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Heritage Tours explore history, roots of SMC

Bridget Feeney | Monday, February 18, 2013

In between preparing for exams and writing papers, students at Saint Mary’s have the opportunity this week to explore the history of the College during Heritage Week at the College.

The week is an annual event sponsored by the Student Government Association (SGA) and is designed to celebrate and educate students about the rich traditions at Saint Mary’s. Throughout the week, students, faculty and staff are treated to various presentations, dinners and giveaways.

The Heritage Tours, led by Sr. Veronique Wiedower, vice president of mission at the College and Sister of the Holy Cross since 1973 continually attract Belles ready to learn about their campus.  Students visit multiple halls, rooms and buildings on campus and are given a history lesson as they walk throughout campus.

Senior and student body president Maureen Parsons said the tours are a great way for students to get in touch with the roots of their education and develop a deeper appreciation of the four years they spend at the College.

“We offer Heritage Week Tours so current students can learn about past women at the College who made a difference while they were here and after they graduated,” she said. “It is also an opportunity to see how far the College has come over the decades and improved over the years.”

Wiedower said the College was first founded more than 150 years ago when four sisters traveled from LeMans, France to Notre Dame, Indiana. They ended up in Bertrand, Mich. where they remained until 1855 when they moved to the College’s current home, across the street from the University of Notre Dame.

“When we first came here, we were a big farm,” Wiedower said. “There was nothing here.”

Wiedower said Saint Mary’s Academy, which became Saint Mary’s College in the late 1920’s after the construction of LeMans Hall, has always been “more than just a finishing school.”

“From the very beginning, we’ve tried to educate the whole woman,” she said. “We try to incorporate the fine arts, sciences, math and language.”

Mother Augusta served as the first headmistress of Saint Mary’s Academy. Her parents loved the land so much, they moved to the area from Ohio to be with their daughter. According to Wiedower, the Avenue, one of the College’s most iconic features, resulted from the work of Mother Augusta’s stepfather.

Wiedower said she likes to start the tours on the front steps of Holy Cross Hall because of the special view it grants the participants.

“From the front porch of Holy Cross, you can see the Avenue,” she said. “Some of the sycamore trees that line that road are over 150 years old. They’re one of our legacies from the early days.”

In addition to the Avenue, the College is also home to many courtyards and gardens. Wiedower said these are prevalent throughout the campus because of the College’s mission statement.

“It says in our mission statement that we strive for aesthetic appreciation,” she said. “That’s why on campus we try to incorporate beauty in a lot of ways.”

In the early years of Saint Mary’s Academy, Wiedower said about half of the Sisters of the Holy Cross left their education commitments in Notre Dame, Indiana to answer President Abraham Lincoln’s call to religious women to act as nurses during the Civil War.

“We were on the ship ‘Red Rover,’ which was the traveling hospital on the Mississippi River,” she said. “After the war, we received a letter from the U.S. Navy saying we were the first naval nurses.”

Wiedower said the College has always prioritized the maintenance of a strong relationship to Notre Dame.

“Back then, we saw the campuses as one big campus,” she said. “Over here, we had women. Across the street, we had men.”

These connections and ties between the two schools came about as a result of the work of Fr. Sorin, founder of Notre Dame, and Mother Angela, the directress of the College from 1853 to 1870 and again from 1886 until her death in 1887.

“As a young girl, Mother Angela was visiting her brother, who was a student at Notre Dame,” Wiedower said. “Fr. Sorin spoke to her and in the week she was here, she decided to stay as a Sister of the Holy Cross. She was American-born, with lots of political and military connections and an American education.”

Mother Angela and Fr. Sorin worked together to develop the two schools over the years, in a legacy that Wiedower said still lives on.

“What Fr. Sorin had envisioned, Mother Angela built,” she said. “Together, the two of them built up Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame together.”

Wiedower said the focus of the College has evolved over the years in order to adapt to the changes of the times. She said in the early history of Saint Mary’s, the College was focused on building institutions. However, the Sisters of the Holy Cross focus more on global issues.

“We wan to instill values in people, like about the Earth and climate crisis, non-violence and solidarity with the poor,” she said. “Now, it’s not about adding buildings but building people of values. We want students to leave Saint Mary’s prepared to make a difference and understand what is going on in the world and what are the needs of it.”

Heritage Tours are available throughout the rest of the week at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. To experience a tour or other events throughout the week, visit the SGA Facebook page and sign up via the Google Document.

Wiedower said she also offers tours other times throughout the year, including during the upcoming Junior Mom’s Weekend. To check availability and find out about scheduling a tour at other times during the year, call the Office of Mission.