Jeremy Hackerd’s comments
On the occasion of the installment of the Saint Theodore Guerin state historical marker at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
On behalf of the Indiana Historical Bureau, I am honored to be here today for the dedication of the “SAINT THEODORA GUERIN” state historical marker. State markers are installed to commemorate people, places, events, and organizations that had a significant impact on Indiana history. Certainly this marker for Saint Theodora Guerin is not an exception.
The state marker program is based on the collaboration between the Indiana Historical Bureau and local people and organizations who apply for markers in an effort to preserve Indiana history. Permit me to give thanks to several people who made this marker possible. First, I want to thank the Sisters of Providence for applying for this marker and working with us to get it installed. I particularly want to thank Connie McCammon, who served as my main contact throughout this process, Sister Mary Ryan for her help with the Bureau’s research, and Diane Weidenbenner for her help putting this ceremony together.
The reason why we are dedicating this marker today is to commemorate the lasting effect that Saint Theodora Guerin had on Indiana. Her work to improve education and her religious significance warrant commemoration with a state marker.
To understand her contributions to education in Indiana, you need to know a bit about the condition of education in the state before she arrived. From its inception, Indiana struggled with its goal to provide quality education to its citizens. In the 1830s, Gov. Noah Noble complained about the lack of qualified teachers in the state. Despite the Indiana General Assembly’s best efforts, numerous state laws passed during this time did not significantly improve the situation. Statewide school organization was almost non existent and illiteracy was prevalent, 1 in 7 could not read. By the early 1840s, 53% of school aged children did not attend school.
It was into this environment that Saint Theodora Guerin was called to Indiana. In 1839, the Bishop of Vincennes contacted the Sisters of Providence in Ruille, asking that they send Sisters to Indiana in order to establish schools in his diocese. The mother general, Mary Lecor, replied that there was only one person who possessed the teaching skills and leadership abilities carry out this task, Saint Theodora Guerin.
Hesitant at first, Guerin accepted the assignment. After a grueling sea voyage and travel over underdeveloped roads that were known to swallow wagons whole, Guerin and 5 Sisters arrived here in October 1840, where she established the Sisters of Providence in the United States. Impressively, Guerin opened her first school, St. Mary’s Academy for Young Ladies, the predecessor to St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, less than one year after she arrived. This achievement is made all the more amazing considering the religious bigotry and harsh frontier conditions faced by the Sisters in Indiana.
In the 1840s, anti-Catholicism was particularly virulent in the Midwest. During Guerin’s journey to Indiana, Jesuits in Philadelphia advised her to exchange her religious habit for secular dress to avoid problems as the Sisters traveled west. Mistrust for Catholics was a reality in the Hoosier state.
The Sisters’ living conditions also challenged efforts carry out their mission. At first, they lived in the home of the Thralls family. Though the home provided some shelter, a leaky roof constantly exposed the Sisters to wind, rain, and cold. Their first spring was marked by blizzards, severe cold, and violent storms. Despite these obstacles, Guerin persevered and was able to open her first school in July 1841. Guerin’s mission, however, did not end there, from 1841-1855, she organized the establishment of schools in Jasper, Madison, Ft. Wayne, Terre Haute, Evansville, North Madison, Lanesville, and Columbus. These schools improved educational opportunities for children across Indiana, a much needed success story for education in the state.
Guerin’s importance also is in the religious realm. In addition to establishing the Sisters of Providence in the U.S., Pope Benedict the 16th canonized her in 2006, securing her importance to Catholics around the world as a saint. I would go into more depth about her sainthood, but I don’t believe I would do her justice. Her legacy, carried on by the Sisters and College, will not be forgotten. This marker will help them by serving as a reminder for what she has done.