Never consent to take our books
My parents tell a story of when I went missing when I was two years old. My mother checked on me in the middle of the night and found I wasn’t in my bed. After some looking around, terror set in and my dad and the older siblings were awakened to help look for me. There were worries I had been kidnapped or drowned in the creek. Finally, I was found soundly sleeping in the back of my closet, where I had curled up atop a pile of books.
As an older child, I heard this story and thought that sounded like the most wonderful way in the world to sleep. Even as an adult, it seems cozy to me. I am imagining now sewing myself a blanket out of the pages of favorite books. I can think of nothing more blissful than to be surrounded by words and crinkly paper.
When I came to work for the Sisters of Providence 18 years ago, the office wasn’t exactly ready for my arrival. As often happens in a workplace, they had been swamped due to the absence of two crucial staff members. So, even though they were desperate for help, everyone was too busy to even consider what work they should be giving to me. I had about two weeks of very little to do, so I read.
I read every piece of paper in my filing cabinet. I read three-ring binders full of policies or old workshop materials. I read the entire archive of the Sisters of Providence publications. I read every book published by the Sisters of Providence at that time.
I am a graduate of SP schools and had spent several years on the same campus as the motherhouse, so I was definitely familiar with the congregation. But when I was done reading, I felt like I had a PhD in SP-ology.
Yes, it was idleness before the internet was invented that led to this reading binge, but the stories kept me reading.
These women were amazing! They served in several wars. They were held in internment camps. They founded another order in Taiwan. They worked for Civil Rights. They were environmentalists from the very beginning. They survived prejudice, storms, fire and famine. And they were still doing it.
Mother Theodore, who had a mythical quality when I heard stories about her in college, jumped to life on the pages of her Journals and Letters. Suddenly, she was this smart, sophisticated French woman with a hardy pioneer spirit and an hysterically wry sense of humor. I’ll never forget one of the first things she said that made me laugh — her story of being tossed around on their ship during her first trip to the U.S. from France. She said, “Our dear plump Sister Ligouri fell against me with all her weight. I thought I was killed.”
She didn’t mince words, either, and I think she would have been a considerable force when “displeased.” In writing to Sister Basilide at the troublesome mission in Madison, Ind., she said, “You must rebuke L___ soundly and not let her take precedence of her Superior; she is, indeed, intolerable.” I don’t know who L___ is, but, goodness, do I ever feel sorry for her! (L___’s name was omitted in the text.)
It was on the pages of Mother Theodore’s Journals and Letters that I started to believe she and I would have been good friends. Oh, sure, she probably would have called me l’enfant terrible from time to time, but she also could have counted on me to laugh at her morbid and self-aware jokes. My favorite kind! For example, when describing her good friend Sister St. Francis recovering from an illness, she said, “Sister St. Francis is resuscitated enough to preach for the Jubilee. To see if she is dead, we shall have to take a little, or even a big, boy to her room and ask her about preparing him for Baptism or for Confession. If she opens neither her eyes nor her mouth, we may have the funeral in all safety.”
I took away from this reading time a sense that I had come to work not for a group of angelic and untouchable creatures, but for real women. They were and are working idealists — never giving up and always improving — and doing it with a sense of humor. It was a lesson I could use in my life and one I try never to forget.
The Sisters of Providence books are available from the Gift Shop at Providence Center and most are very inexpensively priced at $10. And new this week, just in time for Book Lover’s Day Nov. 2 — Lest We Forget: The Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Civil War Service is our first book available as a Kindle eBook. It was written in 1931 by Sister Mary Theodosia Mug, who also was the editor of Mother Theodore’s Journals and Letters..
“Never consent to take our books” is part of a quote from Saint Mother Theodore Guerin about those scamps down at that Madison mission. You can read more of the story on page 334 of the 1978 edition of Journals and Letters in a letter to Sister Basilide dated June 9, 1852.