History students discover the Middle Ages has living legacies in Indiana

May 16 2008

As a medieval history professor, Steven Stofferahn taught solely from a textbook in the confines of a classroom for several years, but knew there must be a better way.

“I watched my American history colleagues and other professors find ways to engage their students in hands-on learning and get out into the community,” said Stofferahn, assistant professor of history at Indiana State University, “and I thought, ‘It’s too bad that I can’t do that. I teach about the Middle Ages.’”

It was encouragement from the university’s Center for Public Service and Community Engagement that changed Stofferahn’s thinking.

“The center has been making grants available so we can provide these hands-on learning experiences for our students, and it finally dawned on me that of course I can do it too,” he said. “Although we aren’t living in the Middle Ages, we have living legacies of medieval times right here in the Wabash Valley and throughout Indiana.”

Places such as St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana and the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, have clear ties to the Middle Ages, Stofferahn said.

“We have all these hidden treasures in our own backyard. St. Mary-of-the-Woods is only a few miles away and houses the shrine of a newly canonized saint, and only a few of my students had been out there,” he said.

Stofferahn proposed a student research and service-learning project to be embedded within his Medieval Europe history class for the 2008 spring semester, and the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement saw the potential and awarded him a Liberal Learning in Action grant.

“This project was an excellent example of how the content of a liberal education, in this case history, is relevant in contemporary society,” said Nancy Rogers, director of the center. “The field trips in this course allowed students to connect medieval history to the world around them in a manner that simply is not possible within the confines of the classroom. The center was pleased to be able to support Dr. Stofferahn’s project.”

The grant paid for several research trips for the class -- to St. Meinrad Archabbey; the Sisters of Providence; the Carmelite nuns in Allendale; and Allen Chapel and St. Benedict’s Church in Terre Haute. It also allowed Stofferahn to buy copies of relevant books needed for research, which he and his class then donated to ISU’s library.

Students were divided into four research groups -- monastic life; churches and cathedrals; saints and shrines; and stained glass, sculpture and art -- with the task of exploring the medieval roots of these topics and finding out what they could about their modern incarnations in local practices and institutions.

Corinne Nordin, a senior history major from Schererville, found many similarities between the church structures and community of the Middle Ages and of today.

“Churches in medieval times played a community support role,” Nordin said. “People would go there for religious means, to worship, but also to network and make friends. Communities didn’t exist without churches back then. While we’ve found new ways to connect today, church is still a primary way of gathering.”

Nordin and members of her churches and cathedrals group took an in-depth look at what goes into building a church structure.

“We examined the financing, construction, architecture and role in society of churches and cathedrals in the Middle Ages, and then took that information and compared it to modern churches and cathedrals, mainly focusing on St. Benedict’s, St. Mary-of-the-Woods and St. Meinrad,” she said.

Nordin, who hopes to be an archivist after she graduates, made several trips on her own back to the Sisters of Providence to dig deeper into their archives.

“I wanted to take a closer look at their early founding, how their community and church building were financed, how they were able to survive monetarily in an area that didn’t have anything except trees,” Nordin said. “I used the primary source of Mother Theodore Guerin’s journal entries and found that they had to go on tours of Europe to get money. They also depended on the charity of people in the Terre Haute community, who were skeptical because there was no concrete foundation yet.”

Students in the other research groups also were able to become more familiar with the Middle Ages through existing institutions that the era spawned.

The monastic life research group interviewed several monks from St. Meinrad, the modern-day home of nearly 100 Benedictine monks about 140 miles south of Terre Haute, and delved into how they came to choose the cloistered life.

During a research trip to the archabbey in February, the entire class was given a day-long, behind-the-scenes tour of how the modern-day monks live.

“We toured the nearby Monte Cassino shrine, and then Br. Maurus Zoeller guided us on a tour of the monastery and the grounds, telling us about the history of the buildings and the community, the day-to-day running of the monastery, and bringing us into the places where the monks live and pray,” Stofferahn said.

During their time in the archives, they were shown treasures such as the Papal charter which confirmed the status of St. Meinrad as one of only nine archabbeys in the world; and professions of vows written in Latin dating back to the founding of the monastery in 1854.

“People don’t expect to see Benedictine monks dressed in full habits in Indiana in the modern world, and there we were in the midst of them all,” Stofferahn said. “Fr. Anthony Vinson, their vocations director, spoke with us about how people come to choose this way of life. It was a valuable reminder that these institutions are alive and well and right in our midst.”

The class also made a research trip to the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in February. With Sister Barbara Doherty, coordinator of the office of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, as their guide, they were shown the Heritage Room and told the history of the community and their famous foundress; visited the shrine and saw one of the saint’s bones from her hand; and were brought to the archives and library.

“Part of the attraction of a community engagement project is not only to learn something, but to give back to the community,” Stofferahn said. “I told the students they could either write a 25-page paper or produce a historical brochure that could then be given to the community they researched, and two groups chose this second option.”

The saints and shrines group produced a brochure titled, “The Lives and Roles of Saints and Shrines, from Medieval Times to the Present,” which draws a connection between how people viewed saints in the Middle Ages, and newly canonized St. Mother Theodore Guerin, founder of the Sisters of Providence.

“The booklet will be given to the Sisters of Providence for them to use however they would like, such as to hand out to visitors to the shrine or to those coming for devotion,” Stofferahn said. “So many people who visit these places only have a sense of the modern and the here and now, and that’s important, but we also wanted to give them a sense of how rich a history there is in these practices and at these places.”

The stained glass, sculpture and art group was able to witness the current stained glass restoration project going on at Allen Chapel.

“The students got in touch with Joy Sacopulos, who has spearheaded the effort to renovate the church,” Stofferahn said. “They spent several hours with Joy, and videotaped the renovation in progress.”

After that, the project took an unexpected turn, he said.

“Our group went to Artisan’s Glass in Terre Haute to learn about the making of stained glass, and we decided to make our own stained glass window to present in class,” said Georgia Abrams, interior design major and fine arts minor of Greenup, Ill. “We also made a video of us making the window to use during our presentation.”

“Without my knowing it, the students decided to create their own stained glass window,” Stofferahn said. “They got the supplies they needed -- glass-cutters, snippers -- and assembled it and soldered it together themselves. They used pre-blown glass, but other than that, the technology is the same as they used in the Middle Ages.”

The students presented the resulting stained glass to Stofferahn as a gift during their final presentation.

“I was very impressed with their initiative and it was rewarding to see how they discovered on their own a way to ‘get medieval’ in this modern age,” he said. “They really fulfilled that aspect of the learning process.”

The group also produced a pictorial booklet on stained glass windows that is being given to Allen Chapel as a resource for their visitors.

“The goal of this experiential learning, community outreach project was to help the students recognize these medieval roots and legacies that surround us, and that was clearly accomplished,” Stofferahn said. “I can tell from their conversations, their presentations and papers that they have a much deeper appreciation of these roots, and that’s exciting.”

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PHOTO1: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: Steven Stofferahn with pictorial brochures

CUTLINE1: Steven Stofferahn, assistant professor of history at Indiana State University, displays the pictorial brochures his students created for Allen Chapel and the Sisters of Providence as part of the hands-on research and service-learning component of their Medieval Europe history class. (Kara Berchem/ISU)

PHOTO2: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: St. Meinrad Archabbey trip

CUTLINE2: St. Meinrad Archabbey librarian Daniel Kolb shows ISU students some of the older documents in the archives, including a box of artifacts found in the remains of a fire at the monastery. The students made the research trip to St. Meinrad as part of their Medieval Europe history class. (Kara Berchem/ISU)

PHOTO3: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: Sisters of Providence trip

CUTLINE3: Andrew Borden, sophomore history and political science major, and Deanna Cahill, senior history major, view the artifacts of St. Mother Theodore Guerin and the Sisters of Providence on display in the Heritage Room during a research trip to the congregation’s motherhouse at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. Objects in the collection included the saint’s gardening shoes, pocket watch and fob, and penknife. (Katie Spanuello/ISU)

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CONTACT: Steven Stofferahn, assistant professor of history, Indiana State University, 812-237-2721 (w) or 765-414-0112 (c) or stofferahn@indstate.edu

WRITER: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or kspanuello@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Students of Steven Stofferahn taking Medieval Europe history participated in a research and service-learning project to uncover living legacies of the Middle Ages in their own backyard. The project was funded by a grant from the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement.

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