Several years ago I was part of a team invited to submit proposals on renovating the "Indian Normal School" in Rensselaer, across the street (and part of the campus) from St. Joseph College. I remember driving south out of town and seeing the campus rise out of the wooded area acting as a buffer between it and the sprawl quickly overtaking the surrounding cornfields. Then, down a long lane on the east side of the road sat this impressive building known as the Indian Normal School. We got a tour of the less than impressive state of repair. The building had a courtyard in the center of it, which I thought was a remarkable feature.
I became familiar with the desire of a certain woman named Drexel who constructed the building as a missionary project to "normalize" Indian boys taken from reservations. I don't question her good intentions despite what we would consider maybe inappropriate today, but I always think that examples of people living out their faith in real ways are remarkable. So while in Rensselaer not long ago I wanted to see firsthand the renovation work on the landmark building placed on the National Register in 1973. And it was a far cry from what I saw 5 years ago.
I went looking for information on Sister Drexel to write this post and was overwhelmed at the information out there on both her and the school:
Born in 1858, Katharine Drexel was the middle daughter of a millionaire banker. She had everything women of that time could possibly have hoped for: beautiful homes, a superb education, a loving family, opportunities to travel in Europe as well as in the United States. Katharine’s parents were devout Catholics who set a powerful example of generosity and personal attention to the needy. From the beginning, Katharine’s life centered on personal prayer and the Eucharist. Her desire to devote herself to prayer only intensified after her parents died, leaving her a huge inheritance. She thought herself called to a contemplative religious order, but it was not to be. Instead, her eyes were opened to the needs of Native Americans and to the injustices done to them. Moved by the scope of the need, she began to finance missions, churches and schools from the Great Lakes to the Mexican border.
In 1888 she funded the school to the tune of $50,000 and it became known as St. Joseph's Indian Normal School. It sat on 40 acres and included a craft shop. Drexel visited the three story building after it was constructed. Drexel was canonized in 2000.
Believing that such schools were a way to "civilize" the West, the U.S. government funded the school's operation. The school lasted only eight years, troubled by the Indian students’ dislike of American ways, homesickness and the demands of school. It suffered a fatal wound when the government withdrew support under “separation of church and state” protests. The building then became Drexel Hall, one of the first structures of the new St. Joseph's College. Drexel Hall's location across from the entrance to the College and at the entrance to the town give added visibility to what is widely regarded as the most historic structure in the community after the county courthouse.
The building became used as a men's dormitory for St. Joseph College and included a chapel on the third floor. This purpose was abandoned also and the building quickly fell into disrepair until it was restored in 2006 for adult learning programs. What a unique story in this little Indiana town.
Here are some links with information and some before pictures: