St. Anne Shell Chapel: holy ground
St. Anne’s Shell Chapel is one of the most well-known structures at Saint Mary-of- the-Woods. The unique interior of this tiny building is covered floor to ceiling with shells from the Wabash River. It’s beauty and uniqueness has made it a tourist attraction. It is featured in books such as “Weird Indiana” and websites such as TripAdvisor, Only in Your State and Roadside America. But the chapel is much more than a beautiful curiosity. Perfectly proportioned, on a small knoll surrounded by shaded, gently rolling stretches of green grass, the tiny chapel has an aura of serenity and majesty. Visitors sense at once that they are on holy ground.
The history of this unique chapel helps to explain its appeal. It is witness to memory and sacred stories, to creativity and whimsey, to fidelity and devotion, and to the ways the past and the present intersect.
Memory and story-telling
The story behind the chapel is well-known to those familiar with the history of the Sisters of Providence. In 1844, Congregation Foundress Saint Mother Theodore Guerin was returning from a fundraising trip to France. The ship she was on, The Nashville, was almost destroyed in a terrible storm. During the storm, she promised that if she survived she would preserve the story in a chapel honoring St. Anne, patroness of her native Brittany in France. So at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1844, St. Anne Chapel was built of logs on a little hill next to a peaceful grove, a memorial to sacred stories. On its walls in several shells was inscribed the story of the miraculous rescue from death at sea, honoring Mother Theodore’s pledge.
Another sacred artifact within the chapel is the small statue depicting St. Anne teaching her daughter, Mary, Mother of Jesus, to read. We believe Mother Theodore brought the statue from France on that fateful 1844 voyage. It is a striking and unusual statue. The figure of St. Anne appears to be separate from and out of proportion with the small figure of Mary standing on a globe. While statues of Anne teaching Mary to read are a common motif, this precious 179-year-old statue is unique.
Whimsey and creativity
The interior of the chapel is a testament to the whimsey and creativity of Sister Mary Joseph Le Fer de la Motte, SP, a native of Brittany familiar with the beauty and variety of iridescent shells found in the Wabash River. When in 1876 the log structure was replaced by the present-day stone chapel, Sister Mary Joseph had young sisters gather shells from the shores of the Wabash River to decorate the interior of the new building.
The intricate patterns on the walls of the tiny chapel include pictures of The Nashville, the all-seeing Eye of God, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a map of the earliest missions of the small community. Next to the door is a record of the never-to-be-forgotten story Mother Theodore promised to have inscribed on the chapel walls. The beautiful intricate patterns covering every inch of the walls are also a memorial to the shells themselves. Shells such as these almost disappeared from the Wabash for decades, killed by pollution and overharvested to be fashioned into beautiful buttons.
Fidelity and devotion
The Chapel is also a monument to fidelity. Since its early days it has been the destination of a yearly procession in honor of St. Anne. For years this stately procession of hundreds of Sisters of Providence attracted bystanders and enjoyed widespread news coverage.
Many have forgotten that the plot next to the chapel was the Sisters’ first cemetery. Mother Theodore Guerin was buried there in 1856 along with her dear friend Sister Saint Francis Xavier Le Fer, her companion Sister Mary Liguori Tiercin, and several other sisters. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that visitors sense they are on holy ground.
The late Sister Mary Roger Madden, SP’s poem about the annual procession to the St. Anne Chapel captures the magic and mystery of this tiny chapel and reminds us that past and the present intersect in sacred spaces, on holy ground.
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.