One woman who made her mark in Vincennes as a teacher and historian is Anna C. O’Flynn. Miss O’Flynn’s made vital contributions to the study of local history, particularly through her untiring efforts to collect the old French folksongs and folktales from Vincennes residents before they passed from memory.
Anna O’Flynn, as her name would suggest, was of Irish descent. Her father, Micheal, and her mother, Winifred O’Neil O’Flynn, were Irish immigrants. Anna was born in Canada on May 1, 1854. Upon coming to the United States, the family first settled in Palestine, Illinois, before coming to Vincennes.
Anna began her teaching career in 1873 and would teach for the next 50 years. It was said that, in all that time, she never missed a day in the classroom due to illness. For a time, she was a principal at one of the county schools. For many years, she served as principal of the Frenchtown School at Seventh and Barnett Streets.
In the mid-1890s, she assisted journalist Ida Tarbell in her research of Abraham Lincoln’s time in Indiana for the multi-part series Tarbell was writing for McClure’s Magazine. Miss O’Flynn traveled to Spencer County in both 1895 and 1896 to interview surviving residents who had known Lincoln as a boy.
A charter member of the Columbian Reading Circle, she was involved in the founding of Good Samaritan Hospital, which opened in 1908, and was a member of the hospital board.
Miss O’Flynn is also credited, in the early 1920s, with initiating the idea to obtain federal dollars for a memorial to George Rogers Clark.
She wrote articles on local history for the Vincennes Commercial in 1927 and 1928 and later the Sun-Commercial, as well as Indianapolis newspapers and scholarly publications.
It was Anna O’Flynn’s work in preserving the French culture of early Vincennes that would be her greatest legacy. While a principal at Frenchtown, she would go to the homes of her students and collect the folktales and songs that were still recalled by older residents. People would sing the songs over and over for her and she would carefully write down the texts. Cecelia Ray Berry then wrote out the melodies. O’Flynn and Berry, with others, later collaborated on the 1946 book “Folk Songs of Old Vincennes.”
When fieldworkers from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for Indiana came to Vincennes in the 1930s, she aided them in their collection of material from descendants of the early French settlers. In the foreword of the collection they compiled, they told what a debt of gratitude they owed Anna O’Flynn, stating: “Miss O’Flynn has probably contributed more toward preserving for posterity the folklore of the early French of Vincennes than any other person.”
Miss O’Flynn was beloved by the children she taught. In 1928, a former student, who was then living in Evansville, gave her the gift of a three-month tour through the West and Alaska. On June 27, the Sun-Commercial published a letter on the front page that she had written from Yellowstone National Park telling of the wonderful time she was having.
Anna O’Flynn died at her home at 504 Perry St. on Aug. 31, 1938, at the age of 84, following a two year-long battle with cancer and near blindness in her later years. She had never married or had children. She was survived by nieces and nephews. Interment was in Mount Calvary Cemetery. In an editorial, the Sun-Commercial described her as “a grand old lady” and in sentimental language still so typical of that day, went on: “Miss O’Flynn needs no eulogy by pen. It is written in the hearts of those who knew her.”
Anna O’Flynn’s name was in the news as recently as 2006 when controversy arose over the proposed razing of the Queen Anne style home at 312 Church Street where she had lived. She resided at that address until about 1913. In March of 2006, the Vincennes Historic Review Board refused a request to raze the 1886 house, principally because of the importance of its one-time resident, but their order was disregarded, and it was torn down later that year.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County”, published this year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.