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Monastery of the Immaculate Conception
The Monastery of Immaculate Conception is home to one of the nation’s largest communities of Benedictine women. Built on a prominent hill called Mount Tabor in Ferdinand, Indiana, it is known locally as the “Castle on the Hill.” The Convent was founded in 1867 by four sisters of the St. Benedictine order from St. Walburg Monastery in Covington, Kentucky, who had relocated to Ferdinand in response to a need for German-speaking teachers. After teaching in a parish school, the Sisters opened a girls’ boarding school named Academy Immaculate Conception (later Marian Heights Academy).
After separating from the St. Walburg Monastery in 1871, the Sisters of St. Benedict began building their own monastery in 1883–1887. The two-story brick building was arranged around two equally sized cloister-type courtyards, bisected by the nave of the original chapel. The Romanesque Revival structure features slate-covered gable roofs, round-arched windows, a limestone water table, and blind arcade cornice work; it originally featured a steeple that was later removed. An additional wing, in a similar style, was added to the southeast of this building in 1906.
In 1914, the sisters founded the St. Benedict Normal College, a training school for teachers. A major expansion of the monastery began the following year, when the Sisters hired St. Louis architect Victor Klutho to build a massive new chapel and two new academy buildings on the western end of the 1887 structure. Completed in 1924, this expansion was constructed of the same reddish-brown brick as the earlier building. The neo-Byzantine design features a red pantile roof and prominent rounded and conical forms including a shallow dome resting on a high drum, rounded apse end, turrets, and the round-arched openings of an entrance loggia. The chapel is flanked on the north and south by two-and-a-half-story end pavilions built of the same brick and low hipped red pantile roof.
The chapel is entered via a dark, low-ceilinged narthex, with textured brick, terra-cotta, and Guastavino tiles. At either end are entrances to the academy additions. The narthex gives way to the brightly lit interior of the chapel, which features a barrel-vaulted nave, side aisles, and triforium, along with an 87-foot-high dome and coffered apse ceiling. The interior is flooded with light from the aisle windows, clerestories, windows at the base of the dome, and the large rose windows of the transepts. A number of decorative elements were imported from Germany, including the sanctuary screening, pews, confessionals, and lectern. The relief-molded panels along the side aisles that depict the Stations of the Cross were designed and executed by Munich artists Joseph and Charles Horchert. The chapel contains forty-seven stained glass windows made by the Emil Frei Studios of Munich, Germany. Designed specifically for this church by Reverend Bede Maler of St. Meinrad's Abbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, the windows depict the historical background of the Ferdinand Benedictine sisters. Various statuary pieces located in the church and throughout the convent were produced by Lausberg and Mach, of Louisville, Kentucky, around 1892.
The Academy continued to expand over the years in a style compatible with that of the original convent. A large, five-story structure, connected to the north of the 1887 building, was completed in 1936. The brick building, which features a round-arched piano nobile, continues the limestone water table and slate roof of the earlier structures. St. Joseph's Annex was added in 1950. Benet Hall, a residence hall for the sisters, was built in 1964 northwest of the main building group and preserves the general scale and materials of the earlier structures. Kordes Hall, now a retreat and enrichment center, was dedicated in 1962 and is similar in appearance to Benet Hall. Madonna Hall, a five-story residence hall for the Academy, was built in 1970 and designed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum to complement the original 1887 structure, which it faces to the north.
St. Benedict College closed in 1970 and Marian Heights Academy closed in 2000. But the sisters have adapted to the challenges of their order’s declining numbers. In 1978, they opened the Kordes Retreat Center for outside groups. The Academy’s art building and gymnasium, located east of the core buildings across the main access road, were converted into an event hall and brewery in 2015. Most recently, in 2016, Benet Hall was converted into affordable senior housing.
Dominic, Sister Mary, and Douglas L. Stern, “Convent Immaculate Conception Historic District,” Dubois County, Indiana. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1980. National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, D.C.
“History.” Sisters of St. Benedict. Accessed May 27, 2016. http://www.thedome.org/.
“Monastery Immaculate Conception.” Dubois County Visitor’s Center and Tourism Commission. Accessed May 27, 2016. http://www.visitduboiscounty.com/.
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