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Missionary spirit of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Sister Nancy Nolan, second from right, participates in the offertory procession at the canonization of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

“While shedding an abundance of tears, we renewed the consecration of ourselves for the mission to which God had deigned to call us.”

These words of Mother Theodore Guerin were written on her arrival in New York where she and her companions had the consolation of attending Mass after a 60-day voyage across a stormy Atlantic.

The mission given to her by her superiors in France was to establish a novitiate in the Diocese of Vincennes, Ind., and to open an academy for the education of young women and girls.

Mother Theodore had not volunteered for the foreign mission because of her fragile health brought on by a harsh treatment of an earlier illness. She was not able to eat solid food. When her superior asked her to lead the mission, however, she embraced it with enthusiasm. Mother Theodore and her five companions — Sisters Olympiade Boyer, St. Vincent Ferrer Gage, Mary Xavier Leree, Basilede Seneschal and Mary Liguori Tiercin — sailed from France in July of 1840.

The pain it caused was evident in Mother Theodore’s journal, “Oh my dear friends! Oh my country! How much it costs to give you up!” They encountered several severe storms on the ocean journey, arriving at the port of New York in early September. They then traveled from New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore where they were shown great hospitality by the Sisters of Charity. Mother Theodore commented in her journal, “We were too well off there and such was not our vocation. We had come to suffer, and to suffer in the West of America.”

On Sept. 18, they began their journey westward. Conditions worsened the further west they went. They traveled by stagecoach, by steamboat and by horse and wagon.

They arrived in Vincennes only to find that was not their final destination; they were going to a village called Saint Mary-of-the-Woods outside of Terre Haute. As they left Vincennes for Terre Haute, they were cautioned that it had been raining for 36 straight hours. The roads were muddy and treacherous. At one time the carriage filled with water, and the horses were swimming rather than running. Mother Theodore wrote in her diary that she felt very calm even in the face of death. “When one has nothing more to lose the heart is inaccessible to fear.” Certainly she had given her all for this mission.

At last they had arrived. “What was our astonishment to find ourselves still in the midst of a forest, no village, not even a house in sight.”

The house the bishop had built for them was not finished. Arrangements had been made for them to stay with a local farmer in his small farmhouse. Four postulants were waiting there for them, which brought their number to 10. The farmer and his wife plus six of their 12 children meant 18 persons were living in two rooms with a porch and a second-floor loft.

Mother Theodore recognized that they could not exist for long under these conditions, and she was also anxious to open her school. She consulted the bishop, and he agreed they would turn the house currently under construction for the sisters into the academy. They purchased the farmhouse from the owner and used it as their motherhouse for the next 14 years. The mission took precedence over their need for accommodations and comfort.

Many challenges faced them as they undertook the mission. None of the French sisters could read, write or speak English. The food and climate were not what they were accustomed to. The winters were harsh, and more than once they experienced the wine frozen in the chalice during Mass!

As they settled in they began to comprehend the enormity of the task ahead. “It is astonishing that this remote solitude has been chosen for a novitiate and especially for an academy. All appearances are against it!”

Some of the American postulants were uneducated and poorly formed in their religious beliefs. Mother Theodore realized that before they could teach others they themselves had to be educated.

There was no public school system in Indiana at that time. Of the more than 250,000 school age children, fewer than 50,000 attended school. Saint Mary’s Academy opened in July of 1841 with one pupil. The next day two more arrived, and by the end of the month there were 10 pupils.

The need for sisters in Indiana was great, and many priests were asking for sisters to open a school. Mother Theodore was reluctant to start too soon as the sisters themselves needed to be educated and trained as teachers.

In 1841, Mother Theodore agreed to open a school in Jasper, Ind., a growing German community in the southern part of the state. The school opened in the spring of 1842 with 50 students.

Later that spring she opened a free school for the children in the area around Saint Mary-of-the Woods. In October of that year they opened a school in St. Francisville, Ill., with an enrollment of 60 pupils.

Just as the little community was settling in, a devastating fire destroyed all of their provisions for the winter ahead. They lost 150 bushels of wheat and 150 bushels of oats, hay and corn shocks to feed the animals. The barn also contained bacon, suet and extra beds. It was once again a time of throwing themselves with complete abandon into the hands of Providence.

For Mother Theodore Guerin her greatest cross to bear was her relationship with Bishop de la Hailandiere of Vincennes. When Mother Theodore left France she understood that she was to follow the Rule of the Sisters of Providence of Ruille-sur-Loir. The bishop liked to micro-manage the affairs of his diocese. He felt he had the right to accept new members, and he changed sisters from one mission to another without consulting Mother Theodore. He also forbade Mother Theodore’s visiting the missions. The sisters wanted two things from the bishop: the approval of their Rule and the deed to their property so they could expand the academy, as they did not want to build on land they did not own. The sisters seriously considered leaving the diocese if they could not live their Rule and carry on the mission. They were preparing to leave when Mother Theodore went once again to speak with the bishop. The angry bishop told her that not only was she no longer the superior but also she was no longer a Sister of Providence. He released her from her vows and ordered her to leave the diocese. Weary to the bone and emotionally drained from the conflict, Mother Theodore became seriously ill and could not travel.

It was at this lowest period of her life that Providence intervened and word came from Rome that a new bishop had been appointed to the diocese of Vincennes. Mother Theodore’s return to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was a joyful celebration for all.

The new bishop was understanding and supportive of their work. While they still encountered the ordinary trials and tribulations of missionary life, the biggest burden was lifted from her shoulders. The community continued to thrive and expand. In 1854, she wrote to the bishop of Le Mans, France, “Today we are 80 persons in our community, 64 including 12 novices wearing the habit and 16 postulants. We have over 1,000 children in our schools.”

Mother Theodore Guerin spent only 16 years in Indiana before her death in 1856.

The Congregation of the Sisters of Providence she founded continues to be vibrant and mission oriented these 166 years later. The academy she opened in 1841 continues in existence as Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the oldest Catholic college for women in the United States.

Mother Theodore’s spirit, imbued with her personal qualities and zeal for the mission, is very much alive in her daughters, the Sisters of Providence, as well as many, many others who have been touched by her life and work. She is indeed “A woman for all time.”

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Sister Nancy Nolan

Sister Nancy, formerly Sister Jean Paula, has been a Sister of Providence since 1955. She was the Congregation’s General Superior from 1986 to 1996.

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