Faithfulness and God’s mission: a Foundation Day reflection
My journey with the Sisters of Providence and with Saint Mother Theodore Guerin began with my tenure at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. I was hired as a faculty member in 2002 and it didn’t take very long for me to know that I was working at a very special place with a deep and meaningful legacy.
From then until now I have endeavored to understand more fully the faithful and sacrificial life of the foundress of the college and the charism of the Sisters of Providence. I am especially intrigued to understand how their strong faith and determination created the fabric of our college and impacts it even today. It has become my mission to insure that Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and her students carry this legacy into the future to insure a living, breathing and active reality of the Sisters of Providence that will go on. My current position as president of the college affords me the privilege and opportunity to make decisions to move this mission forward.
My choice to become a Providence Associate is one intertwined in my relationships with so many Sisters of Providence with whom I share a personal relationship, my own faith journey and my ability to relate with Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. I identify with Mother Theodore on many levels. Like hers, my father died while I was very young and his death left a void in my life and the lives of my mother and sister. Like me, she was an educator and she was the foundress and first leader of the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Academy which eventually became Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She relied on the scriptures, especially in times of trouble and this is true of me too. I find special comfort in Psalms and Ephesians. These, and many other realities, link our lives together. In her writings I find a real person and am inspired by her dogged determination to serve her God and to do so through loving those around her in real and tangible ways.
Strength from a saint’s words
I find strength in the passages written by Mother Theodore that are oft quoted and perhaps even more so in the lesser-known stories of her day-to-day life. She walked the grounds of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and cared so much for the fledgling school, its students and the teachers. I believe that her prayers are still with us and perhaps with me in a special way because I now watch over the school that she created. She was a woman ahead of her time when it came to educational philosophy. In a day where rulers and punishment were common in the classroom, she valued rewards. She also gifted us with an ongoing educational commitment to innovation. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is made up of historic buildings and a serene campus, but don’t let that make you think we are traditional in our offerings! The Academy boasted the curriculum common to its time but also some extraordinary programs in science. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College was the first women’s college to offer a program in journalism; we led the way to offering higher education courses for teachers; we were the second college in the country to offer a distance education program and our programs in music therapy, art therapy and equine therapy have led the way in the United States and beyond. These are but a few examples that highlight the ingenuity of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. We seem to have a special affinity for programs centered around healing and, in addition to being an educator, Mother Theodore was a healer. Remember, the miracles attributed to her that resulted in her canonization were healing miracles!
I would like to share with you a very personal experience that I had while visiting the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence in France for the first time. It was such a special and private moment that I have spoken about it with only a few trusted people in my life. We celebrated a Mass upon our arrival at the church in Ruillé and that was a very special occasion. Afterward, we were touring the building and we were guided into a small chapel which is called the Chapel of the Holy Family. I cannot describe fully how I felt upon entering this room. It is a room to the side of the main sanctuary with thick walls and no windows. My heart began beating quickly as we entered the room and I immediately felt God’s presence very close to me. We were told that Saint Mother Theodore Guerin spent the entire night prior to her journey to the United States praying in this chapel.
I felt the need to be in the room alone and after a few minutes, I asked Sister Denise Wilkinson, who was with us, if that was possible. Without questioning me, she gently moved the other visitors toward the door and closed it behind her leaving me alone there. At first, I just sat in the sparsely-filled space in a chair that faced a small altar. The altar had a picture of the Holy Family and a lit candle sitting atop. As I tried to quiet my mind, my thoughts were filled with questions about what Mother Theodore must have felt and the prayers she must have said on that night. After several minutes, I attained silence within myself and I experienced thoughts that I believe to be from God. This is what I heard, “You think from 1840 until now is a long time, but it is no time for me. This mission never belonged to her, it belonged to me. She was successful because she was faithful and so must you be.”
From then until now, my journey at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College has changed. I see the Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, our missions and our campus in a new way. We are part of a grand design and see only a part, our part, each day. My time with the college and the sisters will be brief, relative to the full mission, and my role is to use all of my gifts and talents for the glory of God. On the days that are most difficult, I remember that before me were talented and dedicated leaders who experienced challenging circumstances and they persevered. They were innovative and resilient.
Besides Saint Mother Theodore, I am most familiar with the presidency of Sister Jeanne Knoerle. I was blessed to have her as a friend, mentor and sister companion on my path toward becoming a Providence Associate. I learned so much from her! Surprisingly, it is not the triumphs of Mother Theodore and Sister Jeanne (and the other Sisters of Providence) that inspire me the most, but rather, it is their firm commitment and forward motion in the midst of challenge and opposition that resonate with me. When Mother Theodore arrived and assessed the resources awaiting her in these Woods for building a novitiate and an academy, she uttered “All appearances are against it.” And yet her next steps were forward ones.