By Lacey Henson
The St. Mary’s Village Church celebrated its 175th anniversary earlier this year with most of the praise for its continued success going to its parish members, who have supported it spiritually and financially since its founding.
Being the oldest Catholic Church in Vigo County, it has been a place of faith for many generations of families in the surrounding area.
“The history of the parish is very rich,” said Parish Life Coordinator Sister Joan Slobig.
Of the nearly 160 people who attend the parish regularly, about 90-100 of them are related, Slobig said.
The parish caters to the wide age range.
“We have a vibrant religious education program of about 70 children,” Slobig said.
The religious education program, which is similar to Sunday school in Protestant denominations, helps children become educated in their faith, Slobig said.
Emma Bird, a sophomore studying history and theology at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, volunteers as a catechist, teaching second and third graders in the religious education program.
“I love being with the kids and getting them excited about their faith,” Bird said in an e-mail. “It’s wonderful to answer their questions and see that light bulb turn on.”
Bird, a lifelong member of the parish, has deep family roots in the church. Her grandfather’s ancestors came to America in the 1840s and were living in the area at the same time St. Mother Theodore was alive.
The religious education program allows its participants to give back to their community. Bird has helped organize a service project to pick up trash in the nearby area.
“It’s so great to see them get excited about volunteering and social justice,” Bird said.
Another SMWC student, Jena Thralls, has a long-standing family history with the parish. Her last name is familiar to anyone who knows the history of the founding of the parish.
Father Gabriel Brute was consecrated the first Bishop of the Vincennes region in 1826 with a large portion of Illinois and Indiana to serve.
While on a horseback ride tending to his members, Bishop Brute met the Thralls family at their small pioneer station west of the Wabash River.
Believing that the area was special, he decided to recognize it, naming it Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
In no time, Bishop Brute paid Joseph and Sarah Thralls $15 for about one acre of land to build the first church in what is now St. Mary’s Village.
Jena Thralls’s family still attends St. Mary’s Village Parish since her ancestors met the bishop five generations ago.
“To be here, and know that my ancestors walked this land with St. Mother Theodore over 175 years ago is an unbelievable feeling,” said Thralls, a senior studying journalism, in an e-mail response. “My family has always held this land sacred.”
Thralls said her grandparents were very driven by faith.
“In every single room of their house they have pictures of St. Mother Theodore and Jesus Christ,” Thralls said. “They always had so much to tell me about St. Mother Theodore and how much she meant to them.”
Thralls said that her father keeps a coin with Saint Mother Theodore on it in his pocket.
“I think it’s sort of like a good luck charm.”
Thralls believes that Providence has kept her safe.
When she was a senior in high school, she and two cousins were in a wreck on St. Mary’s road while on their way into town to do mission work. Due to the icy and slick conditions, their Jeep flipped over a guardrail. No one was injured.
“While we were standing there talking to the police, I found one of those coins with St. Mother Theodore on it. I showed it to my cousins and I put it in my pocket. I’ve kept it ever since,” Thralls said.
Her family’s close connection to the area influenced Thralls’s decision to attend SMWC.
“If I had gone anywhere else, I would not be where I am today. I appreciate everything about this place,” Thralls said.
Other SMWC students attend services at the Village Parish.
“We would love to have Woods student volunteer in the Religious Education program,” Slobig said.
The parish is also interested in finding musically gifted people to be Liturgical music volunteers and to help organize a children’s choir, according to Slobig.
“We have talented children and would like their talent to be used in church,” Slobig said.
The church supports Providence Food Pantry and recently participated in Relay For Life.
“We hope to expand outreach in the community and be a presence for those looking for a place of worship,” Slobig said.