Churches, monasteries and other attractions reflect Indiana’s religious roots

Religious traditions have been a rock-solid foundation of Indiana life since the state’s founding, and today you can’t travel far without finding a shrine, temple, church or museum that shines a light on this faith-based heritage. Including such an attraction adds a touch of spirituality to your group itinerary and gives tour members a chance to reflect in peaceful surroundings a bit removed from the secular world.

Meinrad monks

On the leafy campus of Saint Mary of-the-Woods College, a small Catholic school located 10 minutes from downtown Terre Haute, visitors learn about Indiana’s first saint and how she helped early pioneers as they struggled to establish communities in the wilderness. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, born Anne-Therese Guerin in 1798 in France, and a group of Sisters of Providence were asked by the bishop of Vincennes to come to the American frontier to educate settlers and care for the sick. In 1841, under Mother Theodore’s leadership, they established the nation’s first Catholic academy for girls, now coeducational Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods College, and would go on to open other schools and to staff orphanages. Mother Theodore also set up two pharmacies, dispensing remedies based on her knowledge of herbal medicine.

St. Mary of the Woods

The college’s Providence Spirituality and Conference Center has a walkthrough timeline exhibit and dioramas that tell the story of the Sisters of Providence from their days in post-Revolution France to Mother Theodore’s canonization by Pope Benedikt XVI in 2006. The Diorama Hallway leads to the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, where galleries chronicle her life and showcase personal effects such as her garden shoes, pocket watch and rosary beads. The centerpiece of the shrine’s chapel is the walnut casket containing Mother Theodore’s remains; three of her finger bones are displayed in a wood frame on the wall. Proceed to Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which features an exquisite altar carved from one piece of pure white Carrara marble weighing 8,000 pounds. The indoor tour continues down the hall to the stately Church of the Immaculate Conception, patterned after a church in France to honor Mother Theodore’s wish for a chapel similar to one she left behind in her homeland. Two hour guided tours include a Mother Theodore movie.

St. Mary of the Woods

A walking-tour map of the peaceful campus describes outdoor attractions like the life-sized bronze statue of Mother Theodore, a replica of an early log chapel, Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, Stations of the Cross and Saint Anne Shell Chapel, whose walls are embedded with iridescent shells from the nearby Wabash River. A herd of alpacas, raised for their softer-than-cashmere fleece, highlight a walk through the organic farm and gardens, a project of the school’s White Violet Center for Eco-Justice ministry.

Menno-Hof Amish-Mennonite Information Center in Shipshewana, telling the story of two distinctive religious communities through museum exhibits and multi-media presentations, provides a good introduction to Northern Indiana Amish Country. Visitors learn how the Anabaptist movement got its start in 16th century Europe at a time when Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites were persecuted for their beliefs by Catholic and Protestant authorities (the word “Anabaptist,” meaning “to rebaptize,” was attached to a group of believers that called for voluntary adult baptisms at a time when the state allowed only infant baptisms). One exhibit shows a dungeon where Anabaptists were tortured and executed. The story continues with emigration to America, how the Mennonites and Amish live today, and the groups’ humanitarian efforts. In the Tornado Theater, experience the destructive power of a tornado and the work of Mennonite and Amish cleanup crews in natural disasters.

One of Indiana’s architectural jewels is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. With a 218-foot tower containing a 23-bell carillon, the Neo-Gothic church, built in the 1870s, is the nation’s tallest university chapel and boasts the largest collection of 19th century French stained glass windows in the world. Adorning the ceilings and walls are frescoes painted by Vatican artist Luigi Gregori, and there is a free-admission museum. A one-seventh size reproduction of the Grotto of Lourdes in France lies just northwest of the church.

Notre Dame

In St. John, the story of Jesus’ death is told at The Shrine of Christ’s Passion, a half-mile outdoor walking trail with 40 life size bronze statues set on 30 acres made to look like the Holy Land. The journey along the rock-lined road to Calvary starts at the Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemane exhibits and ends with a sculpture of Jesus ascending into heaven. Each biblical scene, such as Pontius Pilate condemning Jesus to death, Jesus bearing the Cross in the presence of a Roman soldier and the Crucifixion, has a listening station with a short meditation. In the shrine’s newest addition, a passageway leads to a pile of huge limestone boulders crowned by the figure of Moses receiving the Ten Commandants on Mount Sinai. The Shrine of Christ’s Passion also inspires with Our Lady of the New Millennium, a 33-foot-tall stainless steel statue of Mary. The large gift shop abounds with stunning displays, offering a vast selection of art, jewelry, candles, books and Nativity sets.

Shrine of Christ's Passion

Christian music fans will want to visit Gaither Family Resources in Alexandria, the hometown of famed gospel singers Bill and Gloria Gaither. Groups can tour the studios where the Gaither Gospel Series has been recordfed for over three decades and a museum displaying memorabilia, photos and awards. The Pure & Simple Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the Common Place meeting room accommodates group meals. The large gift shop has inspirational books and music, including Gaither Homecoming videos and music CDs. Step-on guides are provided for the Hometown Bus Tour, which includes the house where Bill grew up and the school where he and Gloria met.

Tucked away on 108 wooded acres on the southeastern edge of Bloomington, the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center spotlights a religion and two Asian cultures unfamiliar to most Americans. Its focal point is the Kumbum Chamtse Ling Interfaith Temple, whose colorful shrine room has a large, gold-painted Buddha figure and walls adorned with sacred, Tibetanstyle paintings and words in Sanskrit. The upper floor is the monks’ residence. His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet has visited the center several times, and it was his late brother Thubten Jigme Norbu (Tibet’s first political refugee of note) who founded the center in 1979. A professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Norbu established the center to encourage support for Tibetan religion and culture, which has been suppressed by the People’s Republic of China.

Also on the grounds are a meditation trail, two stupas (domed monuments) and a prayer wheel pavilion with drumlike wheels containing prayers written on small strips of paper. The Happy Yak Gift Shop sells jewelry, clothing, prayer beads, Buddhas, wall hangings and other products from around the world, including Nepal, India and Mongolia. Some items were made by Tibetan refugees.

Tibetan Stupa

Two Benedictine monasteries—one inhabited by monks, the other by nuns—welcome visitors touring the rolling hills of southernmost Indiana. About 90 monks live at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a peaceful retreat nestled above the little town of St. Meinrad (population 840). The public may join the monks for prayers and Mass in the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, which was completed in 1907. Built of thick sandstone blocks in the Romanesque style and distinguished by twin bell towers, it houses a replica of the Black Madonna statue found in Einsiedeln Abbey, the mother house in Switzerland (the original statue has been darkened by the soot of centuries of lit candles). Eight tiered rows of choir stalls, made of white oak, serve as the seats for monks at prayer. Unlike a parish church, there are no pews. The first two monks came from Einsiedeln at the urging of a local immigrant priest who sought German-speaking priests to help minister to southern Indiana’s growing German Catholic community and to open a school to prepare men as priests.

Saint Meinrad Archabbey is home to a seminary, school of theology and a guest house/retreat center with 31 single- and double-occupancy guest rooms, a dining room, chapel, and conference and reading rooms. Adjacent to the gift shop is the showroom for Abbey Caskets, which offers locally handcrafted caskets made of cherry, poplar, oak or walnut. Other works of Saint Meinrad include Abbey Press, which markets Christian books, gifts and cards.

On a wooded hilltop a mile away from Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a small sandstone chapel honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been welcoming pilgrims since 1870. Maintained by the archabbey and fresh from a renovation, Monte Cassino Shrine is named for Italy’s Monte Cassino Abbey, where St. Benedict originated European monasticism in the 6th century. New landscaping includes the addition of a prayer garden and a sandstone front patio with benches, which will be especially convenient for the rosary pilgrimages held each Sunday in May and October.

The Sisters of St. Benedict, about 150 strong, invite visitors to tour Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, another hilltop religious landmark in the southern part of the state (only 10 minutes from Saint Meinrad). Known as the “Castle on the Hill,” the red-brick, Romanesque-style building with redtile roofs is capped by an 87-foot-high dome that can be seen from far and wide. Built between 1915 and 1924, the church has a barrel-vaulted ceiling, two rose windows, Italian marble floors and white oak woodwork hand-carved in Oberammergau, Germany. There are 89 depictions of angels and cherubs. The first four Benedictine sisters came from Kentucky in 1867 at the request of the local pastor, who needed German-speaking nuns to teach the children of German immigrants.

Grotto Hill, across from the church, has a replica of the Lourdes shrine, Stations of the Cross, and statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Down the hill is St. Benedict’s Brew Works, the only U.S. craft brewery believed to be located on the grounds of a women’s religious community; revenues are shared with the sisters. The taproom serves pizza, pretzels and beers with playful, abbey-themed names like The Witty Nun, Sanctimonious Stout, Friar Brown and Monktoberfest. The brewery works with the sisters in offering weekend retreats that combine spirituality with beer history and hands-on brewing. The monastery’s Kordes Center offers lodging for overnight guests.

Touring Indiana, a state blessed with a wealth of religious attractions, can be a truly inspirational experience.