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The Le Fer sisters: Gifts to the Congregation

This article is reprinted from winter 2008 issue of HOPE.

By Brother Barry Donaghue, cfc

One of the loveliest of the early “her-stories” of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is that of the Le Fer sisters, Irma and Elvire, who, like their own Mother Theodore, gave themselves without reservation into the arms of Divine Providence. Like Abram they “went, trusting in God” (Genesis 12:4); like Mary they prayed, “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38b)

The Le Fer sisters, very different personalities with almost 10 years of age separating them, each turned out to be a great gift to the Congregation. Their family, back in Saint-Servan, Brittany, France, also supported the sisters with material and monetary contributions, facts recognized in the naming of the main residence hall of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College as Le Fer Hall.

A ‘soul friend’

Sister Theodosia Mug, editor of the “Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guerin,” wrote of Irma: “Sister St. Francis Xavier was born at Saint-Servan, Brittany, April 16, 1816; she died at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Jan. 31, 1856. Within a week after her arrival at Saint Mary’s she was teaching Latin and drawing at the boarding school and in the novitiate. She assisted Mother Theodore in the training of the postulants and novices, and at the first election held in the community [1848] she was chosen ‘Second Assistant and would have charge of the novices.’ This office she held until her death, which occurred eight years later.”

The motto on her tombstone, Zelus domus tuae nedit me, which quotes Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house consumes me,” indicates what a rare treasure she was to the fledgling community.

Sister Theodosia continues: “Sister St. Francis did not arrive at Saint Mary-of the-Woods until a year later than the others. Bishop de la Hailandière secured her in Brittany and sent her in November 1839 to Mother Theodore at Soulaines, hoping he could prevail on the sisters to start at once with him for Vincennes. … Mother Theodore took her first postulant to Ruillé-sur-Loir to make her novitiate. Irma’s health was so delicate all the time at Ruillé that she was not permitted to set out with the little colony that left in July 1840. She had pledged herself to Vincennes, however, and she could not be happy elsewhere. … Humanly speaking she was a failure — no health, no aptitude for the schoolroom, no fitness, apparently, for any kind of work.”

When Mother Mary Lecor, superior general of the Sisters of Providence of France, wrote to Mother Theodore to let her know that Sister St. Francis was coming she said, “‘You will see, my Theodore, that she is good for nothing but to love God.’ Fourteen years later, after sister’s death, she wrote: ‘I was mistaken, I was in truth mistaken.’ Although Sister St. Francis never developed domestic ability, as she tells in her letters, her career in Indiana may fittingly be termed ‘the triumph of failure.’”

Sister St. Francis became anam cara or “soul friend” to Mother Theodore, a pillar of support when misunderstandings with the bishop were overwhelming. As she was not strong, this was a commitment of love far beyond the call of duty.

In 1853, just as the new convent built by Mother Theodore was ready for use, Sister Saint Francis was buoyed by the news that Elvire, one of her sisters, was coming to join the Congregation.

Sister Mary Joseph’s arrival

Twenty-six years of age, charming, gracious, and amiable, Elvire Le Fer de la Motte was also very talented. Her sister Clementine wrote to Sister St. Francis, “You will have a fine musician, accountant, an artistic skill served by fairy fingers, and finally you will have a ready heart which knows no limits in its devotedness. … You desired one of your sisters, one who would be humble, zealous, pious, who would have some talent and also some virtue. … What you will receive is far beyond your hopes. I can assure you, all your desires are being fulfilled.”

Irma Le Fer — Sister St. Francis Xavier — died in January 1856, five months before Mother Theodore, radiant with holiness and full of faith, believing that Jesus had appeared to her in her last illness with the promise of everlasting life.

As for Elvire — Sister Mary Joseph — historian Sister Mary Borromeo Brown wrote that “Mother Theodore’s expectations that she would accomplish ‘untold good in the house of God’ were fully realized by the Community in after years. In the opinion of her contemporaries, she ranks next to the holy Foundress herself for the good she achieved. From 1856 until 1868 she was mistress of novices, and from 1868 until her death on Dec. 12, 1881, she held the office of First Assistant.”

Sister Mary Borromeo continues, “Sister Mary Joseph’s entire religious life was passed at the motherhouse. When she entered in 1852 she was a valuable acquisition, as well for her talents, accomplishments, advanced education, and experience, as for her superior judgment and deep piety. Her beautiful voice had been trained in Paris, and she brought her harp and guitar with her; yet, these things interested her less than the domestic service she could render. … When she departed this life after 29 years in religion, she was reputed a person of rare distinction and great holiness of life.”

Such brief stories merely touch the surface and cannot plumb the depths of the devotion, love and faithfulness displayed by these remarkable women. It is fitting that they should be remembered with their beloved Mother  Theodore who inspired and guided their growth into fullness of life.

Books about the early life of the Congregation may be purchased at The Gift Shop of Providence Center or online at www.provcenter.org. The Gift Shop may be reached at 812-535-2947 or giftshop@spsmw.org.

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Sisters of Providence

The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, are a congregation of Roman Catholic women religious (sisters) who minister throughout the United States and Taiwan. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded the Sisters of Providence in 1840. The congregation has a mission of being God's Providence in the world by committing to performing works of love, mercy and justice in service among God's people.

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