In 1842, Father Joseph Kundek was facing an issue in his fledgling parish in the middle of the Indiana backwoods along near the Patoka River.
Since being assigned to the Jasper Parish in 1838, he had been encouraging the German immigrants to learn English. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to provide them with the language skills that he thought would help ensure their success in their new home.
Meanwhile, Saint Mother Théodore Guerin, who had arrived near Terre Haute in 1840 to serve in the first convent of St. Mary of the Woods, purchased the humble, leaky cabin from its owners and in 1841 established an academy there. It is interesting to note this excerpt from Mother Théodore’s journals to better understand what she encountered when she arrived in Indiana.
“We continued to advance into the thick woods till suddenly Father Buteux stopped the carriage and said, ‘Come down, Sisters, we have arrived.’ What was our astonishment to find ourselves still in the midst of the forest, no village, not even a house in sight. Our guide having given orders to the driver, led us down into a ravine, whence we beheld through the trees on the other side a frame house with a stable and some sheds. ‘There,’ he said, ‘is the house where the postulants have a room, and where you will lodge until your house is ready.’”
The home was shared with the family there. Saint Mother Théodore and her companions lived upstairs under a leaky roof in such a small space they had to stand on their beds to get dressed. For more on the history of Indiana’s only saint, a history is available from the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods here https://spsmw.org/saint-mother-theodore/about-saint-mother-theodore-guerin/.
At Father Kundek’s behest, Sister Mother Théodore traveled through the Indiana wilderness to Jasper to help him teach the burgeoning German population English. According to Father Ray Brenner, to get her to come, she made Kundeck promise to establish a school for girls at the Jasper parish.
On March 19, 1842, Sister Mother Théodore opened the St. Joseph School during the Feast of St. Joseph. It is considered the first mission of St. Mary-of-the-Woods.
The long-term impact of the new school can be seen in the history of education of Jasper; 218 members of the Sisters of Providence have ministered to youth and families at Saint Joseph, Precious Blood, Holy Family as well as 5th Street, 10th Street and Jasper Middle School. According to Mike Hagerdon, these women were the cornerstone of education in Dubois County for over a century.
This Saturday, a day shy of the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the school, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church will honor Indiana’s only saint with a daylong celebration that will conclude with a sculpture of Saint Mother Théodore and two children being revealed to the public.
“This marks the 175th anniversary of her establishing the school here for girls,” Father Ray Brenner said. “We just felt it would be a good time to commemorate her arrival.”
Planning on the memorial began over a year ago. The parish worked with Jasper native Nick Ring. Ring grew up in Jasper and was a member of the St. Joseph Parish and attended school at the St. Joseph School from sixth grade to eighth grade. Ring and his wife Christine and their four children, Eli, Zeke, Guy and Zoe, were members of the parish until the family moved to South Carolina in 2012.
To create the vision of the Saint Mother, Ring said he studied renderings of her that were on file. He decided to exemplify her determination and perseverance as well as her grace. “We paid close attention to even the smallest details when developing this important sculpture,” Ring said in a note about the process. “We have Sister Marianne Mader at Saint Mary of the Woods to thank for biographical information as well as specifics about her Habit and garments. Much research was also conducted to create appropriate garments, shoes, hair, and other details for Jasper area in the 1840’s and 50’s.”
He also credited the Jasper Public Library and Ron Flick in directing us to productive resources to create the sculpture.
The memorial exemplifies Saint Mother Théodore’s love for children as she prepares them to be worthy stewards of the Catholic faith. “Love the children first, then teach them,” was a favorite quote of hers.
To accompany the Saint Mother, a young boy is stepping towards her with his eyes uplifted. According to Ring, this is to signify the boy trusting in her love. To her left, a young lady appears to be stepping into the world from the Saint Mother’s safe embrace. According to Ring, the young girl, coming of age, represents the principals, knowledge and virtues instilled in her through St. Theodore’s strong faith and teaching. With these principles intact, the young adult confidently enters into the world. St. Theodore faithfully and confidently releases her, trusting her.
“The sculpture is not meant to be a static representation, frozen in time,” Ring wrote. “The opportunity to work with three figures allowed us to create a dialogue between child, young adult, and St. Theodore.”
To create the two children, Ring drew upon some familiar faces. The boy is modeled after his 23-ear-old son Eli from when he was seven. The teenage girl is his 16-year-old daughter Zoe. Besides his signature on the heals of the figures, hidden in the folds of Sister Mother Théodore’s adornments are all the names of his children.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute and in a sense, give back to where I came from,” Ring said.
The memorial will greet everyone as they enter the parish center.
“I think people will really appreciate this,” Father Brenner said reiterating that she is Indiana’s only saint.
Before the 4 p.m. Mass being led by Bishop Charles C. Thompson, the church will host “In Her Own Words” a dramatic portrayal of the Life of Saint Mother Theodore at 2 p.m. After the mass, the new memorial will be dedicated followed by a catered reception.