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Foundation Day – Oct. 22, 2010

This photo of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin was made from a daguerreotype, an antique system of capturing images on metal plates.

Happy Foundation Day! Happy 170th anniversary of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College!

In the name of the Sisters of Providence and our Providence Associates, I extend a warm welcome to all present here – our co-workers, our dear neighbors and family members, members of the SMWC community and its alumnae – indeed, welcome to all here!

We are here because six – not one – very brave and very loving Sisters of Providence of Ruillé, France took the words from the gospel proclaimed today very literally.

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat
and what you are to drink,
and do not keep worrying.
For it is the nations of the world that strive after
these things,
and God knows that you need them.
Instead, strive for the reign of God
and these things will be given to you as well.

We are here because six Sisters of Providence – not one – opened their hearts to the call of Providence. The call asked them to leave all whom they loved, all that was familiar and dear – for the sake of the mission of Providence.

We are here today because six Sisters of Providence – not one – lived the words proclaimed in the letter of St. Peter.

Without having seen [God]
you love [God.]
Though you do not now see [God}
you believe.

Who are these women on whose shoulders we stand? Let us recall them.

Sister Mary Ligouri Tiercin entered the Sisters of Providence at Ruillé precisely because she wanted to come to Indiana. Sister Mary Ligouri taught in the SMW Village School, in St. Francisville and then was sent to Madison, Indiana – where the sisters encountered very fierce anti-Catholic attitudes and behaviors. Both Mother Theodore and the superiors in France believed that Sister Mary Ligouri had all the gifts to succeed Mother Theodore as superior of the new congregation; but Sister Mary Ligouri died of pneumonia in 1847 at age 29 – the first of the foundresses to die.

Before leaving France, the French superiors had named Sister St. Vincent Ferrer Gagé the first assistant to Mother Theodore. Dr. King, Sister St. Vincent watches over you, I’m sure, as she served as the first mistress (today we would say president) of St. Mary’s Female Academy – the forerunner of our College. I’m certain she understands the gift and burden of leadership in a liberal arts institution.

Sister St. Vincent, while serving at the Academy, also was the first Mistress of Novices. She thus worked to achieve the two primary reasons for the Sisters coming to Indiana – to found a religious community and to open a school for the education of young women.

Writing after Sister Vincent death, her sisters had this to say: “She was known for her affectionate charity and peaceful courage amid the trials of life.”

My personal favorite among the five companions of Mother Theodore is Sister Basilide. She had not volunteered to come to Indiana; but, when another sister who had been chosen could not make the journey, the French superiors asked Sister Basilide if she would join the small band of missionaries. She agreed on the condition that the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods would never be separated from France. Assured this would never happen, she came to Indiana. In 1843, the two congregations separated – due to the difficulties of communication and travel.
From entries found in the Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guerin, it is clear that Mother Theodore had a special love and affection for this sister whom she often called “my poor Basilide.” It was to Sister Basilide that Mother Theodore wrote: “Remember, no one loves you as your old Mother Theodore does.”

Sister Olympiade Boyer must have been a colorful character! She was an excellent cook, a skilled herbalist and healer, a wonderful storyteller and as quick to praise as to admonish. Sister Olympiade fed and nursed sisters, students and neighbors. It is written of her that she would travel the countryside on a white horse tending the sick and visiting the lonely. During her fifty-three years in Indiana, she never left St. Mary-of-the-Woods for another mission.

Like Sister Mary Ligouri, Sister Mary Xavier Lereé entered the Sisters of Providence so that she could be a part of the Indiana mission. Sister Mary Xavier spent all her years of ministry as an accomplished seamstress.
She served the Indiana mission for fifty-seven years. All but three or four of those years, she lived at St. Mary’s. However, it is thanks to Sister Mary Xavier’s brief mission experience at the orphanage in Vincennes that we have several letters written to her by Mother Theodore.

Finally we come to Mother Theodore Guerin. She didn’t volunteer to come to Indiana because her health was so bad she believed she’d be a burden not a benefit to the missionary band. Her superiors thought otherwise, and she came. We know she was no burden but was sheer gift.

So we gather today – the heirs of these six extraordinary women – the heirs of the friends, neighbors and benefactors who helped them every step of the way – the heirs of the parents and students and faculty of St. Mary’s Academy and of every school these six began and staffed.

As Providence would have it, we are here – together – to celebrate six brave and faithful Sisters of Providence – not one. We are here to celebrate our Foundation Day.

Let us listen to the story Mother Theodore tells of their arrival here on October 22, 1840.

As we listen, let us thank our Provident God for their lives – and for our lives.
From: The Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guerin

Reader # 1

The house that is being erected for us is only four miles from Terre Haute; so, by leaving at ten o’clock in the morning, we should be at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods at noon. Well, you will see! Having procured some provisions we went in the stage to the river bank, for a river named Wabash separates the town from the road that leads to our habitation. As there is no bridge, we were obliged to wait our turn to be ferried across. We waited until three forty-five in the afternoon, that is, more than five hours and a half. At last we crossed, but scarcely had we been on the road ten minutes than we were again in the forest, and the ground was so covered with water that it was like a vast pond. The plank road having disappeared, it became dangerous to travel on account of trees which had fallen here and there. No matter! The horses were whipped up and they rushed into the water. At every moment we were on the point of being overturned…

Once the carriage struck a stumbling horse, and a wheel went over the trunk of a tree, and lo! the carriage was again thrown on its side. The water entered the coach and the horses were swimming rather than walking. It was like being in the middle of a sea, but in a sea surmounted by a thick forest; for the trees are so near together that it required all the experience of American drivers to be able to get through. There was imminent danger for us, and we had two miles to cover in this way.

I may say, however, that I was not at all alarmed. When one has nothing more to lose, the heart is inaccessible to fear. The water poured in on us. We thought we were surely gone this time; but the driver without losing his American coolness managed the horses so dexterously as to set the carriage up again.

Reader #2

I cannot tell you what passed within me during the next half hour. I do not know myself, but I was so deeply, moved that I could not utter a word. We continued to advance into the thick woods till suddenly Father Buteux stopped the carriage and said, “Come down, Sisters, we have arrived”. What was our astonishment to find ourselves still in the midst of the forest, no village, not even a house in sight. Our guide having given orders to the driver, led us down into a ravine, whence we beheld through the trees on the other side a frame house with a stable and some sheds. “There,” he said, “is the house where the postulants have a room, and where you will lodge until your house is ready.”

We had agreed among ourselves that our first visit would be made to the Blessed Sacrament, and that we would not speak to anyone before having satisfied this longing of our hearts.

Having prayed, wept, and thanked Almighty God for past favors and begged his assistance for the future; having prayed for you, dear Sisters, and for you all, dear friends and benefactors in France, and having placed ourselves under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we went to embrace the postulants who were awaiting us. They led us to a small room which had been given up to them by the good farmer, Joseph Thralls. This rooms serves as bakery, refectory, recreation room. It is also an infirmary, and this is the only use it serves constantly. We have also a part of the garret, where they had put eight ticks, filled with straw, on the floor. It is so crowded that we have to dress ourselves on the beds and make them up one after the other, this strange dormitory is directly under the room which is made of shingles badly joined, thus letting in the wind and rain, making it very cold.

It was, then, in this poor room that we were installed, and here we continue to live… Here too in an outside kitchen open to the winds, Sister Olympiade makes us soup of bacon and salt beef, except on fast days…

Reader # 3

The day after our arrival we went to look at our new house, now building. Like the castles of the knights of old, it is so deeply hidden in the woods that you cannot see it until you come up to it. As to our garden and yard, we have all the woods.

It is astonishing that this remote solitude has been chosen for a novitiate and especially for an academy. All appearances are against it. I have given my opinion frankly to the bishop, to Father Buteux, and, in fine, to all who have any interest in the success of our work. All have given reasons that are not entirely satisfactory, yet I dare not disregard them. The spirit of this country is so different from ours that one ought to be acquainted with it before condemning those who know more about it than we do; so I await the issue before passing judgment in a positive manner. If we cannot do any good here, you know our agreement, we will return.

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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