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The charism of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

A photo from a daguerreotype of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

When asked to give her impressions of Mother Theodore, Susanna Alvey, who grew up as a neighbor in the then-thriving village of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, responded, “Her success was due more to prayer than to human efficiency, I think.” Through her work as innkeeper, Susanna was in a good position to note the outward signs of success through the new buildings going up nearby and the increase in visitors due to the growth of the Academy and novitiate, but she was most perceptive in noting that these visible signs were traceable to a deeper source. From a faith perspective, success isn’t attributable to human effort alone, but rather to God. God’s Spirit infuses human energy with exceptional possibility, and it is these spiritual gifts that we name as charisms.

We can look to Jesus himself to understand how God bestows gifts. At the time of his baptism, Jesus was at prayer when the Spirit came upon him and his disciples heard the voice declaring that it is on Jesus that God’s favor rests. “God’s favor” can be translated as charism, a completely gratuitous outpouring of grace for the sake of bringing about God’s reign in a world where selfishness and cruelty seem more prevalent than love, mercy and justice. St. Paul assured the early Christians that “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” (1 Cor. 1:7) and indeed the lives of the holy men and women through the ages provide ample evidence of how new impulses of God’s spirit have continuously refreshed the desire that “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” As we celebrate Mother Theodore’s sainthood, we ask ourselves, “What was her charism? What was the spiritual gift given to her for the sake of the community? How does that charism continue today?”

When we examine the life of this remarkable woman, we can identify her charism as indomitable trust in Providence. The world is quick to write off belief in God and the church by citing the human suffering resulting from both natural calamities and inhuman behaviors. Mother Theodore understood the divine plan differently. She believed that God wants human beings to take an active role in the work of caring for creation. She steadfastly went about making the church Jesus had begun both visible and credible. In spite of a seemingly never-ending series of trying circumstances, she continued to rely on Providence to reveal new possibilities.

Mother Theodore was truly gifted with the ability to make the most of her experience as the basis for new insights and possibilities, and then to take action to develop the resources at hand. She understood her mission as evangelization — spreading the gospel by word and deed. Each experience was taken to prayer, where its potential became apparent.

Although most of us wouldn’t consider poor health a sign of God’s favor, Mother Theodore’s several serious illnesses became the ground of awareness both of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and also of the need for compassion in dealing with the sick. Her spiritual gift enabled her to connect her own situation with the needs of others. Seeing the lack of health care for the villagers at Soulaines, she quickly undertook study to learn skills to alleviate their pain.

Numerous examples of Mother Theodore’s charism of complete trust in Providence became apparent during the time of the foundation at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. After she joined the community of the Sisters of Providence at Ruille-sur-Loir, Mother Theodore had been thoroughly grounded in the practices of the Rule and had served as a local superior. When she and her small band arrived at Saint. Mary-of-the-Woods, she immediately set to work to create an environment that would nurture the growing community. Within weeks she arranged for the purchase of the Thralls’ farmhouse to ensure the convent atmosphere needed to provide formation for the young sisters and for the young American women who wished to join them. She lamented the pitiful condition of the tiny cabin church they found there, and because the Eucharist was so central to their spiritual life, set plans in motion to enclose the porch so they could have a chapel. She saw the potential of the land for providing sustenance and set out vegetable gardens and orchards. She applied herself to learn English in order to become sufficiently proficient to manage business affairs and to oversee building, planting, and harvesting.

In the midst of these constant adaptations of daily life in very deprived conditions, Mother Theodore’s trust in Providence was severely tested by the intense spiritual suffering she endured because of feeling abandoned by the very community which had sent her. The sisters’ chaplain incited unrest among them. The lack of respect and usurpation of her authority by the Bishop of Vincennes almost ended the mission. Severe financial setbacks followed the disastrous fire that wiped out their first crop. She wrote: “The only thing that is the least reassuring is that I feel within myself the disposition to refuse nothing to God, to give Him everything He asks of me.”

Charism builds on natural talents and personality traits. Sr. Mary Borromeo Brown describes Mother Theodore’s aptitude as an educator:

She was richly endowed by nature with gifts that make for outstanding achievement in any field — quick perception, accurate judgment, and persistence; and in addition she had the tact and ingenuity, the kindness and humor, the sincere and winning personality which spell success above all in the school.

Her keen observations of human nature and of American culture enabled her to perceive the needs of the time. Noting that women were relegated to subsidiary roles, she ensured that the Academy provided the solid educational foundation that would enable them to influence society. The arts were not neglected and the formal study of religion was augmented by example. Gradually a network of small missions was established, and she undertook fund-raising to provide basic necessities and eventual expansion.

The cross monument over her grave is carved with the words, “I sleep, but my heart watches over this house which I have built.” Indeed the strength of her charism became a legacy to the Sisters of Providence of Saint. Mary-of-the-Woods, enduring to the present time. The sisters gradually expanded the mission beyond Indiana to the great urban centers of Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and even to China. Yet they never lost the practice of “Homecoming,” gathering each summer at Saint Mary’s to deepen their bonds and revitalize their sense of mission.

Mother Theodore’s charism of indomitable trust in Providence is evident through the core ministries of the Sisters of Providence — spirituality, the arts, education, ecology, and the hospitality offered through Saint Mary’s residential life and health care facilities. The Congregation continues to sponsor ministries whose roots can be traced to those she began, but which challenge her daughters to “lean with all their weight on Providence” by adapting to contemporary needs. The White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods continues not only cultivation of the grounds and education, but also strives to relate local and global perspectives. Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries, a separately incorporated sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Providence collaborates with local agencies and organizations to provide need-based services. The establishment of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis writes yet another chapter in overcoming adversity to provide educational institutions in the traditions of Saint. Mary-of-the-Woods College, Guerin College Preparatory High School in River Grove, Ill and Woods Day Care/Pre-School at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The many Sisters who serve in parishes and diocesan offices enrich the wider church with their Providence perspective. While it would be impossible to list and identify all the ways in which Mother Theodore’s charism continues, it can truly be said that a conversation with any Sister of Providence would reveal the vitality of her legacy, which lives on through each one.

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Sister Maureen Abbott

Sister Maureen is a member of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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