TERRE HAUTE -- In conjunction with the Year of the River, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Heritage Museum opened a new display this month documenting the impact of the Wabash River on the life and mission of the Sisters of Providence.
Titled "Watershed Moments," the display, located in the Providence Spirituality and Conference Center at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, will remain open until the end of the year.
Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and her small band of sisters from France arrived to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1840 and the journey was directly related to the river.
The building of the Wabash and Erie Canal, a man-made waterway connecting rivers and lakes and making water travel more reliable, brought an influx of Catholic immigrants to river towns in the early to mid-1800s.
In response, Bishop de la Hailandiere of the Diocese of Vincennes asked the Sisters of Providence in France to send sisters to found schools in Indiana and the surrounding areas.
Thus began the relationship between the congregation and the Wabash River.
The Wabash River often comes up in the journals and letters of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin: From her treacherous first crossing of the flooded river upon her arrival at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to keeping abreast of the river conditions so vital to transportation and communication in the early years.
The exhibit highlights early schools and orphanages founded by the sisters as canals opened to various Indiana towns such as Evansville, Lafayette, Peru, Vincennes and Fort Wayne.
The timespan encompasses a 35-year period beginning in 1840 and details hardships of the pioneer sisters during cholera epidemics, bank failures, the Civil War and in the face of anti-Catholic bigotry.
"It was nothing in those days for the sisters to be walking down the street and have things thrown at them," Sister Donna Butler, archives assistant for the Sisters of Providence and coordinator of the exhibit said. "There was also the ever-present fear of arson.
"While the canal system was short-lived, a number of the establishments of the Sisters of Providence lasted more than 100 years. From the humble beginnings of the Academy at Saint Mary's, we have Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College that has educated generations of women for more than 170 years. The heroic sacrifices made by the sisters in those early days forged a memorable and lasting contribution to education in Indiana. In that pioneer time, these were watershed moments and accomplishments."
The Sisters of Providence Heritage Museum is located in Providence Spirituality and Conference Center at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. It is open to the public during the center's business hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
In addition to the river display, the museum also houses a permanent exhibit, which includes personal artifacts used by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and a photo display of all the congregation's general superiors.
For more information on the Heritage Museum or the Watershed Moments display, contact Sister Mary Ryan at 812-535-2880.