The life of Eleanor Bailly (Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly)
Editor’s Note: This feature was written by Paul Beel, a former staff member in the Mission Advancement office and an admirer of Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly.
Childhood of Eleanor Bailly
Eleanor Cecilia Baily was born on June 2, 1815, to Joseph and Marie Bailly. Joseph was a very successful French-Canadian fur-trader. He established a trading post near present-day Porter County in Indiana, near the town of Chesterton. This made him an important part of the western fur trade and the primary pioneer in that area.
Marie Le Fevre de la Vigne was a woman of French and Native American descent. She belonged to the Ottawa Indian tribe and was known as “The Lily of the Lakes” for her beauty.
They were both rooted in strong Catholic values and wished to pass this on to their children.
Joseph and Marie were both previously married. They were basically known as common law marriages in those days. Joseph was married to an Indian from the Ottawa tribe. Instead of recognizing the Catholic faith, she began following her tribe’s religion and following pagan rituals. The couple went their separate ways because of this.
Marie was married to an Indian in her own tribe. He did not treat her well, so she sold what she could and bought her freedom.
Joseph had four sons and one daughter from his marriage and Marie had two daughters. Together, they bore four daughters and one son – Esther in 1811, Rose in 1813, Eleanor in 1915, Robert in 1817, and Hortense in 1819.
In 1817, they made their home on the Calumet River. The Bailly Homestead became the principal fur trading post in northern Indiana. Many Indians passed through this area and attended Mass at the Bailly Homestead. Traveling priests would also come by to direct Mass. Mass took place in the living room of the Bailly house at first, but then Joseph used the old log house on the grounds and converted it into a chapel. Mass took place there from that point on.
The Bailly Homestead is still standing today. The Homestead was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1962. It is preserved by the National Park Service at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
It was in the living room of this house that Eleanor began her education. When she was 8, she attended Rev. McCoy’s Mission from 1823-1827. It was a Baptist education mission in Michigan.
By the time the Bailly children left home, they could converse in French, Ottawa and Potawatomi.
When Eleanor became of age, her father sent her, her older sister Rose, and Robert to Fort Wayne, Ind., to the Carey Institute. The girls received high praises while studying there. Sadly, Robert contracted typhoid fever and died there at the age of 10. His remains were later moved to the Bailly Homestead Cemetery.
Eleanor and Rose continued their education in Windsor, Canada, at the convent boarding school. From there, they went to Montreal. After studying in Montreal, they went back to Detroit to finish their education. Esther, Eleanor’s oldest sister, lived there and introduced her to Detroit society. Eleanor spent a lot of time practicing her piano while there. Her musical gifts would always serve her well.
As the years started to go by, Eleanor’s sisters all married. Eleanor definitely had her suitors. She was even known as the “Belle of Detroit.”
Early religious life
Father Maurice de Saint Palais, who later became the Bishop of Vincennes, visited the Bailly Homestead, as many priests did in those days, and he met with Eleanor. In November 1841, Eleanor entered the Sisters of Providence and received the religious name of Sister Mary Cecilia. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s first impression of her new postulant is found in a letter to Ruille:
“A new postulant arrived last week who appears desirable. She alone could serve as proof that the Lord has His elect everywhere and that He watches over them. She seems only half civilized, but she has received direction of the Holy Spirit. She has been brilliantly educated and knows vocal and instrumental music, which pleases Monseigneur greatly. I do not know whether she will remain, as I wish only those whom God would choose, and in spite of all her fine qualities, we would not receive her if as to virture she were not suitable.”
In 1843, after the season’s harvest was destroyed by fire, Mother Theodore decided to travel to France for financial assistance. It was decided that Sister Mary Cecilia would join her on the trip. One of the reasons Sister Mary Cecilia was sent was so she could study more music. She took guitar and voice training lessons while there. When they arrived, the first impression of Sister Mary Cecilia by the French sisters were the following:
“She, the ‘demi-Indienne,’ was a great surprise to the French Sisters. This tall, graceful, finely-educated young religious with her fluent French was hardly consonant with the ideas of savages which they had formed from reading the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith.”
Mother Theodore and Sister Mary Cecilia found that there were not any rich families at home. After trying to deliver many letters, only one remained. It was to one of King Louis Philippe’s ministers. Mother Theodore wasn’t too wild about delivering it, but at Sister Mary Cecilia’s persuasion, she agreed to do so. This minister was M. Martin du Nord, Keeper of the Seals. He recommended to Mother Theodore that she write a letter to Queen Maria Amelia. After a week of waiting, the Queen agreed to meet them.
During the meeting, they went on a rout of the palace. King Louis walked with Sister Mary Cecilia. The King pointed out the Queen’s confessional to her. Sister Mary Cecilia said, “And yours, sire?” The King smiled and passed on. From that moment, great success favored them.
On the way back, Mother Theodore became ill. She sent Sister Mary Cecilia on with one postulant that was traveling with them from France. The other postulant stayed with Mother Theodore. When Sister Mary Cecilia arrived in Vincennes, Sister St. Vincent did not understand why Sister Mary Cecilia left Mother Theodore’s side if she was sick. She said to her:
“You will be scolded at St. Mary’s and everywhere you will be blamed for leaving her.”
After this first encounter, from then on, Sister St. Vincent treated Sister Mary Cecilia with kindness. However, it worried Sister Mary Cecilia because she wasn’t sure how she would be received back home at St. Mary’s. But, when she finally did arrive home, everything was fine and she was not scolded at all.
As the years went by, Sister Mary Cecilia taught English and music at the Academy. She was very successful and was known for her charming personality and shrewd intelligence.
Sister Mary Cecilia’s nieces, Rose and Frances Howe, started attending the Academy in the mid-1850s. It was noted by Rose that Sister Mary Cecilia showed them no favor. Rose Howe eventually became the first graduate of the Academy.
During this time, Sister Mary Cecilia was elected Mother Theodore’s first assistant. When Sister Basilide Seneschal, who had been in charge of the Academy, was sent to Madison, Ind., Sister Mary Cecilia was chosen to replace her as directress of the school.
Then, in the last year of Mother Theodore’s life, Sister St. Francis Xavier Le Fer died. She was the mistress of novices. So, Sister Mary Cecilia was called by Mother Theodore to handle the job until the next election.
Death of Mother Theodore
When Mother Theodore died in her bed, Sister Mary Cecilia was right there by her side. She sent out a circular to all sisters announcing Mother Theodore’s death. This is an excerpt from the circular:
“This excellent Superior, this tender Mother, we have lost. The Almighty Himself has ravished her from our need and from our affection. What remains for us to do? Is it to despond? I say no, though as I say it, I feel my heart sicken within me, my knees sink under me, and my mind is so agitated that I am barely able to pen these lines; still I will hold out to you words of encouragement. We must remember, my dear Sisters, that our duties remain the same; we have our God to serve, and to serve Him in high perfection.
“Dear Sisters, we suffer in unison; we offer you our sympathy and we receive yours in return. That we may never sever the bond of charity in which our dear Mother leaves us, must be our constant prayer and daily desire.
“Your mournful sister at the foot of the Cross,
Sister Mary Cecilia”
Sister Mary Cecilia temporarily took over for Mother Theodore until she was elected Superior General of the Congregation from 1856-1868.
She led the sisters well, opening many new missions in many different areas. In 1860, a larger Academy was needed to accommodate students. She laid the foundation for this new Academy and showing great faith, this is what she wrote in her journal:
“I am beginning a new academy and I have not one dollar with which to begin. God will provide.”
While leading the Congregation during these years, she also built a frame chapel, a brick bake house, barn and stable. The cemetery was also laid out during her administration. A brick vault was prepared in the center circle for the grave of Mother Theodore.
In April 1861, the Civil War broke out. Father Bessonies was asked by the doctors of City Hospital of Indianapolis to ask the Sisters of Charity to take charge. But there were no Sisters of Charity in the area, so the Sisters of Providence were asked to provide assistance. Mother Mary Cecilia went immediately to Indianapolis to see what could be done. The very next day, she sent three of her sisters to assist. Others were later sent. See our section on the Civil War for more information.
Life after her leadership role
When it was time for another election, Mother Mary Cecilia was not re-elected. Sister Anastasie Brown was instead. Mother Mary Cecilia might have thought she would be Superior General until her death like Mother Theodore, but some of the younger sisters voted for Sister Anastasie instead. Mother Mary Cecilia was still dearly loved by many of the older sisters.
Since she served as Superior General, she had a choice of where she would go next. She chose to go to St. Ignatius Academy in Lafayette, Ind. There, she spent one year. Entries to Mother Anastasie’s diary show that the sisters at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods did not forget her:
“Today, we sent a basket of grapes to Mother Mary Cecilia.” And again, “Opportunity today to send a box of peaches to Mother Mary Cecilia.” And another time, “Mr. Webb takes a basket of lovely apples to Mother Mary Cecilia,” says a letter of Sister Mary Joseph, “of which kind attentions Mother Mary Cecilia was very appreciative.”
Mother Mary Cecilia’s sister Rose decided to take her two daughters on a trip to Europe. She mentioned to Mother Mary Cecilia that she should come back to the Bailly Homestead and open a school there. She did just that and it was the first school in that county. She proposed to open an entire mission, but it was turned down by the Sisters of Providence.
So in 1872, she left Baillytown and was assigned to St. Augustine, Fort Wayne, for eight years. Bishop Dwenger appreciated her work, but he thought a younger person who was less conservative, would fit better into the progressive educational methods of that time.
St. Ann Orphan Asylum, Terre Haute
In 1880, Mother Mary Cecilia, at her own request, was transferred to St. Ann Orphan Asylum in Terre Haute, Ind. She taught the children Catechism and was very interested in making them happy.
There was one instance where she helped a little girl with shoes. A sister-purchaser had just returned with shoes for all of the orphans. One little girl was sitting close to Mother Mary Cecilia while trying on her shoes. The girl was disappointed because the shoes she really wanted had blue tops and not red tops. Overhearing this, Mother Mary Cecilia had the sister-purchaser take the girl back to the store and get her the shoes she wanted.
She would serve at the orphanage for 18 years. Besides teaching and attending to the business of the orphanage, she found time to write “The Life of Mother Theodore.”
This was instrumental in the evidence presented for Mother Theodore to become a saint. She also wrote a biography of Sister France Xavier Le Fer, the once angelic mistress of novices.
Mother Mary Cecilia’s death
In the last year of her life, she was confined to her room at the orphanage. The superiors at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods wished to have her at home where she could be better cared for.
They reserved the best room at New Providence for her and even named it St. Cecilia’s. But she decided to remain at her post at the orphanage and died there on Aug. 2, 1898. She was 83 years old.
The book, “In God’s Acre,” had some nice words about the end of Mother Mary Cecilia’s life:
“Thus the final tribute was paid to an eventful life of eighty-three years. How the elements of a mortal career are mixed! – sunshine and shadow, success and failure, achievement and defeat, but all leading to the Great Beyond. It is a marvel how the Providence of God manifests itself in multitudinous ways. Here we see the little Indian of the northern Lakes becoming one of the Torch-bearers of Christian education in southern Indiana and a notable factor in the expansion of St. Mary-of-the-Woods.”