white veils proceeded two-by-two on the path. They processed from the magnificent Church of the Immaculate Conception to the tiny shrine.
Today, those sisters who can continue to make this outdoor procession. Others process to the shrine of Saint Ann in the Church. Both groups still sing a traditional hymn written by Sister Mary Basile O’Donnell – “Our hearts and voices raising, we cast away all fear, and join the angels praising, Saint Anne our patron dear.”
In the poem below, Sister Mary Roger Madden captures the ties between the Breton shore Mother Theodore left to found a community near the Wabash River, between past promises and persistent faithfulness:
The spool of time unwinds. Let us come here,
Out of a world of shifting sands and mist,
To walk a path of patterned shade and light —
To keep once more a sacred tryst.
This is memorial of an answered prayer.
This is our tribute to the dead,
That we have kept their promises
And followed where they led.
Thank you, Janet. for retelling this familiar story. It helps me remember the courage required of Saints Anne and Joachim – of Mother Theodore. A nice start for today.
What a fine article, Janet. Thanks so much.
Thank you, Sister Janet, for starting my day with this tribute and remembrance. And “Hark!” for the photo of Breton Shores! I have googled many times and I know where it is, but I have never seen “the shore” and now it is etched in my memory. Merci! Xie Xie! Gracias! Danke! Domo Arigato! Salamat!
As you have done so often, Janet, you have provided a great service for us. We are grateful.