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Mother Theodore Moment: a history of collaborating in leadership

smtg-webSisters of Providence gather every five years to set direction and elect leadership. These General Chapter gatherings in the 21st century build on the foundations of collaboration and prayerful decision making laid by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the sisters who governed in the 1840s.

When the first Sisters of Providence came to Indiana from Ruillé, France, they lived under their Congregation’s Rule of 1835. That Rule stated that the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence was an “association of pious women united in a common life . . . under the protection of the laws and authority of the Monsignor (Bishop) of LeMans, whom they recognize as their Superior to whom they will remain submissive as the representative of Jesus Christ on earth . . .They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and a special vow to educate young women . . . the Congregation is governed by a superior-general assisted by a particular council (today’s general council) and a general council (today’s General Chapter) under the presidency of the Bishop of LeMans or his delegate.” (“Positio,” p. 408.)

Integrity and the Rule

After Saint Mother Theodore and her companions established their mission at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, it became independent from Ruillé. They retained the government structure outlined in the Rule, but the bishop of Vincennes took the role the bishop of Le Mans had taken. As a result, as evidenced from her Journals and Letters (Part V), Saint Mother Theodore and the Bishop often were at odds about the exercise of authority and governance of the young Congregation. Throughout the process, Mother Theodore prayed, dialogued, and sought to resolve differences with respect for church authority with the goal to preserve the integrity of the Sisters of Providence Rule. She also engaged the sisters in decision making at critical moments, such as the one following.

mtg-charityOn March 8, 1846, she wrote the sisters regarding a conflict with the bishop that threatened to uproot them from their home at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, giving them opportunity to sign on:

“You know my dear Sisters, you are not obliged to sign the letter I am sending, if it is contrary to your views. You also know that in signing it you engage yourself to remain in the diocese of Vincennes, if the bishop grants us what we ask, and of leaving soon if he does not grant it. Reflect well and act according to your lights and intentions. Write to me as soon as you have taken your determination. You understand that this letter is for you alone. Always yours in our Lord. Sr. St. T.” (“Journals and Letters,” 191-192.)

Sister Mary Cecilia Bailly reflected on Saint Mother Theodore’s style of leadership in a letter sent May 16, 1856: “She possessed to an eminent degree all the virtues of Christian perfection, though charity did seem to transcend them all; it was her favorite virtue; like the beloved Apostle, her instructions and recommendations breathed charity, unbounded charity, a charity involving all the other virtues. She blended the tenderness of a Mother with the firmness of a Superior so perfectly that her government was most happy and effectual . . . She has left us a legacy far more precious and valuable then can be bequeathed by the most opulent; it is the examples of her virtues which I hope shall ever dwell in our remembrance, to admonish us if necessary, but always to invite and urge us to like perfection.

(Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Cathy Campbell

Sister Cathy Campbell, SP, is a freelance writer and editor. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in Spirituality from Catholic Theological Union/Chicago. Sister Cathy also ministers as a retreat facilitator for the Providence Spirituality and Conference Center with special interests in scripture and the mystics.

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