News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 8, 2010

Re-enactors visit St. Mary's cemetery to study history

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Emma Bird stood over the tombstone that bore her name across its top.

And while dozens of visitors walked about the historic cemetery of St. Mary’s Village Parish on Sunday morning, she and others, dressed in their finest 19th-century church clothes, told the stories of their lives and times there at a church founded in 1837.

But unlike the other volunteers participating in the parish’s inaugural cemetery walk, the woman standing over Emma Bird’s grave was in fact Emma Bird.

“She’s my great-something. I’m not sure,” Bird laughed, standing beside her boyfriend, Jacob Kelley, who was dressed as Matthew James Bird, the husband of her ancestor buried there.

Born in 1870 to a Civil War veteran who hated Catholics, the original Emma fell in love with Matthew, whose family had even by then long attended the St. Mary’s Village Parish. And she broke away from her parents to convert and marry him.

That marriage produced 12 children, the last of whom came when Emma was 45 years old.

She and the baby died as a result of the birth, and Matthew, unable to handle the children, sent the youngest to an orphanage.

“We want to have six in the future, but not 12,” Emma’s namesake laughed as she finished her ancestor’s story. Growing up just two miles north of the village, the younger Emma was raised in her family’s church there. Now 18, she is a freshman at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College majoring in history.

Sunday’s program ran from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with the graves of 10 parishioners represented by re-enactors dressed in period costume with a script detailing their lives. Organizer Edie Breneman explained that Emma Summers Bird was in fact her own great-aunt, as her great-grandparents were Birds.

“My family’s been here since 1837,” she said, explaining the first church building was erected in 1867, 30 years after the parish was born. This means her ancestors took communion with St. Mother Theodore Guerin, who first arrived there in 1840.

And it’s that history Breneman hopes to share. “This is our first year. We’re already having requests for next year,” she said, explaining that she attended a similar program at Highland Lawn several years ago.

Sunday’s program also served as a fundraiser for the parish religious education program. The small Roman Catholic church still surrounded by woods hosts 80 families today, representing about 200 members.

And while the Sisters of Providence were French, Breneman explained that most of the original families were an eclectic mix of Catholics coming north from Kentucky.

Among them were the Thrallses.

Mandy Maher, a fifth-generation member of the parish, dressed as young Juliette Thralls, who was born in 1855 to Francis and Nancy Rea Thralls. The youngest child of the family, her oldest sister became a nun.

But Juliette’s life was cut short when the drawbridge then spanning the Wabash River at Ohio Street collapsed in 1863. The 8-year-old girl and four others drowned in the accident, she explained at the gravesite now bearing that name.

Originally, though, the little girl was buried in the yard where the college’s Conservatory of Music now stands. Her body was moved to its present location during that construction.

“I just love the history of the parish,” Maher said.

Jeannette Bird Wrin, another member of the parish’s interlocking families, portrayed Margaret Friel. Friel moved with her three daughters to the small village from Pennsylvania in 1842 at a time when the parish’s third church was being built. Her daughter, Mary, married the church architect, James Roquet, and the pair moved to Evansville where they had children and started a family. But Mary and James died tragically young and their children came back to St. Mary’s Village to live with their grandmother, who routinely brought them to visit with the Sisters of Providence.

The nearby burg of “Rocky Town” is in fact named after the family, as it was originally known as “Roquet Town,” she said.

The Wrins, her husband’s family, are also generations deep in the parish, as are her own people, the Birds. And Jeanette, while portraying Friel, was just a stone’s throw from the 95-year-old grave of Emma Summers Bird.

The complexity was in fact enough to make a priest rise from the grave, as Rev. Augustine Riehle stood over his own marker, represented in the corporeal sense by Marty Patterson. Father Augustine helped visitors sort out the interwoven network of families, noting that he himself witnessed 114 marriages and performed 600 baptisms during his tenure between 1879 and 1912.

And even he had to consult a script.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or