As Don Desch and his late wife, Kit, traveled the globe visiting some of the world’s most treasured museums, inspiring religious sites and quiet churches, the Coldwater, Ohio, couple came to realize the gem in their own backyard.
The Maria Stein Shrine, the first American motherhouse of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, has been drawing visitors from around the world for generations. They come to experience peace, pray with the saints whose relics are on display and learn about the Sisters who lived there.
The story of how the Precious Blood Sisters arrived in west-central Ohio from Switzerland and the impact they’ve had on the people of Mercer County is now told in a modern, cohesive style following a 6-month renovation of the shrine’s Heritage Museum. Desch, supported by his family, was a major benefactor of the $150,000 museum upgrade.
The Heritage Museum was re-dedicated July 2 with about 35 Precious Blood Sisters in attendance. After prayer in the chapel, they joined the Desch family and other guests in touring the galleries and viewing the artifacts. Desch cut the ribbon at the doorway to the exhibit space.
With videos and short narratives, the museum’s six galleries guide visitors from the founding of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in 1834 to their influence on the spiritual development in Ohio. The early days of the pioneering Sisters are recounted, as is their devotion to Eucharistic adoration. An entire gallery is dedicated to the Land of the Cross Tipped Churches, so named because of the dozens of historic Catholic churches that dot the cornfields of the region.
One of the highlights of the museum is a copy of a letter Postulant Karolina Rainer wrote home to her parents in 1858 describing her 45-day journey from Europe to Maria Stein. She describes her seasickness during 40 days on the ocean, but also of bountiful food and opportunities for good work at the convent.
Originally opened in 1982 by Sister of the Precious Blood Cordelia Gast, the museum displayed artifacts from the Sisters along with photos and documents. Desch, motivated by his trips to attractions abroad, felt that the museum could be modernized and the story expressed more clearly.
“(Traveling) called our attention to the fact that we had something special at Maria Stein and we could showcase it in a brighter light,” Desch said. “We believe in culture. Those things make life more exciting, entertaining and enjoyable.”
Desch, who was taught by Sisters of the Precious Blood while growing up in Coldwater, credits them for creating the strong work ethic and morals of the people in the region. He felt the museum should express that heritage.
“The Sisters brought with them a real culture, a real value system that is still here,” he said. “This was an influence not only on us in the community, but was evident throughout quite a wide area. We carried a different morality and work ethic.”
About two years ago, Desch took his wish of upgrading the museum to Don Rosenbeck, the shrine’s administrator.
“Without Don approaching me, we would not have been able to do this at all,” Rosenbeck said. “We never would have been able to embark on this journey without him wanting to make this happen.”
The Shrine-Museum Committee, made up primarily of laypeople, was consulted and involved in selecting a design team, assuring the renovation fit the overall mission of the shrine.
A second group that included several Precious Blood Sisters and museum professionals was formed to assess the project. They developed the story that the museum would tell. That narrative provided the themes for the galleries, Rosenbeck explained.
Construction crews gutted the museum space on the second floor of the shrine. Several walls were removed, along with plaster, to construct the galleries. Much of the materials used in the new display cases was recycled from previous projects.
Meantime, narratives for the artifacts were being researched and drafted. A group of five Precious Blood Sisters, along with Rosenbeck and Allen Bernard from the study group agreed on the final text.
Nealeigh Design Group of Greenville, Ohio, designed the galleries. Architectural services were provided by Garmann/Miller & Associates of Minster. Nitro Roofing and Construction donated demolition services and construction of the new ceiling, and the Spiritual Center of Maria Stein donated housing and meals for the construction crews. Bill Wolters and Denny Mescher installed the electrical wiring.
Desch expressed his pleasure with the way the museum project turned out.
“It became more than what we had anticipated,” he said. “I hope it’s here for many, many years, maybe even generations.”