During instructions with the novices, Mother Thedore tells them that she doesn’t have new things to say to them, but she does have old truths which they have heard repeatedly.
And so she challenges, “Close not the eyes of your soul to these old truths, for you will see many things in new lights if you give the Holy Spirit free access to your minds and hearts.”
Well, if there is anything we Sisters of Providence, Providence Associates and other partners in mission have heard repeatedly, it is the Foundation Day story.
How, at dusk on the 22nd of October in 1840, Sister St. Theodore and her five sister companions arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods after a perilous three-month journey from France.
How their chaplain, Father Buteaux, who had gone to Vincennes to meet them, uttered those now oft-repeated words as the stage coach pulled to a stop at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, “Come down, sisters, we have arrived.”
And how Mother Theodore retells that moment, “Imagine our astonishment upon finding ourselves still in the midst of the forest, no village, not even a house in site.”
And, of course, her now famous conclusion spoken the day after their arrival here: “It is astonishing that this remote solitude has been chosen for a novitiate and especially for an academy. All appearances are against it.” AND later “. . . If we cannot do any good here, you know our agreement, we will return to our own country.”
But here we are—177 years after that founding moment—testimony to the Providence of God and to the promise God offers us through the words of Jeremiah: to give us a future with hope.
We love this story. We love these women who have so shaped our beloved community—Sisters St. Theodore, Basilide, St. Vincent Ferrer, Mary Liguori, Mary Xavier and Olympiade.
What might the Holy Spirit reveal to us today about this well-worn and well-loved story so that we can see this foundation and perhaps our own role in its continuing refoundation in new lights?
Mother Theodore’s “Journals and Letters” have provided us a powerful first-person account of that moment of foundation. But today, I have asked some other characters in that foundation story to speak to us. With help from our sisters in Archives, I have put a few words in their mouths in an effort to cast new light. However, I have tried to lift up some old truths. I ask you to give the Holy Spirit free access to your minds and heart.
First, we will hear from Mother Mary LeCour, the second general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé and our founding community. She is the sister who called Sister St. Theodore forth to head the mission to Indiana.
From the fictional diary of Mother Mary Lecor, Ruillé, France
It is October 22, 1840, and I wonder, no, I pray God that our little missionary band of Sisters of Providence has arrived at their final destination in Indiana. May Providence be their mother and their guide no matter where they find themselves at this moment.
As I wrote to my Theodore before she left, “I have always loved you from the bottom of my heart, and I will always love you. . . . Whether you be at Vincennes, whether you be in China, everywhere my love will follow you, even to heaven or purgatory.”
Oh, and what have we asked of these good sisters but to carry out the demands of the Gospel and of our Holy Rule which says, “The Sisters will be disposed to go to any place in the world where obedience calls them, to work according to the spirit of their Institute.”
Was not Monsignor de la Hailandiere an instrument of the Providence of God seeking our sisters to found an establishment at Vincennes?
Having considered the good which would be accomplished in a country deprived of spiritual assistance — there being only a very few priests in that vast diocese — our Council decided to enter into the benevolent designs of Monsignor de la Hailandiere.
Oh, Theodore, praise Providence, that you heard my appeals not only for your participation but also for your leadership. Despite your protests of your own incapacity because of your precarious health you have deigned to submit to the will of God, which is always the desire of a good religious to fulfill perfectly.
Future Sisters of Ruillé will know and resound the truth that we sent our best that God’s adorable will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. May our missionaries edify that new world by the practice of all the virtues of which our divine master has given the example. Above all, may they say of these dear ones of ours what was said of the first Christians, “See how they love one another.”
I pray this day that they will have confidence and be at peace that the God who so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will clothe them. Our God knows what we need. . . . “Strive for the reign of God, and these things will be given to you as well.”
Beloved sisters of Indiana, may you know the consolation of the psalmist who prayed, “The Lord is our light and our salvation—of whom should we be afraid?”
Next, please welcome Sarah Thralls or Aunt Sallie as she was called by everyone. She was 47 when the foundresses arrived. She would live to bless her children to the third generation, dying in 1876 at the age of 83. She had 12 children and 35 grandchildren. Eight of those children were still under roof when the French sisters arrived.
From the Fictional Diary of Aunt Sallie, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, IN. Written while waiting …
It is almost dusk on October 22 and I am wondering where in the Sam Hill are those French Sisters. They were supposed to leave Terre Haute at 10 a.m. They should be here by now.
Now I know those last four miles from the Wabash can be treacherous, especially given all the rain we’ve had, but praised be to Jesus, these four young postulants waiting for them are going to wear out the floorboards pacing back and forth. They have been with us for six weeks now and all they can talk about is what will happen when the sisters arrive.
Not to mention the state of the fried chicken. I have moved the meal from the front of the stove to the back and to the front again every time those young’uns think they hear an approaching stage.
Who am I kidding? I am just as anxious for the sisters to arrive as these postulants and my own kids. Ever since we learned from Bishop de la Hailandiere that we would have sisters—holy women who could teach religion and letters to my children — well, I have been on my knees every night praying for their safe delivery.
In these days since we moved here from Kentucky with Joe’s two brothers, I have done my best by my kids to teach them about God. It was almost a miracle when our last bishop — the holy Simon Bruté—bought land from us several years ago to build a fair-sized framed church. He called it Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and we gladly changed the name of our station from Thralls to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Unfortunately, it burned down just about eight months ago.
But maybe with real teachers, more settlers will come to these parts. They say there will be an academy. We will need to rebuild our little church. We can only hope that the presence of the sisters and an academy will be a blessing for all of us. As the bishop likes to say, “The arrival of these sisters will be for the diocese the beginning of a new kind of good which is unknown in this country.”
My Joe is such a good man. It didn’t take him but one minute to offer the shelter of our home to these poor travelers once he learned that their house would not be ready.
We have done our best to provide some privacy for them — they will have one room and half the loft. I must admit I am a bit worried about how ladies from a cultured area of France will take to the Indiana wilderness.
But what does the good book say, we may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of our faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may resound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Oh … those girls are shouting again … I think I hear a stagecoach … saints be praised … I’d better reheat the chicken.
And finally, we have Sister Olympiade, one of the foundresses who accompanied Mother Theodore. She was a novice at the time. She would live the longest of the foundresses and, perhaps next to Mother Theodore, became the best known among the people in the area. The obituary in the Terre Haute Gazette described her as “threading the woods on an old white horse to visit the sick in weather which no doctor would brave, and many a dying child received Baptism from her hands.”
From the fictional diary of Sister Olympiad Boyer. Written from the sisters’ one room in the Thralls Farmhouse.
I can’t sleep. You would think given all the perils of travel we experienced today that I would just fall upon my bed and sleep like a log. But I am worried about Sister Basilide. She has had a fever on and off for five days. And given the closeness of our quarters—eight ticks arranged in half the loft area allotted to us—it won’t be long before the others succumb.
I’ve got to keep these missionaries well — that’s my station in life, that’s why Bishop Bouvier agreed to let me come to America. Ole Mother Mary wouldn’t hear of a novice like me—with no real training as a teacher like the others — being part of this missionary group.
But Bishop Bouvier advised Sister St. Theodore to accept me for the services I can render — why I am an expert in tailoring, an excellent cook, I’m healthy and strong and my time with Sister St. Theodore in Soulaines has given me the aptitude for taking care of the sick.
Oh, Sister St. Theodore, what a sister she has been to me — really a mother — and not just to me but to all of us. There we were in New York being told to disembark from the ship by climbing down a rope ladder into a little green rowboat. Our good Theodore was, of course, the first to descend, whispering to the rest of us, “Come, if we have to die, let us die, but say nothing!” Her strength gave us strength and “none showed fear except our poor Sister Ligouri.”
Sister St. Theodore’s strength surely showed itself again today as we wound our way through the Woods. But something happened to her when we entered that little log cabin church. We had agreed among ourselves that’s where we would go first when we arrived. We wanted to pour out our homage of thanksgiving and renew the consecration of our lives to God’s holy love and service.
And though I was certainly taken at that moment, I could see that our good superior was overwhelmed — almost lost in adoration and gratitude. As if she knew that if the Lord of her life could find a home in this poor log cabin, in this bedraggled circumstance, then she, too, would find the courage not only to endure but also to create new life right here in the midst of a forest.
Of course, we put ourselves under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and to her we will always belong.
Enough of this reverie, I must prepare the menu for tomorrow … Sister Basilide will need some of my bacon and salt beef soup.
Thank you Paula, Mary and Emily [the readers] and Mother Mary, Aunt Sallie and Olympiade.
This is our inheritance, an inheritance to which we might ascribe the words found in the second reading — imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,
- It is a story filled with faithful disciples unaware of the magnitude of their influence.
- It is a story with a clarion call to mission—a mission that is still in need of a response
So what might the Holy Spirit be revealing to us today about our own discipleship, our own call to mission. Perhaps, a good practice would be for each of us to write our own diary page.
Each of us — Sisters of Providence, Providence Associates, others gathered with us who might be hearing this story for the first time — has a part to play in carrying on the designs of Providence.
- Is there a forest to which you are being summoned?
- How are you being asked to open wide the door of your house and heart?
- Who has God entrusted to your care?
How are you called to be Christ Among Us?
What might your diary say?
I will end today where my own diary page begins:
“Grant, O my God, that all who dwell in this house may love Thee much, may love one another, and may never forget why they came here.”
The world needs us for this … The world needs all of us for this.