The legacy of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
By Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, formerly of the Office of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
The legacy of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin is not a material or monetary one. It is a spiritual gift bestowed upon her by the Holy Spirit. This kind of legacy is sometimes referred to as a charism, a gift unique to the person to whom it is given, but not just for the sake of that person. It is for a larger good and purpose. Sometimes the charism is so strong and vibrant that it lives on over the years or decades or even centuries in other people who have been drawn to the gift of the Spirit given to the original recipient. In our case, as Sisters of Providence, we are the beneficiaries of a great legacy of trust in God’s loving Providence. This gift, or charism, was so strong in Mother Theodore that more than 160 years after she set foot on these grounds to establish this religious Congregation, women are still drawn to embody this legacy of Providence by giving themselves to God and to God’s people in works of love, mercy and justice.
That is the rather intellectual approach to understanding our legacy from Mother Theodore. To get to the heart of the matter, we need to get to know just who Anne-Thèrése Guerin was as a young girl, as a young woman and as a woman of Providence called Theodore – a name that literally means “gift of God.” As Sisters of Providence, we have a great tradition of preserving and retelling our heritage. I believe that this telling and retelling of the story is one of the reasons why the spirit of Mother Theodore is so alive in us today.
I would like to share with you some themes which I believe enabled Mother Theodore to live her charism of a profound trust in God’s Providence:
First of all, she was rooted and grounded in a strong faith in God. Faith is different from, and more than, simple belief. Faith implies trust in the God who loves you. It was this trust which sustained Anne-Thérèse from her earliest years until her dying day.
When she was still very young, she had to assume major responsibilities in caring for her family. Her fidelity to her family developed into fidelity to a sense of community and to the desire to respond in love to those in need.
Secondly, the poverty and simplicity of her home life, (read Early life in Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s biography) coupled with a series of family tragedies, taught her early on to “cast her care upon the Lord” and to find that God was her strength in the face of any difficulty.
The third theme, I believe, is that her awareness of the needs in the world around her played an important role in her responding to the call to religious life. Her great heart had need of reaching beyond herself, beyond her immediate family, to a France bruised and broken by the recent revolution, and eventually, to the United States in its early stages of development and growth in the faith.
In the fourth theme, Mother Theodore, in her comparatively short life here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods – just 16 years – showed an indomitable spirit of perseverance in the face of almost insurmountable odds. She was a woman of courage so strong that one can only wonder at her amazing accomplishments in spite of grave illnesses, painful misunderstandings and a dire lack of resources for the work to be done. She faced all of these with a capacity for risk-taking and a surrender to God’s action in her life that is truly the mark of saintliness. More than that, she endured these trials with a joyful spirit and, as she herself once said, “a spirit of natural gaiety.”
Finally, in addition to her life of faith, or rather, supportive of that life, she nurtured a deep devotional life. Her Eucharistic life was revealed in her eager desire to celebrate this unique presence of God. Her warm and loving devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, can be found in many of her writings and in the memoirs of those who knew her best in life. Having been born on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, she frequently reminded the sisters to invoke the help of these heavenly spirits in their work with children. Jesus’ saving act of redemption on the cross was central to the spiritual life of Mother Theodore, as it is for all of us Christians. She certainly did not have a morbid attachment to suffering, but she embraced the cross with courage when it presented itself in her life. She always saw the cross as a special sign of God’s favor. While she may not have liked the crosses that came, she saw these sufferings as redemptive and so could receive them with grace, knowing, as she said, “it is the way to heaven.”