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Saint Mother Theodore’s welcome: a foundation day reflection

The Thralls home was the first motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence.

Since no house was ready to welcome Mother Theodore and her companions, the neighboring Thralls family welcomed them into their already crowded farmhouse.

The story has been told and re-told for almost 175 years: how Mother Theodore and her companions climbed into a horse-drawn carriage at Wabash and First Streets in Terre Haute, clip-clopped across the Wabash Avenue bridge, made a right turn at U.S. Highway 150 (now Saint Mother Theodore Memorial Highway), and arrived at the Woods in the early evening of October 22, 1840. After crossing the cement bridge, the sisters walked past the gazebo and knelt to pray in the little log cabin where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved. Of course the bishop was there, and all the neighbors, and the mayor of the village of Sainte Marie-des-Bois officially welcomed the Sisters from France . . . .

“But wait!” you say! “That’s not how it happened!”

No. It was much more harrowing than that.

There was no Wabash Avenue bridge. The crossing of the Wabash was made by ferry—probably a flat-bottomed open raft. Arrival on the other side was followed by a carriage ride through the river bottoms on and at times wholly submerged plank road—a soggy, wet, carriage ride during which the horses were at times literally swimming, with water up to their necks. The carriage tipped sideways twice, its wheels caught on tree roots. Later, Mother Theodore would write, “When one has nothing more to lose, the heart is inaccessible to fear.” Which meant that fear was a perfectly plausible reality on that dark October night. Only, as far as Mother Theodore was concerned, it had simply lost its power to take anything more from her.

Emily Houser, 14 at the time, submitted this rendition of Saint Mother Theodore's journey to and founding of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for the 2013 Sisters of Providence youth art contest.

Emily Houser, 14 at the time, submitted this rendition of Saint Mother Theodore’s journey to and founding of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for the 2013 Sisters of Providence youth art contest.

“Come down, Sisters, we have arrived,” announced Father Buteaux. Today, a large rock marks that moment in time on that October evening. Yes, they had arrived—in our colloquial expression—“in the middle of nowhere.” With dense forest all around, a steep ravine in front of them was to be traversed, walking (sliding?) down one side and climbing (crawling?) up the other.

The fact that she had arrived at all was a miracle of Providence. No one from Indiana had been sent to meet her and her little band when they arrived in New York City. No one. They had been sent from France to an unknown destination and had been expected (knowing no English, by the way) to find their way West on their own.

The coadjutor bishop of New York, Bishop John Hughes, was alerted to the Sisters’ arrival by a Protestant physician, Dr. Sidney A. Doane, health officer of the port of New York, whom they met when he inspected their ship in New York harbor. Dr. Doane brought them fruit and milk, and when they were taken by rowboat to quarantine (on Staten Island), he brought them into his own home to wait for the boat to take them to Manhattan. Bishop Hughes appointed a French-speaking Cuban priest to look after them. This priest, Father Varela, found them lodging with a French-speaking Catholic woman (Mrs. Sylvie Parmentier) in “a country place named Brooklyn,” and so eased their way into America.

Later, in Philadelphia, they met a French priest from Canada, Father William Chartier, who happened to be on his way to Vincennes. He decided to accompany them. Like Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, they had had to depend on the kindness of strangers—strangers who very quickly became friends.*

Before. Original title/caption: Mother Theodore Leads Her Mission Band Through the Dense Woods To the Feet of the Master. Journey's End! Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, October 22, 1840. The First Chapel of the Sisters of Providence in America.

Diorama at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, depicting Mother Theodore leading her mission band through the dense woods to pray in the log cabin chapel.

And then there were the Thralls, immortalized forever after as “Uncle Joe and Aunt Sallie.” Maybe they, with whom the sisters lived for five weeks, said it first: “Welcome, Mother Theodore. Thank you for coming. How can we help?” And, in this 175th anniversary year of the arrival of Mother Theodore and her sisters, we ourselves can break the bonds of time and space. Our faith, “evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1) assures us that Mother Theodore is just as present to us now as she was on that first Foundation Day.

Wherever we are, wherever Providence has seen fit to place us—at the Woods, in a big city, in a little town, or even in the middle of nowhere — we can acknowledge the gift of these first Sisters of Providence of Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods. We can say, today, with all the meaning behind our special bond of association, as vowed members or friends of that very same Community, “Welcome, Mother Theodore. Thank you for coming. How can I help?”

*It happened that the president of the Terre Haute Bank and his wife were in Philadelphia at the time, and offered to accompany the Sisters back to Terre Haute. However, the arrival of Father Chartier meant that the Sisters could go on to Vincennes as planned. At that point, in Philadelphia, they may not yet have known that Terre Haute and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods would be their ultimate destination!

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Joanna Dailey

Joanna Dailey is a Providence Associate who lives in Terre Haute, Indiana. She works as an editor and staff writer at Saint Mary's Press in Winona, Minnesota. Of the Providence Associate relationship Joanna says, "I enjoy being among like-minded people to whom you do not have to explain a pursuit of life in the Spirit."

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