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Shared roots: bonds that unite beyond culture, time and place


I smile when I hear myself say “while I was in France.”

I smile every time I feel gratitude for the Congregation’s generous gift of that sabbatical time.

I smile when I remember my four-month sojourn with the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir, France.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin lived at the Ruillé motherhouse during the years of her initial formation until she professed final vows. I wanted to spend time there. I wanted to be in the place that had formed so much of Mother Theodore’s spirit and spirituality. I hoped to walk where she walked, to pray where she prayed, to just be — no agenda, no plans, no desired outcomes.

All these hopes materialized in the usual ways of Providence — surprises, observations, celebrations and new relationships.

Driving up the gravel driveway to the motherhouse for the first time, I felt as if I had stepped into one of our dioramas back at the Woods! Immediately ahead of me was La Providence – only not in miniature as in the diorama but in real life! Here our Mother Theodore lived. Here she prayed daily. Here she lived in community with her religious sisters. (No doubt she also washed floors and dishes and took her turn in the garden and laundry.)

I started walking the motherhouse property the first day I arrived. I loved exploring the grounds and poking through buildings like the old, unused stables and laundry building. I explored the bath house where the sisters used to bathe. No heat, two spigots for cold running water. Buckets were filled with water and then poured over one self. Great idea on a summer evening but a cold winter eve?

One day I came upon St. Anne’s Chapel. Again, I felt transported back to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and our St. Anne Shell Chapel. St. Anne, mother of Mary, is very much revered in France as the patron of sailors. Our shell chapel at the Woods and the one at Ruillé both reflect belief in the care of St. Anne for all the children of God but most especially for sailors, fisher folk and those traveling the seas.

Every walk brought me face to face with the beauty of the Creator’s imagination. The flowers – iris, daffodils, lily of the valley, jonquils, wisteria, snowdrops, all shades of roses! A stand of bamboo trees. Crabapple, magnolia, forsythia, lilac trees coming into bloom. The vegetable garden with onions and cabbage and a variety of radishes and lettuce sown in straight rows. Artichokes too!

Most often, I walked through the cemetery. Reading the sisters’ names and their birth and death dates, I gave thanks for the two centuries of religious life and service given by Sisters of Providence of Ruillé.

Each day began and ended with the chanting of the Holy Office, a collection of psalms and prayers praising and petitioning the Loving God. Eucharistic liturgy was celebrated every day as well. I loved these times of communal prayer for many reasons but mostly because I loved the sisters with whom I prayed. I loved being in the very place where Mother Theodore worshipped in her years of living in La Providence. To sit in this very simple chapel for hours refreshed and renewed me. There I experienced in a unique way the presence of Mother Theodore.

Surprises met me at every turn. Imagine my astonishment the first morning I came to breakfast. A very large bowl sat on a very small plate. I quickly learned to drink my coffee from the bowl and to use the small plate for the best French bread I’ve ever tasted. The fresh butter didn’t hurt either!

My capstone experience occurred in May. An American (as the French refer to anyone from the United States) had donated a bronze statue of Saint Mother Theodore to the Ruillé Sisters of Providence. The statue is an exact replica of the Mother Theodore statue at our Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. This generous benefactor wished to acknowledge the gift the Sisters of Ruillé had given to so many by sending Mother Theodore to Indiana.

The day of the statue’s arrival at Ruillé was a day of great happiness. The French sisters love Mother Theodore and refer to her as notre soeur, our sister. The statue was placed so that Mother Theodore gazes at the chapel from which she and her companions left to begin their journey to Indiana.

On May 14, the anniversary of Mother Theodore’s death, the statue’s blessing was an occasion for a great celebration. Sisters from both congregations, representatives from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, enthusiastic citizens of Étables sur Mer, Mother Theodore’s birthplace, and others from the villages and towns surrounding Ruillé came to honor a saint whose heritage they shared.

Everyone enjoyed a delicious lunch of gallate saucise et flan Breton – Breton sausage crêpes and Breton flan. A joyous liturgy followed and then the blessing of the statue. The sky was a royal blue. A brisk, cool breeze refreshed all participants. The bishop of the diocese of Le Mans performed the blessing. Tears were shed and laughter erupted. Notre soeur, notre mère, notre sainte a retourné à sa maison. Our sister, our mother, our saint returned to her home. What joy to know that her home is wherever her sisters and friends reside.

(Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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  1. Avatar Diana Igo on January 21, 2018 at 12:44 am

    I have such fond memories of this joyful and peaceful place, St. Mary’s of the Woods, when my late sister, Becky Igo, worked there in Marketing. She and I felt she was meant to be there in her work of supporting the Sisters of Providence and their mission.
    God bless all of you for your faith, compassion, and pursuit of justice.
    Thank you to the staff and Sisters who were so kind,, generous, and who enjoyed Becky’s humor, writings, and photography.
    Her receipt of a service in your Chapel after her passing was a comfort and a blessing.
    Again, bless all of you as you strive to fulfill Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s vision in Indiana.
    Diana Igo
    Bloomington, IN

  2. Avatar Michael Gemmell on February 1, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    I’m one of the students lucky enough to have been taught French by Sister Denise, and I was delighted to learn of the time she was able to spend in France. Sister Denise’s student teachers helped introduce her students to French cuisine, which led me to a lifelong appreciation for and study of France’s great treasure, her cuisine. One thing that must be made clear is French cuisine is in no way dependent upon expensive ingredients, but that it instead leads us toward seasonal groceries when they are at their best as well as most affordable. French cuisine is also characterized by a dedication to the many small details that turn inexpensive ingredients into memorable meals. Did Sister Denise help prepare the Sisters’ meals? What secrets did she learn? While I recognize Sister Denise’s mission in France was not culinary, I suspect I am not the only former student who wonders if Sister Denise has any secrets of French cuisine to share with us.

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