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Sister Basilide Sénéchal : a founding Sister of Providence

sketch-providence-hall-18470-webDescribed as a “lively, impetuous character,” Sister Basilide likely came from a family of above-average means, as she provided a dowry when she entered the congregation at Ruillé.

Born Feb. 10, 1812, she would have been 28 when she was asked, at the last minute, to replace another sister among the missionaries heading to America. Her only question was whether the new foundation would remain part of Ruillé. Upon that assurance, she gave herself generously to the mission.

It didn’t remain united, but in later years, when she traveled to Ruillé to consult about the newly appointed Rules of the Indiana community, she had the realization that she was now fully a part of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Sister Basilide suffered tremendous humiliation during the conflict with Bishop de la Hailandière. In her account, “Monsignor, who had raised me to the clouds turned against me, took an entirely different view of all I had said and done during the year.” Although she admitted to mistakes that created additional burden on the community, Mother Theodore forgave her and changed nothing in her attitude toward Sister Basilide.

These problems do not even scratch the surface of who she was. Sister Basilide was a capable teacher, alert and quick to master the language. She was successful in any class, spontaneous and affectionate, accepted by all she came in contact with. Her versatility covered a wide range — from solving a difficult problem, to relating a story, to handling a chisel and hammer, to using a needle. She brought a carpenter’s kit with her to America, in the belief that she could erect a shelter for the missionaries.

Her letters to Mother Theodore while on mission in Madison, Indiana, where she worked tirelessly and survived a cholera epidemic, offer touching insights into her personality and her relationship with Mother Theodore. “I can not be angry with Sister Basilide,” Mother Theodore wrote. “I love her very much even when I am scolding her.”

Sister Basilide taught at the Academy at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 1841 to 1848, where she made an impression on a student who became the mother of Indiana writer Booth Tarkington. Her remembrances were used in a book he wrote. Tarkington recalled the name of Sister Basilide as one of the sisters his mother held dearest. “They must have been women of exquisite manner as well as distinguished education. And they must have possessed unusual charm as well, to be so adored throughout the life of their pupil.”

Sister Basilide suffered a stroke at St. Rose in Vincennes, while traveling with Mother Mary Ephrem in 1878. She recovered enough to return to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, where she died on Oct. 11.

(Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Rosie Blankenship

Rosie Blankenship is a graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She previously served in positions for the Sisters of Providence as the web site manager and annual giving manager.

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