The work of historians

Students roll up their sleeves during a trip to southern Indiana — and back in time.

Bluish pre-dawn darkness envelops the interior of Our Lady of Monte Cassino Shrine. The small chapel located at the top of a hill and surrounded by trees features thick walls and small windows. The morning chill numbs your extremities as liturgical chants sung in Latin cascade from the balcony and fill the stillness.

An experience that could easily happen in any century occurred just this past spring for Indiana State students in Professor Steven Stofferahn’s early medieval Europe seminar. In addition to visiting the shrine, they spent an overnight at the St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana.

“I wanted to give them the chance to teleport to the Middle Ages,” he said. “I wanted them to be in that church when it’s completely quiet. The only sound is birds. I wanted them to be in there the moment light streams in the tiny windows from the east.”

The early-morning performance by Stofferahn and Tom Johnson, a professor of psychology who enrolled in Stofferahn’s class, gave way to another musical performance and a chat with Brother John Mark Falkenhain about why one would choose to be a monk in modern times.

“Monks have a connection to the past, but they don’t live in the past. Monks are special because they choose to live in this very distinct way, but monks have never been truly isolated from the world,” Stofferahn said. “These monks have lives. They don’t show up without a past.”

When the class arrived on April 22, they toured the abbey grounds. “Most people have been to Holiday World, but little do they know what’s just five miles away,” said Stofferahn, who started developing a relationship with the monks in 2007 after the idea first occurred to him that a visit to this hidden Indiana treasure might be a good way for his students to have a “medieval” experience.

St. Meinrad was founded in 1854 by two Benedictine monks from the Swiss Abbey of Einsiedeln to minister to the German Catholic population in the area. Now more than 90 monks still offer ministerial services — and watch over the abbey library’s treasure trove of special collections, which includes rare archival documents such as daily dairies and countless correspondence.

Many documents detail the experiences the St. Meinrad monks had operating missions among the Sioux from the 1880s to the 1970s.

Stofferahn was surprised to learn of a personal connection to the abbey. He grew up in South Dakota, and his mother taught at the Pierre Indian Learning Center, a federal boarding school for Sioux children. Several of the students had attended the schools founded by St. Meinrad.

The Meinrad missions also presented Stofferahn with a unique research opportunity. “The way the St. Meinrad monk-missionaries justified their work among the Sioux so closely echoes the way their early medieval predecessors made sense of their own missions to northern European pagans,” he said. “It’s really amazing to read the letters from the 1880s and 1890s and see them put their work in terms of missions that St. Boniface and the Carolingians did in the 700s.”

Stofferahn’s students were each assigned a monk’s archival files and were tasked with answering the question: Can you find any indications, subtle or overt, that his experience working with the Sioux affected him?

Jacob Bender, a junior social studies education major from Clinton, definitely has a greater appreciation for the challenges of working with primary source documents.

“These monks had terrible handwriting,” he said. Bender reviewed letters between a monk leading the mission and one of its primary patrons, a wealthy heiress from Pennsylvania interested in the spiritual welfare of Native Americans.

Shane Sizemore, a history major from Terre Haute who graduated in May, agrees with Bender’s assessment.

“One of the monks I studied, his correspondence was written not only in a hard hand to read, but some of it was also written old German. That was a challenge Dr. Stofferahn put me on, because he knew I was a German student,” Sizemore said. “It took me about an hour and a half to recognize characters I was looking for. It was an archival experience I don’t think I would have gotten any other way.”

Students pose for a photograph while visiting St. Meinrad.

Students pose for a photograph while visiting St. Meinrad.

Stofferahn and several students looked at the journals of Father Pius Boehm, who made daily entries for nearly 40 years.

“We were all reading these diaries … and Caleb (Wright) and Jacob came across this passage where Pius Boehm makes this strong statement arguing for racial equality and treating Native Americans and African Americans with respect. Remember, this is the 1890s,” Stofferahn said.

Boehm, whose biography Stofferahn is writing, lived on the Crow Creek reservation from the late 1880s to the 1930s. He had lived among the Sioux for nearly 10 years when his 1904 travel diary noted his outrage at mistreatment of African-Americans on the train he was on, bound for the World’s Fair in St. Louis.

“Did his experience with the Native Americans change his outlook on the world?” Stofferahn asked. “The students found that really interesting.”

Sizemore plans to continue his education in the hopes of becoming a professor.

“You envision monks as these perfect examples, but they don’t come there that way. They spend their entire life trying to become as Christ-like as possible, which means living alongside people who you may not like and learning to love them,” Sizemore said.

While the trip was during the busiest time of year for the students, it was worthwhile, Bender said. They made good use of the two-and-a-half-hour drive by working on homework and sharing favorite music with everyone in the van.

“The monastery was by far the peak of my semester. I enjoyed every part of the trip. It was awesome,” Bender said. “There’s always noise here. But when you go there, it’s nothing. It’s so secluded. At night, when we were walking around, it’s complete darkness. You can see the stars and everything. It’s so surreal.”

His favorite time period to study is World War II, and Bender said he’d like to teach high school someday, perhaps U.S. and world history, politics and geography.

Bender briefly considered a career change — until he found out how long Mass was. “I was convinced that I should give up my life and become a monk. Brother Jacob — it sounds Biblical,” he laughed.

st-meinrad-monastery3While Stofferahn’s previous three student trips had been daytrips, he was able to expand the experience this time with the support of the university’s Center for Community Engagement.

“I’m so glad we were able to do this,” he said, “because staying on site longer gave us the time to live up to the aims of experiential learning. We weren’t just tourists. We had the opportunity to really get to know something about our hosts, about doing historical research and maybe even about ourselves. It was just a great way to bring it all together.”

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