Oral histories shed light on the traditions of worship in the Wabash Valley

April 14 2008

Ann Short Chirhart believes one of the best ways to record history is to talk to people who remember it, recording the stories in their own words, and their own voices.

Inspired by her experience collecting oral histories for her book, “Torches of Light: Georgia Teachers and the Coming of the Modern South,” Chirhart, associate professor of history at Indiana State University, wanted her students to learn about this unique method of capturing history.

“To me, oral history is an incredible way of seeing and hearing history from people’s perspective,” Chirhart said. “I was able to get a lot of information for my work that I never would have been able to get had I not talked to folks and collected their oral histories.”

Chirhart pursued a grant and was awarded a $15,000 Promising Scholars grant in 2006 to explore with her students and community members the role local houses of worship played in family interactions, ethnicity, personal identity, economic transformation and education from the 19th to the 20th century.

For the past two spring semesters, ISU students in Chirhart’s oral history methods and practice course have been collecting oral histories of local residents, and shedding light on the role worship has played in the lives of Wabash Valley residents in the recent past.

Students interviewed members of St. Benedict Catholic Church, and heard about the physical and spiritual changes the church founded by German immigrants underwent throughout the 20th century due to a devastating fire in 1930 and the reforms brought about by Vatican II in the 1960s.

Members of Allen Chapel spoke of segregation in Terre Haute, and how the chapel served not only as a place of worship, but also as a community and cultural center.

This semester, students focused on the Sisters of Providence, women of the Oberlandler Club, St. George Orthodox Church, St. Joseph Catholic Church, and First United Methodist Church of Vincennes.

These students will be presenting their work at the Research Center for Local History and Culture’s Showcase of Undergraduate and Graduate Research from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, April 18, in Cunningham Memorial Library’s first-floor special events area. The public are welcome.

“These history projects have combined experiential learning with community engagement, two hallmarks of our university,” Chirhart said. “They have given these young historians the chance to hone their researching skills while giving something back to the community.”

Justin Runyon, May 2007 history graduate from Terre Haute, who interviewed members of Allen Chapel, thinks oral histories will grow in their importance to the modern-day historical record.

“With the growing trend of digital history projects, oral history will continue to be a valuable skill for historians,” Runyon said. “Oral histories, in general, can be useful in acquiring information that may have been left out of the official record.”

While researching St. Benedict Church’s past, Lauren Wenning, May 2007 history graduate from Greensburg; and Kylie Tumey, history senior from Marshall, Ill., encountered firsthand the struggles that many historians have to deal with -- history not recorded has been forgotten.

“We wanted to hear about the founding families of St. Benedict’s, who we knew were of German origin,” Wenning said, “but none of the members of the congregation could tell us who they were or where they came from.

“It made us realize how important our project was, so that we could capture the experiences of those who lived through Vatican II and a booming Catholic school system in Terre Haute, so that would not be lost to history as well.”

The results of the students’ work are being added to the collection at the newly created Research Center for Local History and Culture which is housed at ISU in Stalker Hall, and has been designated a Program of Promise by the university.

The university also will provide a copy of the oral histories to each of the participating groups.

“In return for a congregation giving us their time, we want to give the interviews back to the congregation so they can preserve a link to their past as well,” Chirhart said.

For more information about the Research Center for Local History and Culture or the Showcase of Undergraduate and Graduate Research, contact the center at 812-237-8547.

Promising Scholars grants are awarded to ISU educators who have not yet attained the rank of professor, but have demonstrated a commitment to meaningful research that has the potential to benefit the state and nation. Funding is provided through the Lilly Endowment’s Initiative to Recruit and Retain Intellectual Capital for Indiana Higher Education Institutions, in conjunction with ISU’s “Fulfilling the Promise” strategic plan.


PHOTO1: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: St. Benedict Catholic Church

CUTLINE1: St. Benedict Catholic Church member Diane Smith (right) points out the German writing on the cornerstone of the church to Indiana State University history students Lauren Wenning and Kylie Tumey. Wenning and Tumey collected oral histories from members of the congregation as part of their oral history methods and practice course.

PHOTO2: Download a high-resolution photo at this link: Allen Chapel

CUTLINE2: Justin Runyon (right), Indiana State University history student, interviews Leonard Handley, member of Allen Chapel. The oral history project was funded through a Promising Scholars grant to ISU professor Ann Short Chirhart, and will be stored at the Research Center for Local History and Culture which is housed at ISU.

Contact: Ann Short Chirhart, associate professor of history, Indiana State University, 812-237-2723 or achirhart@isugw.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

Promising Scholar Ann Chirhart's students will be presenting their work on the Worship in the Wabash Valley project at the Research Center for Local History and Culture's Showcase of Undergraduate and Graduate Research April 18, in Cunningham Memorial Library's first-floor special events area. The research center is a Program of Promise.

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