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Original Pews From Indian Normal School Discovered

Story by Fr. Dominic Gerlach, C.PP.S.
May 16,2001

Until very recently, it was assumed that none of the original furnishings of the former Indian Normal School, now known as Drexel Hall, survived. Now we have an exception.

A few weeks ago, the Saint Joseph's College carpenters, sent to clean out the attic of the old building, came upon four church pews with kneelers and book racks. Under one of the pews they found written in large strokes of black paint the name "Rev. Geo. Willard, Rensselaer, Ind." Father Dominic Gerlach, C.PP.S., the College archivist, quickly recognized Fr. Willard as the name of the priest who built the Indian school.

Fr. Willard, Vice Director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions in Washington, D.C., had arrived in Rensselaer by March 1888, when he replaced Fr. Matthias Zumbuelte as pastor of St. Augustine. His primary purpose, however, was to build the Indian school, which was mostly completed by October of that year. Concerning the pews, Willard wrote to his superior at the Bureau on October 12, 1888: "We also need pews or seats for the chapel. I think I can get a carpenter here to make two confessionals and a cupboard to hold the vestments."

We do not know when the pews arrived, but we know where they were made. Stenciled under one of the pews are the words: "Fort Recovery Lumber Co., Fort Recovery, Ohio." This firm was most likely suggested by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, who had a mission house in Fort Recovery.

In fact, two members of the C.PP.S. from Fort Recovery arrived in Rensselaer in October, 1888: Fr. Anthony Dick, who replaced Fr. Willard at St. Augustine, and his provincial director, Henry Drees, who, along with Fr. Dick, took over the management of the Indian school at the end of that year.

The original number of pews may have been 14. A photograph of the College student chapel in Drexel Hall in 1937 shows 14 of these pews. That number would seem to have been ample also for the Indian pupils in 1888. No one knows what has since happened to all these pews. In any case, we are lucky that the pew with identification survived to the present day.

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pews.jpg (302994 bytes)

College carpenters, Steve Williams and Jim Thomas, with one of the discovered pews. Photo courtesy of Fr. Leonard Kostka, C.PP.S.

willard.jpg (96003 bytes)

Very Rev. George L. Willard.

Story from Saint Joseph's College (Rensselaer)


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