The Other Five: A brief look at the lives of the sisters who came from France in 1840 with Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, has a feast day. She has sainthood, receiving the highest honor bestowed by the Catholic Church. Her legacy has been shared worldwide. She is well recognized as someone who made a difference in Indiana’s legendary history.
Saint Mother Theodore Guerin was a tireless missionary, coming to Indiana in 1840 to work among God’s people, bringing education to the uneducated, providing food for the hungry, administering medicine for the ill, and offering relief for the poor.
For all of the honors, recognition and distinction bestowed upon her, she could not have done all of the work herself. Five companion sisters came with her from France. Little is known publicly about “The Other Five,” so National Women in History Month provides an opportunity to recognize their presence and contributions to the foundation and growth of the Sisters of Providence, and to establishing educational opportunities statewide, and in other growing populous areas. They have a place in Indiana history as well.
From Saint Mother Theodore’s letters and journals, it would be a safe assumption that most, if not all, of the sisters who traveled from France had no idea what to expect in the way of life and accommodations when they arrived in the Indiana wilderness. Yet, Sisters Vincent Ferrer Gage, Olympiade Boyer, Basilide Seneschal, Mary Xavier Leree and Mary Ligouri Tiercin devoted themselves wholeheartedly to fulfilling the mission before them.
Here, then, is a brief description of “The Other Five;” who they were and what they did as they helped create several chapters in Indiana history as recorded in the Sisters of Providence Archives and once published by Sister Joseph Eleanor Ryan.
Sister St. Vincent Ferrer (Victoire Adelaide Gage): Born at LeMans, June 15, 1800, she was a daughter of Julien Gage, a municipal clerk, and Marie Ann Joseph Robert. She has been described as mature, modest, prudent and reserved in conversation. She once served as a local superior for the Congregation in France. She was appointed to assist Saint Mother Theodore and to step in as her replacement, if necessary. She wavered with her commitment to the mission in United States and once told Saint Mother Theodore that she would return to France if Saint Mother Theodore became incapacitated or would die. Her deep religious spirit helped her cope with her challenges. She struggled with the English language, yet was placed in charge of the Academy, the forerunner of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Her first mission away from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was at Jasper, where she traveled with Saint Mother Theodore to open a parish school in March, 1842. She later took over as superior in Madison (1847-1848), a community that was not welcoming to Catholics at the time. She returned to Terre Haute to build St. Vincent Academy, then on to Fort Wayne, and back to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Village where she taught religion and penmanship. She died July 1, 1874.
Sister Basilide Seneschal (Josephine Seneschal): Sister Basilide was a lively, impetuous character. She was the daughter of Jean Rene Seneschal and Marie-Francoise Gouin, born Feb. 10, 1812, at Chateaudun. She was a happy, dedicated teacher at Ravenel and Argentre. When a sister who was originally chosen for the journey to the United States could not make the trip, Sister Basilide was asked to be the replacement. Her only question was that she wanted to know the fledgling Congregation in the United States would never be separated from the Congregation in France. (Indeed, separation occurred about three years after arrival in the United States.) She was a capable teacher and was quick to master her new language. She taught at the Academy from 1941 to 1948. In 1948, the mother of Booth Tarkington completed her education at the Academy. The novelist once wrote about Sister Basilide being one of the sisters his mother held dearest. She could solve problems, tell stories, handle a hammer and chisel and could use a needle. She brought a carpenter’s kit with her to the United States. She also ministered in Madison, serving during the cholera epidemic. She served on the Congregation’s council and was chosen to return to France in 1866, to her great joy. She was relieved of her office in 1877 because of failing health. She made a trip to Evansville and, on return, suffered a severe stroke at Vincennes. She eventually returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods where she suffered a second stroke and died Oct. 13, 1878.
Sister Olympiade Boyer (Therese Boyer): Her father, like Saint Mother Theodore’s father, was a soldier in Napoleon’s army. She is said to have brought gifts of energy, endurance and devotedness. She was born Nov. 11, 1806, at Orleans. Her parents were Nicolas Boyer and Louise Alliott. Sister Olympiade first ministered with Saint Mother Theodore at Soulaines. She was a cook. She visited and cared for the sick. Saint Mother Theodore had requested that Sister Olympiade be part of the United States mission. She was a lay sister at the time and needed to have permission to make the journey. The superior in France disapproved, but the priests in charge gave their approval. In vintage pioneer spirit, she prepared meager meals of soup, salt pork and corn bread in the outdoor kitchen. Perhaps, she could be called the first tour guide at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, for she welcomed visitors and accompanied them to various sites. She fell ill in her first year here and had to give up cooking. She was placed in charge of the linen room. She remained as baker and became the infirmarian. She also cared for the livestock. She not only provided health care to the Congregation, but she also did so to any who were to come to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. From pioneer neighbors, she learned the qualities of herbs. She was known for riding a white horse and “braving the perils of bad roads and inclement weather” on her visits with settlers. She served as Saint Mother Theodore’s caregiver during the foundress’s many illnesses. On Jan. 3, 1893, she fell ill with pneumonia and died on Jan. 22.
Sister St. Liguori Tiercin (Louise Tiercin): She was the youngest of the sisters to accompany Saint Mother Theodore to the United States. She was born Oct. 11, 1818, to Jean Tiercin and Marie Jaille. Her parents were “well-to-do.” Her parents wanted her to have the best in education. Her father said she had an inclination for study. She received her First Communion a year early. At age 16, she wanted to enter the Daughters of Wisdom Convent at St. Laurent, but her parents declined to grant permission. Through her parish priest, she heard of the call of the new mission to the Diocese of Vincennes. This time, her parents agreed to let her join the Sisters of Providence in France. She quickly began preparation. One of her first tasks in her new homeland was to copy Saint Mother Theodore’s writings and send them back to France. She became a professed member of the Congregation in 1842. She was accompanied by an American novice when she accepted the mission of opening a school at St. Francisville, Ill., only about 12 miles from Vincennes. She faced incredible hardship in the new land, yet she served with joy and gratitude. The school at St. Francisville was open only about a year. After a “rest,” the bishop sent Sister St. Liguori and her companion to St. Peter’s at Montgomery, Ind. In a letter, she wrote “It is true we are very poor, but we have bread.” Soon, she had her turn at Madison. The living conditions improved greatly. The two sisters were challenged with opening a school to model Saint Mary’s Academy and a free school for those who could not pay. They continued to be faced with anti-Catholic prejudice in Madison. Acceptance improved, but then a devastating flood brought severe hardship to Madison. Sister St. Liguori contracted a heavy cold. She was embraced by the Congregation and was thought to be an eventual successor to Saint Mother Theodore. But, her health failed and she died Jan. 16, 1847.
Sister Mary Xavier Leree (Francoise Lere): She was another novice who accompanied the sisters on the journey to the United States. She was the last of the founding sisters to die. She was born on March 30, 1813, in the community of Bacilly, daughter of Gilles Marie-Jean Leree, a farmer and farrier, and Modest Anne-Francoise Foucher. The family owned a small estate. Most of her life was spent at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was an excellent seamstress. She learned to serve “quietly, industriously, with extreme neatness and the practice of poverty.” She was a very close companion to Saint Mother Theodore. Saint Mother Theodore entrusted Sister Mary Xavier with keys, money and important papers. Because of several illnesses, she was appointed superior at Vincennes. The task was beyond her. She later took over the orphanage at Vincennes, where she was expected to teach the children to sew and to be meek, humble and patient. She was said to have been amiable, obedient and kind to all. Her kindness became almost legendary in the early years of the Congregation. She was known to have been deeply devoted to prayer. She served the Indiana mission for 57 years, all but about three of those at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She suffered from consumption for 14 years before her death on Feb. 8, 1897.
“They had wonderful gifts to use for the mission and the usual set of personal insecurities and problems we all seem to carry around with us,” said Sister Denise Wilkinson, the Congregation’s general superior. We are here because six Sisters of Providence, not one, opened their hearts … leaving all whom they loved, all that was familiar and dear, for the sake of the mission of Providence. We are the heirs of these six extraordinary women, the heirs of the friends, neighbors and benefactors who helped them every step of the way.”
About the Sisters of Providence
The Sisters of Providence, a congregation of 214 women religious, with 300 Providence Associates, collaborate with others to create a more just and hope-filled world through prayer, education, service and advocacy. The Sisters of Providence have their motherhouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, located just northwest of downtown Terre Haute, Ind., which is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1840. Today, Sisters of Providence minister in 13 states, the District of Columbia and Asia, through works of love, mercy and justice. More information about the Sisters of Providence and their ministries can be found at SistersofProvidence.org.