Benedictines in Indiana?! Having been a part of a Benedictine group years earlier, I was curious. Oooh, in photos the church looked absolutely stunning. I had to plan a visit.
Situated in the rolling hills of southern Indiana, the Monastery Immaculate Conception is a stunning structure and home to one of the largest Benedictine communities in the US. Signs as I approached spoke to the 150th anniversary that they were celebrating in 2016.
The sisters gave tours multiple times a day (at least during the anniversary celebration). I managed to get a tour all to myself, led by Sister Christine.
The tour began in the lobby, next to a model of the church. Sister Christine discussed the history of the sisters in the US and the construction of the church.
The sisters at the monastery are descended from Benedictine women who came from Germany to teach German immigrants in the US. They started in St. Mary’s, PA and the moved to Eric, PA. Then three of the sisters moved to Covington, KY. Later, in 1867, four sisters came from the Kentucky community to Ferdinand, IN. From these four sisters, the Ferdinand community reached a height of 500 sisters. Currently, the community is home to about 140 sisters, ranging from a sister who is 27 years old to a sister who will be 100 on April 10.
This particular community focuses on teaching as their service. The original sisters were teachers, and in 1870 ran a two-storied boarding school. The boarding school continued to function until 2000, when the student body was less than 100 children.
In 1904, the monastery ran out of space. Mother Kordes decided to dream big. She commissioned a St. Louis architect to build a new church, which is the current building. The cost to build the church was beyond anything that the sisters could afford, but while their funds were small, their faith was huge.
Builders started in 1915 and the exterior was done in 14 months. Unfortunately, so were the funds. Construction on the interior was delayed until 1922 and completed in 1924. In 1930, stained glass windows, which were designed at nearby St. Meinrad, were installed.
By 1997, the church was in dire need of repair; part of the roof was collapsing. On September 10, 2001, the sisters started a capital campaign for repairs. As with initial construction, which coincided with WWI, the sisters again had excellently poor timing. Their capital campaign for renovations started the day before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The sisters managed to fund the exterior restorations and then ran out of money. Interior restoration finally took place March 2004 through August 2005.
After this lengthy history of the sisters and the church building, Sister Christine led me to the church itself, where she pointed out interesting items.
The interior of the church is breathtaking.
The pièce de résistance is the central dome. It is the most striking architectural feature as you approach the church. The dome is 87 feet tall, or 137 feet from the crypts beneath, with a diameter of 32.5 feet.
Because the church is in the National Register of Historic places, during the last renovations, they could only make small changes. They added a holy water font and a reader stand, and moved the sanctuary forward to allow for a wooden dome structure.
The wooden dome structure contains a domed tabernacle with the sacrament and lies directly beneath the sanctuary dome (as opposed to the central dome). In essence, the building contains a dome (tabernacle) within a dome (wooden structure) within a dome (sanctuary).
Incidentally, the wooden dome structure is designed for people to pray within it. I took advantage of this during one of the few times (emphasis on few) that the church wasn’t occupied with many daily services or tours. It was an absolutely awesome experience.
Large statues of angels ring the interior of the sanctuary dome. (When I prayed within the wooden dome structure, I felt the presence of these angels around me.) The entire church contains 89 angels, including cherub faces on the walls, statues of angels, and images of angels in the stained glass windows.
The church contains not one, but two, organs. The organ on the second floor has 1300 pipes and 35 ranks. A second, more easily accessible organ on the main floor was donated in 2010 and has 100 pipes.
The marble and granite floor came from Italy. The stations of the cross around the sides of the church came from Munich.
In the back of the church is an unusual statue of the death of Joseph with Mary and Jesus. Sister Christine commented that over a dozen people on various tours have mentioned seeing this statue before…all saw it in St. Louis.
Sister Christine then led me to side rooms where vestments are stored and priests prepare for services. The south-facing windows from these rooms have beautiful views of the rolling hills, with St. Henry eight miles away in the distance. Sister Christine commented that the view is gorgeous in the winter with the snow blanketing the trees. And then she mentioned that sunsets are great from the balcony just outside the windows.
She also pointed out the turrets on either side of the balcony, commenting that kids love running up and down the curved stairways in the turrets. Cool, I thought! I made a mental note to investigate them. She must have known my thoughts for after a pause, she added that even big kids like to go up and down the turrets. 🙂
Sister Christine then led me out of the church to another room, which was the site of the original church. Sisters now meet here with visitors and family. A portrait of Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria hangs on one wall. (Ferdinand was responsible for sending missionaries to the US…and he is the town’s namesake.)
Our tour ended. Sister Christine welcomed me to use the church anytime between 5:30 in the morning (!) and 9 at night. I then wandered off to explore the grounds…and those turrets.
You can take a virtual tour of the church.