October 5, 2012

History is alive at 175-year-old St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish

Scott Thralls, a member of St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, stands next to the tombstone of Joseph Thralls, his great-great-great-grandfather, on Aug. 30. Joseph Thralls donated the land on which St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish originally stood. It later became the grounds for the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The Terre Haute Deanery parish is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its founding this year. (Submitted photo)

Scott Thralls, a member of St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, stands next to the tombstone of Joseph Thralls, his great-great-great-grandfather, on Aug. 30. Joseph Thralls donated the land on which St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish originally stood. It later became the grounds for the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The Terre Haute Deanery parish is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its founding this year. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

On Oct. 22, 1840, Mother Theodore Guérin and five other members of the Sisters of Providence arrived in the wilderness of west central Indiana to begin their ministry of education and missionary work among the Catholics along the edge of the American frontier.

The first thing that these women religious did after their long and arduous journey from France was to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in a nearby parish church.

They visited St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish, which had been founded three years earlier by Father Louis Buteux.

Today, 175 years after its founding, the parish still serves the faithful in an area northwest of Terre Haute. And the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods are still centered at their motherhouse on the original grounds of the parish, which moved down the hill from the sisters in 1867.

There have also been members of the Thralls family in the parish from its beginning to the present day.

Scott Thralls is the sixth generation of his family to be a member of St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish. His great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Thralls, donated the land for the original parish and helped build its first church.

He also welcomed Mother Theodore and her sisters into his family’s home upon their arrival in western Indiana.

Scott Thralls naturally feels pride in his family’s heritage at his parish. But that pride almost turns to awe when he considers how many other parishes in nearby Terre Haute and throughout west central Indiana ultimately grew from it.

“It’s just amazing to think that that happened in a small place like this—outside of the big city and across the woods and the river,” he said. “It’s amazing to think that the Catholic community [in west central Indiana] all started around here. It’s mind boggling.”

Thralls’ pride about his family’s past also leads him to work toward securing the parish’s future.

“It makes me feel like it’s my duty to keep it up, to make sure the parish keeps going on,” Thralls said. “There’s quite a bit of pride and a little bit of feeling of duty in it.”

In particular, he wants the seventh generation of his family in the parish, and the children and teenagers of fellow parishioners to find life for their faith there like he and his ancestors have over the years.

“We strongly support the kids and all of the children’s activities through the years,” said Thralls, 49, the father of three sons. “We feel strong about making the kids feel welcome at church and know that that’s their home. That’s where they belong.”

A story shared by Bob Warn, a St. Mary-of-the-Woods parishioner, shows that at least some of the efforts to reach out to children and youths are working.

Warn and his family became parishioners in 1975 when he was hired as the head baseball coach at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

After the team made it to the College World Series in 1986, he had the chance to move on to bigger, more prestigious schools.

“But I said ‘No,’ ” said Warn, who retired from Indiana State in 2006. “And one of the reasons was that our kids didn’t want to leave our parish.”

Warn has helped to organize several events in the parish to mark its historic anniversary. They included a special anniversary Mass and banquet on June 30.

On May 6, various parishioners dressed in costumes as early members of the parish and stood by those members’ graves. As other parishioners walked through the parish’s cemetery, the people in costume told stories about the faith community’s early days.

On Oct. 6, the parish is sponsoring a 1.5-mile fun run and walk on the grounds of the Sisters of Providence motherhouse to benefit the congregations’ Providence Pantry, a food pantry on the property of the former St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish in nearby West Terre Haute.

“It’s been a thrill,” said Warn of the anniversary events. “It gives us momentum to get even more people involved. We’re trying to show the way and get them to realize how much fun it is to do things side-by-side. It’s been a major accomplishment so far to show people what we can do as a parish.”

One of the most significant events connected to the 175-year history of the parish was the 2006 canonization of Mother Theodore as Indiana’s first saint.

“It had a tremendous impact on the parishioners,” said Providence Sister Joan Slobig, parish life coordinator of St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish. “It’s like she’s one of our own. She walked these grounds. So to be able to experience that recognition of her—someone that they feel that they know—was quite a profound experience.”

What also deepened this historic event was the close ties that parishioners have had with the sisters over several generations.

“Through the years, many of the families who are still active members worked for the Sisters of Providence,” Sister Joan said. “You hear story after story of the interactions between parishioners and the Sisters of Providence. There is still a close bond.”

Sister Joan, who has ministered in the parish since 2005, is proud to be a living symbol of that historic connection that dates back to the parish’s earliest days.

“It certainly is a privilege to serve this community and to be enmeshed in that common history that we share,” she said, “and know that the generations have continued to worship in this parish from the very beginning.”
 

(Registration for the fun run and walk sponsored by St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish will begin at 9 a.m. on Oct. 6 on the grounds of the Sisters of Providence motherhouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, with the run and walk starting at 10 a.m. For more information, call 812-535-1261.)

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