By Karen Dyer
Vice President for Advancement and Strategic Initiatives
What is a foundation?
Google returns 1.77 billion results when asked this question. It reports a foundation to be the lowest load-bearing part of a building. It is also a justification, a reason, a grantmaking organization, an underlying basis or principle, and, as a verb, it is the establishment of an institution.
At its most basic, it is a surface upon which to build. And this is what brings us here today.
One hundred and eighty-one years ago, long before Mother Theodore Guerin would become a saint, she and her sister companions were called to build a school in the wilderness of Indiana by the Bishop of Vincennes. It was a mission fraught with peril and filled with the unknown. It was a mission for which they would dedicate their lives. Their travels brought them to these Woods, and it is here that their journey began.
Think about it. You are told that you need to establish a school to educate the uneducated in the wilderness of a new country. You have no phone. No computer. No plane. All you can take with you are a few clothes, supplies, your bible, a map and funds enough to get you there. And, you go willingly knowing that you will never again return home.
That was the mission. You are the result of that mission.
Let’s get back to that idea of a foundation. A foundation is something that you establish in order to do good for others. And we can certainly see how who we are today — student, faculty, staff, parent, Sister of Providence and friend — rests on the foundation built by those who went before us.
In Mother Theodore’s time, according to the History of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary of the Woods, Vol. 1, she fought for resources and gifts to keep the school going, had to carry on operations during the Civil War, overcame anti-Catholic sentiments and lobbied with the Bishop as well as local leaders for things like a bridge over the Wabash River for better access to the campus and a railroad and station to bring students from far distances to the front gates.
The turn of the 20th Century brought great growth at the College as the campus builder, Mother Mary Cleofus Foley began constructing the first College buildings — Guerin Hall and the Conservatory. The school would rally to support the troops during World War I, weather the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the second World War, the turbulent times of social, racial and political unrest during the 1960s and 1970s, the great recession of 2008, 911 and, now the COVID-19 pandemic.
From St. Mary’s Institute for Women to The Academy and now Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, this place has evolved with its time meeting the needs of students and maintaining a commitment to stellar education in the Roman Catholic and liberal arts tradition.
Through all this, the foundation has been solid, steady and true.
Through the good times, and the tough times, through each growth spurt and growth pain, the College has been undergirded with the intentionality brought by our foundresses, their prayers, their sacrifice and their love — a legacy and a mantel that they leave for each of us to carry on.
As this is a reflection for today’s Foundation Day, I invite you to reflect with me. Take a moment to think of a place on this campus where you feel a sense of peace, a calmness, or the presence of God — your favorite spot. Now, close your eyes and imagine yourself there now.
Feel the warmth of the sun on your face, the breeze in your hair, the bell ringing from the Big Church, music lilting from a far-off piano or simply the quiet of the space.
Now, imagine that where you are is a place that someone before you stood — from last year, from 1982, from 1945, from 1900, from 1875, from 1840. Look down and see the imprint of their feet and notice how yours fit with theirs. Yours might cover their footprint completely or perhaps they are the same size. Notice the ground and the grass, the terrazzo floor, the wooden planks, the marble, the green carpet. Take in a long, deep breath and know that where you walk, so too have they. So too have so many before you.
Appreciate that your journey and their journey are connected, and that those who came before you studied here, fell in love here, wrote term papers on typewriters here and snuck in past curfew or climbed over the gate here. You may open your eyes.
This is your foundation — it is a place. It is an idea. It is a legacy. It is a part of you and a part of me — it is a part of the Providence that will never fail you.
About the Author
Working in the field of higher education fundraising since 1997, Karen Dyer has dedicated her career to supporting higher education – investing in change-makers, creative thinkers and leadership for students of all walks of life through a focus on studying, practicing and leading the art of fundraising. As the Vice President for Advancement and Strategic Initiatives at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Dyer provides oversight for the fundraising, communications, marketing and alumni relations teams, while heading efforts for the SMWC Aspire Higher Strategic Plan. She enjoys writing and editing and is active in the Wabash valley community, involved in the areas of strategic planning, fundraising and leadership and community development.