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Throwback Thursday: Remembering Sister Gaudentia Downey


A photo of Mary Henrietta Downey, age 15

It’s been written before, but arguably the most enjoyable time heading to Archives to research the Throwback Thursday blogs is to read the unbelievable history associated with the sisters.

This week, we examine the life of Sister Gaudentia Downey, another sister who had a life journey filled with twists and turns.

Born Jan. 21, 1900, in Denver, Mary Henrietta Downey would later be a Sister of Providence for 74 years.

Her father was born in Martin County, Indiana. He left Indiana and traveled west, eventually settling in Colorado. He fought in the Spanish-American War.

The family suffered a tragic loss early when Mary Henrietta’s younger brother passed away at the age of 2. Later, her younger sister passed away from injuries sustained from a house fire.

Immediately following the house fire incident, Mary Henrietta’s father wanted to have the remaining children baptized. On the day of the baptisms, Mary Henrietta’s mother left the homestead, leaving a letter stating she could not live with Catholics.

During her childhood, Mary Henrietta was raised by several different relatives. While she had been baptized Catholic, she was not allowed to practice as a Catholic.


A photo of Sister Gaudentia’s father.

During one instance of discipline, her uncle took her back to her father – who lived close to where the children were staying. During the visit, Mary Henrietta’s uncle told her father “Take your children to your own people or this one will be lost to God and man.”

Her father was granted a divorce and took the children by train back to Indiana, settling near Loogootee.

On Dec. 1, 1915, Mary Henrietta entered the Congregation and was given the name Sister Gaudentia. The Latin meaning of “Gaudentia” is joy.

Sister Gaudentia, or “Gaudy” as she was called by the other Sisters of Providence, began her ministry as an elementary school teacher in 1918 at St. Patrick in Fort Wayne. She continued teaching in elementary schools in Chicago, Indiana (including Indianapolis, Lafayette and New Castle), North Carolina and Los Angeles, officially retiring in 1973 after three years at St. John Holy Spirit in Indianapolis. In all, Sister Gaudentia taught for 52 years.


An undated photo of Sister Gaudentia Downey.

In 1973, she returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to begin a ministry as the Activity Room coordinator, before retiring from there in 1981. She continued ministering as a volunteer in the sisters’ infirmary and also ministered as a tutor for Cuban refugees before offering herself to the ministry of prayer in 1983.

In the commentary for her obituary, Sister Ann Casper noted that the sisters knew Sister Gaudentia as a “prayerful woman, patient, generous and caring; steadfast and joyful.” In fact, students at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College who had the opportunity to meet Sister Gaudentia often referred to her as “Sister Joy.”

Sister Gaudentia’s birth sister, Florence, also entered the Sisters of Providence in March 1918. She was given the name Sister Margaret Lucille and was a Sister of Providence for 70 years before passing away in 1988. In addition, her uncle entered the priesthood. Born in 1880, Monsignor James Michael Downey died in 1948. The Knights of Columbus Council 3660, based in Indianapolis, is named after him.

Sister Gaudentia passed away on Jan. 11, 1990, at the age of 89. #‎throwbackthursday ‪#‎tbt

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Jason Moon

Jason Moon serves as media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence. Previously, he spent more than 16 years in the newspaper industry.

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  1. Sr.Florence Norton on November 17, 2016 at 7:45 am

    Wow! What a story. I did not know Sister,but it was quite a story.Thank you for bringing it to us.S.Florence Norton

  2. Janet Tosick on November 17, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Sister Gaudentia Downey taught me in third and fourth grades at St. Andrew’s grade school, in Indianapolis, in 1952 and 1953. She taught my older brother in third and fourth grade at St. Andrew’s. I was so scared of her; my brother told me she was very strict. He was right. I prayed I wouldn’t have her as a teacher, and I had her two years! Sister shook us if we students talked in line. Sister called me Tilly. I think the name was not from affection, but from her frustration with me. I often think of her, and always wondered why she was so strict.
    She was probably the best teacher I had for I had many gifts I received as a child.
    She taught us how to write notes, address an envelope, taught us good manners, our Arithmetic
    for life, and she taught me love of St. Mary’s of the Woods. I still write notes and letters, and I remembered Sister Gaudentia in a book I wrote. I am amazed at her difficult childhood. Thank you for sharing her story. Janet Tosick Greenfield

    • Carol Nolan Nolan, SP on November 19, 2016 at 7:29 pm

      Janet, I was so happy to see your message about St. Andrew’s. I taught there from 1953 to 1956. It was my first mission. I was a music teacher, but after one year when Fr. Herold was asked to get a lay teacher, he wouldn’t do it. He wanted a Sister! So I taught second grade for the next two years. Srs. Mary Lois and Ann Pierre led me all the way, showing me what I had to do.
      Janet, I didn’t know you, and you didn’t know me, but I’m happy to reminisce a little with you. (I always found Gaudie to be very kind. Sorry she didn’t extend it to the students!) Love and prayers, Sister Carol Nolan (Sr. Mary Sheila)

      • tom mcnerney on January 12, 2017 at 12:52 am

        *****imagine, if we try, to think that a mother would abandon her children because they were introduced
        to another faith…and that to have two of them enter the convent. my uncles and aunts in religious life often brought home to our vacation house those whose families had severed ties at entrance to their
        respective communities. the fun and friendships that began with such visits were life long and often
        my brothers and sisters would be there as “extended family” for the celebrations and burials. we now
        cherish those incredible men and women for the memories that they have left for us to contemplate and
        enjoy. was sister really that strict or is it the memory of a childhood experience where the individual
        was more than a hand full to her teacher. well…as a result of those religious being introduced to our
        family, five of the thirteen of us entered religious life and have been very happy in their choices for
        almost thirty plus years. although two were educated by the s.p.’s they entered other communities. thanks for the story! tom

  3. Mary Carroll Blocher on November 17, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Sister Gaudentia lived at St. John’s in Newburgh. I was there at the time. I remember her always smiling and willing to help. She was a joy indeed.

  4. Carol Nolan Nolan, SP on November 19, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    St. Andrew’s was my first mission. “Gaudie” was a lovely person to live with. I had no idea of how difficult her childhood was. Gosh! Many thanks, Jason, for this research.

  5. Diane Orr-Schafer on January 12, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    How wonderful, I have been thinking of Sr. Gaudentia over the years. I had her for first grade at St. Andrew in the late 60’s. She was very stern. I always remember her asking “do you want to make me crabby?” But she was also patient and very kind when I left my lunch box at home. She took me to the convent and served the best PB &J and chicken noodle soup. I had the chance to meet up with her again when I was a student at the Woods and we had the walk a nun program. She remembered me and my parents. Thank you for the story on her…I had no idea of what her life was like before Providence…Thank you also for the picture. I will treasure it.

  6. David Nicholson on October 3, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    I remember Sister Gaudentia from her time at St. Anne’s in New Castle. While I cannot dispute her cheerful and helpful nature, let me say that there was a mighty power in a small package. You did not want to get on her bad side. I recall an incident where a student lit her fuse and even though the student was bigger than her she handled him like a rag doll. As someone previously said, she was strict but there was no malice in her. New students transferring in to Stt. Anne’s were warned that if you dare trifle with her she would “jerk a knot in your tail”.

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