Restoring the Chapel of our Sorrowful Mother in Ferdinand

By Kathy Tretter

Special to The Message

Editor’s note: As reported in this story, Christ the King Parish in Ferdinand has received a $100,000 Indiana Historic Renovation Grant to go toward restoration of the Chapel of Our Sorrowful Mother in Ferdinand. Kathy Tretter, editor of the Ferdinand News and a member of the group spearheading the restoration effort, provides this report on the chapel, its history and its future.

Visitors to Ferdinand may notice a spire peeking out from the trees at the town’s highest point, across from the entrance to Monastery Immaculate Conception.

This photo of the Chapel of Our Sorrowful Mother was taken in 2015, and was the inspiration for a group of Christ the King parishioners to form Friends of the Chapel and begin taking steps to restore this iconic and historic structure. If interested in learning more, contact Diane Hoppenjans at 812-367-2908 or 812-631-2007.
Photo by Eric Tretter, special to The Message

The steeple caps the Chapel of Our Sorrowful Mother and is almost hidden from view, although once a prominent feature in the community. For decades, when the first snowfall of the season dusted the ground, generations of children grabbed their sleds and headed for “sled-run hill.”

The hill was named Mount Calvary by Father Joseph Kundek, who founded the community in 1840. A chapel perched atop it had been part of Father Kundek’s vision, but he died before this dream could be realized.

Ferdinand’s fifth pastor, Father Eberhard Stadler OSB, decided to make Father Kundek’s dream a reality; and on July 27, 1875, Father Eberhard received permission from the bishop to erect the chapel.

The cornerstone was laid on Sunday afternoon, June 18, 1876, by Saint Meinrad Abbot Benedictine Father Martin Marty, and was solemnly dedicated by Benedictine Father Fintan Mundwiler, who served as prior of the abbey (now archabbey). This dedication took place on March 23, 1877, appropriately enough, as this was the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The chapel was a place of both celebration and sorrow during the years following. It would serve as the starting point for Rogation Day and other processions, be used for smaller weddings and also provide a place of solace for those who had lost a loved one, especially a child.

By the latter half of the 20th century, however, it was no longer used in the ways Father Kundek intended and was eventually decommissioned as a chapel. The structure served as storage for St. Ferdinand Church.

A group of residents envisioned restoring the structure and finding a viable use for the former chapel.

Built by the German immigrants who settled Ferdinand, the gable-front Romanesque style chapel features 14 arched windows and a solid brick exterior. A choir loft is accessed by winding stairs on two sides, and most of the original fabric is intact. The chapel measures approximately 2,475 square feet. The wooden floors were removed at one point and replaced with concrete, which created ventilation problems and led to some deterioration of the plastered walls.

Sadly, in an effort to update the chapel in the 1960s, the chapel’s murals were chemically removed before the interior was whitewashed. The decorative artwork for the most part is still intact but buried under two to three coats of paint.

The group now known as Friends of the Chapel decided restoration was imperative; but for what purpose?

Father John Schipp, retired priest of the Diocese of Evansville, posited the idea. “What about a columbarium, a place to entomb cremated remains?”

The idea resonated.

With then-Bishop Charles C. Thompson’s blessing, this group set about to restore the historic Chapel of Our Sorrowful Mother. The approved goal is to revive its use as a chapel for all Christians and as a columbarium for the entombment of cremains.

An initial grant funded a feasibility study and has been included with a nomination to have the entire St. Ferdinand Parish District placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This Restoration & Structural Rehabilitation Study was completed in December 2016 by historic restoration contractor Christopher Wilmes and architect Thomas Wilmes, and included a broad list of needed repairs. The 2016 estimated cost of $424,522 did not include the installation of a restroom, sewer hook-up, or interior decorative painting; nor did it include the installation of the columbarium niches.

None of the funds generated for Christ the King Parish by the Stewards of God’s Grace campaign has been designated for the restoration of the chapel due to more urgent needs. Christ the King Parish has its own share of pressing matters that have taken precedence, including building a new maintenance/storage building on the parish campus and refurbishing St. Henry Church.

After additional assessment by committee members, they came to the conclusion a project goal of $1,000,000 would not only restore, renovate and breathe new life into the chapel, it would provide a $250,000 endowment to help with expenditures and expenses into perpetuity.

The Friends of the Chapel committee met with local contractors and roofing specialists to address the most immediate needs to prevent further damage. Exterior restoration took precedence. Thanks to donations by various entities and individuals and another grant, the roof, which appeared to have reached the end of its life cycle was replaced last summer, along with the gutters. The steeple was also repaired and will soon be enhanced with a gold overlay.

Priorities this year are the windows and tuckpointing. To that end, word was received on Monday, July 20, from Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs that the Chapel was one 12 properties to receive funding through the State’s Historic Renovation Grant Program.

Christ the King Parish (St. Ferdinand Church) was awarded $100,000 via a 50/50 Historic Preservation Grant match to restore and protect the stained-glass windows, refurbish the art glass, install new protective coverings, and re-point masonry.

Leading the charge for this massive preservation effort is Diane Hoppenjans and her husband, Alvin. The couple is joined in the effort by Christ the King Parish Administrator Father Anthony Govind, Father Schipp, Benedictine Sister Barbara Lynn Schmitz, Gloria Rahman, Lori Klem, Kathy Tretter and Winston Glenn. Together they are the Friends of the Chapel.

The original group included then-Pastor Father Jack Durchholz, who now serves as pastor at St. Clement Parish in Boonville. The group provided a report on their work to Bishop Joseph M. Siegel upon his arrival to serve as the seventh bishop of Evansville, and he added his blessing to the effort.

“We are so excited to continue the progress of restoring this gem that is so historically significant to the town and county,” Diane Hoppenjans enthused. “With this grant, we can tackle phase two and phase three, and secure the safety of the interior from the elements.”

The Christ the King Parish Grounds and Buildings Committee will continue being caretakers of the building. The sale of columbarium niches, once the project is completed, will be handled much the same as with the sale of cemetery plots.

“The Chapel of Our Sorrowful Mother speaks to our faith, as well as to the heritage of our town and of Dubois County. Its stewardship has been entrusted to successive generations for over 140 years, and our long-range goal is to preserve this treasure for generations to come,” Hoppenjans concluded.