Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.

With these simple words Rabbi Maurice Davis described his 1965 trip to Selma to the readers of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post. Rabbi Davis’s “walk” was a protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against institutional racism, voter suppression, and violence against African Americans. When King asked civil rights leaders from around the country to join him in Alabama, Davis had no question that it was his duty to join the demonstration of solidarity. Davis had long worked for civil rights through both secular and faith-based channels. He advocated for community action in his sermons to the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. He led several civic action councils that combated segregation, racist policies, and poverty. And he extended his appeal for civil rights to the entire city through a regular newspaper column and a television show. Mostly, however, Rabbi Davis marched at Selma “because it was right.”

Jewish Post, January 20, 1956, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“You Were a Spark for Us”

Maurice Davis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921. Census records show that his Russian-born father Jacob managed a garage while his mother Sadie cared for five children. They did well for themselves and were able to send Maurice first to Brown University in 1939 and then to the University of Cincinnati where he received his B.A. in 1945. He then received his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After serving several different congregations as a student rabbi, he became rabbi of Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky in 1951. By this point he was already active in the local civil rights movement and joined the Kentucky Commission Against Segregation.

Sketch of current home of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation at 6501 North Meridian Street, accessed https://ihcindy.org/who_we_are/history

Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC) in March 1956, in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the large congregation which was in the process of planning their new temple at 64th and Meridian, which still houses the IHC today (a move from their earlier location at the Market Street Temple.) As the ninth Rabbi serving the IHC, Davis continued to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors, according to the Jewish Post. In his first year, he attracted eighty new congregants, and  temple brotherhood president Herman Logan wrote in the congregational bulletin:

You were a spark for us which turned into a flame when a new brotherhood was beginning.

It was an auspicious start for the young rabbi.

“Something Less Than Welcome”

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, his wife Marion, and their sons Jay and Michael, some other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that Rabbi Davis’s son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool at 5640 North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son. The rabbi told his congregation that while many people think segregation in the private sphere “has no meaning” and should be tolerated, it does have meaning to the people it affects. And in this case, the meaning was that a nine-year-old boy was made to feel inferior to his peers.

Jewish Post, January 1, 1958, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Jewish Post pursued the story, reporting on a survey of five “exclusive” Indianapolis clubs. Each club, including the Riviera Club, claimed not to discriminate against Jews. Some of the club chairmen and presidents even claimed they had Jewish members. However, when the Jewish Post interviewed the club managers, they reported that they knew of no Jewish members. Others in the club leadership claimed no Jews had applied for membership or that they did not keep track of religious affiliation. From the perspective of the Post, none gave a straight answer.

Jewish Post, July 17, 1959, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, July 29, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis did not only respond to discrimination when it was personal. He believed that it was his responsibility, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. In response to a 1960 Indianapolis Times poll of religious leaders (reported by the Jewish Post), two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis (Congregation B’nai Torah and Shara Tefila) reported that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of the synagogue to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and “to speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

Jewish Post, October 13, 1961, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis not only advocated for equality for Jews, but all people facing oppression. He encouraged Jews to look beyond their own community and work to end discrimination everywhere. He stated, “A decent and sensitive America is good for all Americans and we must help her be so” (more here). Indianapolis’s African American community took note. In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis its “honorary chairman” and the Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on his efforts to fight segregation and inequality. As president of the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, Davis worked to end racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and created segregated neighborhoods (more here). He conducted personal investigations of restaurants and other establishments which had reputations for discriminating against African Americans and reported his findings in the Jewish Post (more here). By 1962, he had a regular column giving his views on issues of the day and often advocating for civil rights.

Jewish Post, July 27, 1962, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

His columns were  often fiery calls to action. For example, in September 1963, he responded to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful arguments against injustice were often shaped by the legacy of the holocaust. He continued:

Segregation and discrimination, lead to bombing and lynching as surely as anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And any man who walks that path, has not the right to be amazed where it leads. We who know the end of the road, must say this openly, and believe this implicitly, and practice it publicly. And privately. And always.

Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis received a bomb threat of his own.

“My Name Was One of Them”

Photograph of John Lewis, Hosea William, Albert Turner and Bob Mants Leading Marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Records Group 406, accessed National Archives Catalog.

By 1965, the civil rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the suppression of African American votes and the recent killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (more here: International Civil Rights Center and Museum). On March 7, the protesters led by John Lewis began a peaceful march, but were soon stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by state troopers and Dallas County police who were waiting for them. In an incident remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” police violently attacked the unarmed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas. Police beat Lewis unconscious. On March 9, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Selma and called for others to join him. That day, a larger group followed King back to the bridge to kneel in prayer, but dared go no further as a federal judge had issued a restraining order against the march. Many were disappointed that King did not attempt to march on toward Montgomery. Others, however, credit his concession with expediting the passage of the Voting Rights Act.*

Hammond Times, March 8, 1965, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The night of the second march to the bridge a group of white men killed Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. Related protests erupted across the country and King called for a third march. On Sunday, March 21, civil rights leaders and supporters from around the country arrived in Selma to march over the infamous bridge to Montgomery. Rabbi Maurice Davis would march in the front lines.

When the Indianapolis Star reported that Rabbi Davis and David H. Goldstein (of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council) had left for Selma, the newspaper estimated that these Hoosiers would join around 300 people. Instead, Davis reported that they joined thousands at Brown Chapel Methodist Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival at the church:

As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way . . . The road leading to the church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized.

While President Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Davis and Goldstein met with some other rabbis after the service who had arrived before them. These rabbis told them that they were unable to buy a meal or place to stay, the reason being the Selma residents insisted on giving the activists whatever they needed.

Davis and Goldstein also looked to find out from the other rabbis where they could get yarmulkes, as a shipment was supposed to have recently arrived. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be as clearly visible as those of other faiths to show their support and numbers. They told Davis, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Davis and Goldstein had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Sabbath behind bars Friday, they announced they would hold a  service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.” According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported that “all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Daily News Bulletin, March 23, 1965, accessed Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Davis was asked if he would represent the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When he agreed, he was pulled up onto the platform next to King during the latter’s “magic” sermon. Davis explained:

Nothing but the word “magic” can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Post Archive. Rabbi Davis can be seen just behind King and to his left.

The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Davis stated:

Before the march began a list of 20 names were read to accompany Rev. King in the first three rows, and my name was one of them. I marched proudly at the front . . .

He continued:

On the street we formed three rows of 8, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.

Richmond Palladium-Item, March 22, 1965, 14, accessed Newspapers.com.

When they arrived at the infamous bridge they paused to remember those who came before them and were attacked. They continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers were taking pictures of the marchers. Davis explained:

This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people . . . We kept on marching.

The marchers passed people who “waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement” and others, “whites who taunted, jeered, cursed” or “stood with stark amazement at this incredible sight.” At one point they passed a car painted with hateful signs “taunting even the death of Reverend Reed.” Other signs read “Dirty communist clergy go home” and “integrationist scum stay away.”

Rabbi Davis marched for twelve hours without sitting down or eating. Unfortunately, Davis did not get to finish the march. Instead, he was called to fly to Cincinnati that night to be with his father-in-law who had been admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. When Daivs finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

“It’ll be too late when it goes off.”

When Rabbi Davis answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. Davis told the caller he was calling the police, but the man replied: “It won’t do any good to call the police . . . it’ll be too late when it goes off.”

Jewish Post, March 26, 1965, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Police searched the house and found nothing.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to protect his family. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seems the rabbi was most hurt that the threats were possibly coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:

Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.

“The Time Has Come to Worship with Our Lives”

Like King, Davis did not dwell on the darkness of humanity but used it as a chance to shine a light of hope on the potential of his fellow man. Just days after the threats on his family, the Jewish Post published a section of a sermon in which Davis explained why he felt called to join King in Selma. Davis stated that many people had asked him why he went. And he had trouble at first finding the right words. He liked the Christian term of “witnessing,” that is, seeing God in an event. He also liked the Hebrew term that Rabbi Abraham Herschel, who was also at Selma used: “kiddush ha-Shem,” that is, sanctifying God’s name. But in his personable manner, he ended up giving a simpler explanation to the Post:

I know now what I was doing in Selma, Alabama. I was worshiping God. I was doing it on U.S. 80, along with 6,000 others who were doing precisely the same thing, in 6,000 different ways.

Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 27, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

He called others to join him. He referred to injustices that needed to still be overcome in order to unite all of humanity as a “brotherhood postponed” and tasked his followers with making sure that while such unity is delayed, it is not destroyed. The way to achieve justice was not only to pray in the traditional way, but also with actions. He wrote:

Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains. “One God over all” has to mean “one brotherhood over all.”

Muncie Evening Press, April 28, 1965, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He was again named honorary chairman of the NAACP. He served as a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights and on the board of the United Negro College Fund. He was president of the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations and organized the Community Action Against Poverty (sponsored by the City of Indianapolis and the President’s Commission on Equal Opportunity).

Jewish Post, January 22, 1986, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

He never forgot his march with King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country:

You hear a song, or sniff an aroma, and all of a sudden you are miles and years away . . . It happens, too, with birthdays. January 20 was a very special day. The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom he loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.

Notes:

The impetus for this story came from Jennie Cohen, Publisher, Jewish Post & Opinion.

Sources for Davis’s report of the march:

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Heschel Finds The Right Word For It,” (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 2, 1965, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Davis Tells Why He Went to Selma,”(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Other sources are linked within the text.

*For more on the disappointment of some civil rights activists with King’s role in the Selma to Montgomery marches see: Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., eds., Freedom on My Mind: A HIstory of African Americans with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s 2013), 675-6.

Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s Legendary Train Ride

Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Literary History Blog.
Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and American Literary Blog.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.
Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.

He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”

General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.

An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.
An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.

On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:

[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.

General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.
General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.

Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”

The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.
The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mail and the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.

Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story.  However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, Joseph Vardamann, asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel.  Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”

Ingersoll's letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in an 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Ingersoll’s letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in a 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place.  In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.”  This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.

While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.

The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Hoosier Saint: Saint Theodore Guérin

Guerin graphic
Graphic created from: Oil painting of Mother Theodore Guérin from 1858. Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Image of Mother Theodore Guerin, Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

In the early and mid 1800s, girls and young women in Indiana had limited access to educational opportunities.  Indiana historian Richard Boone noted that the state held “a prejudice against the education of girls with their brothers,” but “an impulse was early manifested” to establish schools for young women.

By 1850, approximately 14 schools for girls existed within the state. Young women also found it more difficult to obtain access to higher education during the early and middle 1800s. Most universities only allowed men to attend classes; Indiana University did not admit its first female student until 1867. During this time, however, there were dedicated individuals who worked to change the status quo. During her lifetime, Saint Theodore Guérin, recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 2006, provided educational opportunities to Indiana’s girls and young women through the establishment of schools, most notably Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Saint Theodore Guérin was born and baptized at Etàbles in Brittany, France on October 2, 1798. Her parents, Isabelle le Fèvere and Laurent Guérin, named her Anne-Thérèse Guérin. During the first twenty-five years of Guérin’s life she faced numerous hardships. Before she reached the age of 13, she reportedly lost two brothers. When she was 15 years old, thieves robbed and murdered Guérin’s father, a French naval officer who served under Napoleon near Avignon, France. He was on furlough and heading home. After the loss of a husband and two sons, Guérin’s mother came down with a “severe illness,” leaving Anne-Thérèse Guérin to care for her mother and nine-year-old sister Marie.

The Indiana Historical Bureau and Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods installed a marker honoring Guerin in 2009.
IHB and the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods installed a marker honoring Guérin in 2009.

Guérin was a devout Catholic from a young age. She took her first communion at the age of ten. After ten years of caring for her mother, Anne-Thérèse Guérin left home and committed herself to becoming a nun. At the age of 25, she became a postulant at the Sisters of Providence in Ruillé, France on August 18, 1823, and received the religious name Sister Saint Theodore Guérin. Immediately following her entrance into the
convent, Sister Saint Theodore suffered from a severe illness that impaired her health for the rest of her life. She could never eat solid foods again. After her recovery, the Sisters of Providence assigned Sister Saint Theodore Guérin to missionary work in Pruilly-sur-Claise.

After a short period of time as a postulant, Sister Saint Theodore recited her first vows on September 8, 1825. She professed her perpetual vows on September 5, 1831. Around the same time she declared her first vows, Sister Saint Theodore received the appointment of Superior to the Sisters of Providence educational establishment in Rennes. For ten years, Sister Saint Theodore assisted the convent in establishing numerous schools and orphanages in Rennes, but a dispute with the Superior General of the Sisters of Providence resulted in a transfer of Sister Saint
Theodore. Her new assignment relocated her to Soulaines, a small country mission where her talents, as one biographer stated, “would find a much narrower scope.”

Bishop Simon Bruté of Vincennes. Image in public domain.
Simon Bruté, Bishop of Vincennes. Image in public domain.

After only a year in Soulaines, France, Sister Saint Theodore Guérin was “voted medallion decorations” by the French Academy Board of Education in 1836. One year earlier, in 1835, the Reverend Simon Bruté, the first Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, visited Rennes, France. He and the Reverend Célestine de la Hailandiére, soon to be Vicar-General of the Vincennes Diocese, became acquainted with the various charitable works of the Sisters of Providence. Four years later, in 1839, Bishop Bruté sent his Vicar-General on a recruiting mission to France from Indiana. The Reverend Hailandiére searched for sisters of the Catholic faith willing to move to the United States and create schools and orphanages for the Vincennes Diocese.

When the Reverend Hailandiére reached France, he received news that Bishop Bruté had died on June 26, 1839. He also obtained confirmation of his own appointment as the new Bishop of Vincennes. While in France, Bishop Hailandiére convinced six members of the Sisters of Providence to come to the United States and start a school in his Diocese. Hesitant because of her frail health, Sister Saint Theodore Guérin initially did not accept Bishop Hailandiére’s invitation, but, after careful consideration and prayer, she finally took a leadership position in the operation.

* * *

On July 12, 1840, Sister Saint Theodore and the other sisters began their journey, departing from Ruillé, France. Fourteen days later on July 26, 1840, they left for Vincennes on the ship, Cincinnati. On September 4, 1840, the Cincinnati dropped anchor in New York. After traveling from New York by train, stagecoach, and steamboat the sisters rested in Madison, Indiana. On October 1, 1840, Bishop Hailandiére and three other men told the sisters they would not be starting a school in Vincennes. The Vincennes Diocese decided Terre Haute needed their services more. After various difficulties, Sister Saint Theodore and the other nuns arrived in the middle of a thick, village-less forest four miles outside of Terre Haute on October 22, 1840. Eventually, this became the site of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Sketch of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1845. Digital Image Copyright © 2007 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

The sisters lived with a farmer, Joseph Thralls, and his family during construction of their motherhouse and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods school. Workers also cleared land for farming and chopped wood for winter. During the school’s construction, Bishop Hailandiére visited the sisters on November 12, 1840, and awarded Sister Saint Theodore the title of “Mother.” Soon thereafter the Sisters of Providence began accepting new women ready to join the convent.

The first postulant arrived on May 1, 1841. On October 9, 1841, the Wabash Courier (published in Terre Haute) advertised the “Convent and Academy,” headed by “Sister Theodora Guerin.” After the establishment of their first school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the sisters’ educational influence spread quickly throughout the state. On March 21, 1842, the Sisters of Providence opened a Girls’ Boarding School in Jasper. Despite terrible hardships, the convent opened 19 schools and orphanages between 1842-1856, spanning from Evansville to Vincennes to Fort Wayne.

Perhaps the most significant difficulty faced by the sisters was a fire that destroyed their barns and granaries on October 2, 1842, burning various provisions needed for the upcoming winter. Impoverished by fire, Mother Theodore Guérin, Sister Mary Cecilia and other unnamed sisters left Terre Haute for France on April 26, 1843 in search of financial aid. One month later, Mother Theodore and her traveling companions arrived in France upon the Silvia. During their stay, Mother Theodore Guérin and Sister Mary Cecilia met with Queen Marie Amelie of France, and secured money for the voyage back to the U.S. The Queen also began taking donations that later helped fund new schools.

On November 28, 1843, Mother Theodore and the sisters left France on the Nashville. The boat headed to the Gulf of Mexico and docked in New Orleans. The passengers and crew faced numerous hardships on the voyage back to the United States. The Nashville nearly sank during a hurricane, and Mother Theodore became “seized with fever” while in New Orleans. The sisters then traveled up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers to return to Terre Haute. Mother Theodore Guérin and the other sisters finally returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods on April 1, 1844.

A statue of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin by Teresa Clark at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill. An inscription on the front of the statue is a quote from Guerin that reads, "Love the children first, then teach them."
A statue of Saint Mother Theodore Guérin by Teresa Clark at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill. An inscription on the front of the statue is a quote from Guérin that reads, “Love the children first, then teach them.” Image from Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods blog.

Mother Theodore Guérin continued to advance women’s educational opportunities after she returned from France. Mother Theodore Guérin and the Sisters of Providence established a seminary of higher education for women at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. On January 14, 1846, nearly six years after arriving in Terre Haute, Governor James Whitcomb approved the Articles of Incorporation for the Female Seminary of St. Mary’s of the Woods (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College).

After 12 more years of continuous educational service with the Sisters of Providence, Mother Theodore Anne-Thérèse Guérin died on May 14, 1856. She was buried on the grounds of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. On December 3, 1907, Mother Theodore’s remains were moved from the burial plot to a crypt. During the re-burial process workers discovered what is considered the first sign of Mother Theodore’s holiness: her brain was still intact.

Almost a year later, on October 30, 1908, the first miracle attributed to Mother Theodore Guérin occurred. Sister Mary Theodosia, who was suffering from cancer, stopped at Mother Theodore’s tomb to pray for another ill sister, Sister Joseph Therese O’Connell. The next day Sister Theodosia’s ongoing pain vanished. A medical examination later could not find the cancerous tumor.

Image of Mother Theodore Guerin, Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Image of Mother Theodore Guerin, Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

This unexplained occurrence piqued the interest of the Indianapolis Diocese. Two months after Sister Mary Theodosia prayed at Mother Theodore’s tomb, Bishop Joseph Chartrand of the Indianapolis Diocese wrote to the Sister’s of Providence Superior General, Mother Mary Cleophas Foley, to indicated that initial “proceedings regarding” Mother Theodore’s canonization would be discussed on December 6, 1908. Many members of the Diocese began to diligently gather the needed information about Mother Theodore Guérin, including interviewing people such as Mother Anastasie Brown who worked with the foundress.

In January 1914, the Reverend Alphonaus Smith and the Reverend John T. O’Hare officially initiated the rigorous process of canonization for Mother Theodore Guérin when they left for Rome with about 500 sealed typewritten pages of evidence. Years passed as different Catholic committees performed the needed tasks to complete Mother Theodore’s canonization. In June, 1975 members of the Indiana Academy elected the late Mother Theodore Guérin into their organization. The academy was created by the “Associated Colleges of Indiana to honor Hoosiers who have enriched the cultural and civic life of the state.”

During the 1990s the canonization of Mother Theodore gained momentum. In November 1996, Vatican medical consultants approved the healing of Sister Mary Theodosia as a miracle. Four months later, in March 1997, the Sister Theodosia miracle was approved by Vatican theologians, and acknowledged by the Cardinals in June that same year. On October 25, 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Theodore Guérin in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The church gave her the title, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin. Pope John Paul II stated at the ceremony that

“Her life was a perfect blend of humanness and holiness. She was fully human, fully alive, yet her deep spirituality was woven visibly through the very fabric of her life.”

Pope Benedict XVI proceeds to the altar at St. Peter's Square for the canonization of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin in 2006. Digital Image Copyright © 2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods
Pope Benedict XVI proceeds to the altar at St. Peter’s Square for the canonization of Saint Mother Theodore Guérin in 2006. Digital Image Copyright © 2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

In 2001, doctors diagnosed Phillip McCord, an employee at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, with a swollen cornea. Physicians told McCord that he needed a risky surgical procedure to transplant a new cornea. Although not a Catholic, McCord prayed to Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin for help. Slowly his condition improved over a matter of weeks, and doctors were amazed at his recovery without surgery. According to a 2006 article in the Criterion, McCord had “better than 20/20 vision in both eyes.” With the approval of this final miracle, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin was canonized and officially determined to be a Saint on October 15, 2006. The Vatican gave the new Saint the religious name Saint Theodora Guérin, but the Sisters of Providence refer to her as Saint Mother Theodore Guérin.

In addition to her sainthood, Guérin’s ongoing legacy features her efforts to spread learning throughout Indiana. As of 2008, her most prominent endeavor, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, continues the mission it began under Saint Theodore Guérin, to provide women with educational opportunities. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College enrolls 1,700 students and offers campus-based undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificate programs.  After 175 years of operation, the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods’ Board of Trustees voted for the college to become fully co-educational in 2015.

To view the citations and annotations used in this post click here.

Wabash Valley Visions and Voices Digital Memory Project holds an impressive collection of digitized artifacts, and documents associated with Saint Theodore Guérin as well as historical sketches of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

 

Fort Wayne Pioneer: Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman

j appsfinal
Johnny Appleseed, image courtesy of biography.com.

John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, serves as an example of a part of the religious fervor on the western frontier in the years before the Civil War.  The legends and tales about him that grew even in his own lifetime rivaled those of his contemporaries, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.  Like them, Chapman’s career in the wilderness as a preacher and Good Samaritan quickly got caught up in the American imagination.

Johnny Appleseed had been on the frontier for several decades before coming to Fort Wayne, possibly as early as 1822.  Already many stories were told of this gentle man’s propagation of fruit trees in odd plots of land all over the Pennsylvania and Ohio wilderness, his love of wildlife, and the awe in which American Indians regarded him as a powerful medicine man.

He repeated the Bible verse Song of Solomon 2:5, which stated “refresh me with apples.” Johnny Appleseed declared “with apples shall men be comforted in the wilderness of the West.”  A holy man he was, for his principal aim was to bring, “some news right fresh from heaven” as he read from the Beatitudes to the settlers he visited in cabins in the forest. He told them of the spiritual happiness he enjoyed through the teachings of the Church of New Jerusalem. Ironically, the apples produced were not like the sweet apples we eat today, and therefore the fruit was more likely to be used for hard cider. This explains why many of the orchards he planted were destroyed during Prohibition.

One eyewitness described Johnny Appleseed’s appearance when he came to Fort Wayne as:

“simply clad, in truth clad like a beggar.  His refined features told of his intelligence, even though seen through the gray stubble that covered his face since he cut his hair and beard with scissors.  Johnny was serious, his speech clean, free from slang or profanity.  He traveled on foot – sometimes with just one shoe or two different kinds of boots.”

Some descriptions have him wearing his cooking pot for a hat, at times with other parts of hats – the crown or the brim – on top of his tin cap.  Other biographers claim that because his mush-pot hat did not protect his eyes from the bright sun well enough that he fashioned one made of pasteboard with a large peak in front.  Although his eccentric appearance occasionally caused anxiety or even alarm in some people, by and large, he was well liked for his sincere and kind ways.

bw final
Artist depiction of John Chapman tending one of his apple tree plots, image courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

Exceptionally strong for his tall slim frame, one pioneer observed that Johnny Appleseed was able to get more work done clearing the forests in one day than most men could finish in two.  Above all else, however, he was appreciated for his great ability to tell stories about his church, of his many adventures on the frontier, his narrow escapes in the wilderness, his interactions with American Indians, and his association with the wildlife of the Midwest, from bears to wasps.

Johnny Appleseed showed a great reverence for all life, including the lowly insects. In fact, he became a vegetarian later in life.  One story often told was that when he was being stung by a hornet that had crawled into his shirt, he carefully removed his shirt to allow the creature to go on its way unharmed rather than kill the stinging nuisance.  On another occasion he put out his evening camp fire to avoid the possibility of the moths being destroyed in the flames.  He was known to have purchased an aged horse from a pioneer who was continuing to put the creature to work, in order that the animal could spend its last days peacefully at pasture. A settler once described him saying that he was like, “good St. Francis, the little brother of the birds and the little brother of the beasts.”

g
Notice, Fort Wayne Sentinel, April 19, 1845, accessed NewspaperArchive.com.

Johnny Appleseed died in 1845 at the age of 71.  He had been protecting his saplings from some cows that had broken down the fence of one of his orchards just north of Fort Wayne.  He was overcome by his exertions and succumbed to what the people of the time called the “winter plague.”  He was buried along the St. Joseph River and the old feeder canal bed on the Archer farm, but the actual site is not known today; a commemorative marker** sits atop the hill in present-day Johnny Appleseed Park, which was once the Archer family cemetery. Each year during the Fort Wayne festival that bears his name, visitors remember the comfort John Chapman brought to the west, for around his memorial children fondly place their gifts of apples.

stone
Memorial gravesite at the Fort Wayne Johnny Appleseed Park, image courtesy of North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Services.

**This marker is not associated with the Indiana Historical Bureau State Historical Marker Program.

apppaposerlasjflksd

Learn more about Johnny Appleseed and his influence on cultural history with William Kerrigan’s book, sold at IHB’s Book Shop.