Reflections for Foundation Day — Oct. 22, 2018
The first Foundation Day I ever celebrated with the Sisters of Providence occurred when I was a freshman at Mother Theodore Guerin High School — for those of you with us this morning who might not know — Guerin is the SP sponsored school outside of Chicago named for our foundress.
My 13-year-old self never really comprehended why we were celebrating or even what we were celebrating. That came much later for me. But I did know that it was a big deal for the sisters. And there was this little log cabin in the front foyer of the school. In fact long after I graduated from Guerin and came back to that school in various iterations in my life as a Sister of Providence, there was always that little log cabin on Foundation Day.
Actually, the log cabin anchored a scene that looked just like Diorama No. 5 that we have displayed here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods — the cabin, lots of little artificial trees decked out in their fall finest, and seven miniature figures — a priest and a little band of sisters, among them the one I would come to know and love as Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.
This little scene came into my mind again as I began to ponder the readings selected for this celebration, as I began to think about what reflections I could offer to all of us gathered here this morning and those of you who might join us later via live stream as we mark this 178th anniversary of that little scene in the forest.
My reflections led to more than a few questions …
What does the symbol of the log cabin tell us about our foundational identity?
Has this symbol influenced our identity over the years?
Does this symbol have meaning for us today?
Should this symbol have meaning for us today?
Too many questions to answer in one reflection, I know, so let’s go instead inside the log cabin.
Many of you know the scene well. The sisters had arrived. Father Buteaux had uttered that long remembered phrase, “Come down sisters, we have arrived!” They announced their desire, before all things, to visit the Blessed Sacrament and that they would not speak to anyone before having satisfied this longing of their hearts.
Mother Theodore wrote of that moment: “The priest preceded us and we followed in silence to the church. The Church!! I send you the picture!! Yes, dear friends, that is the dwelling of the God of the Universe, in comparison with which the stables wherein you shelter your cattle are palaces!”
Mother Theodore carried on with lots of description of the poor circumstances. Suffice to say, it was a far cry from the churches of France from whence came this little band of missionaries. It is a far cry from this magnificent church in which we gather today.
But we know that something happened to Theodore inside that log cabin chapel. Mother Mary Cecilia Bailley, Mother Theodore’s first biographer, wrote of what Mother Theodore used to tell of that moment: “When, however, Sister Theodore saw where Our Lord reposed, it revived all her courage; she was ready to endure any privation when He took His abode in a place so poor and humble. She often spoke of the impression she received and of the thoughts she had when she knelt in adoration. The moment was overpowering, and …commenced a new era of life for her.”
In that moment, did Mother Theodore, as the prophet Jeremiah suggests, so seek God with all of her heart that God was found in a new and deeper way in that little log cabin? Was this the moment that Mother Theodore truly embraced the words of the Providence Gospel we heard today: “Do not worry … Instead, strive for the reign of God, and these things will be given to you as well.” Her eyes and her heart became fixed on the mission of Providence. A new era of life commenced for her, for them.
I feel quite sure that each of us has had such moments in our lives, moments that were foundational in the development of our own identities, moments that may, in fact, have led us to this place — that resulted in the choice to become a Sister of Providence or a student at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, that opened up the possibility of a relationship as a Providence Associates or to take a position in one of the sponsored institutions that also claim St. Mother Theodore as its own. Whatever the case, a new era of life commenced.
And … I wonder how many times Mother Theodore needed to return to that foundational moment in the log cabin to regain her courage — maybe when the bishop was questioning her authority, perhaps when she received a harsh letter from Mother Mary, or possibly when “everything was frozen — even the bread.”
I think of times in the current life of this very community when we may have needed a log cabin moment to revive our courage — maybe the decisions for Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and Mother Theodore Guerin High School to go co-educational after a lifetime of offering women’s education in both places; perhaps the acceptance of the sponsorship of Providence Cristo Rey High School when we knew our resources were already stretched thin; or the choice to make Providence Health Care a sponsored institution and accept lay people as residents rather than our keeping it just for us.
The words of the letter from Peter have some relevance here: “By God’s great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope … and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”
This is our inheritance — that on an October day in 1840 — six women entered a log cabin chapel and life was never again the same.
Earlier this fall, the Congregation received the Cor Unum Award from Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Ill. The Cor Unum Award is given to individuals or families who have provided extraordinary service to Providence Catholic, to the Church, or to their community.
Frankly, I knew very little about our history at that school, and it turns out that they didn’t really know it either. But the occasion of this award, given to us to mark the 100th anniversary of the school, led them back to their humble beginnings and perhaps their own log cabin moment.
On Aug. 27, 1918, the Reverend Thomas Quinn, the Rector of St. Mary’s Church, Joliet, showed up at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods with a letter from George Mundelein, archbishop of Chicago, relating a matter vital to the interest of religion and religious education.
Father Quinn was desperate for teachers for his school. In July, he had lost the services of the religious community running the high school located in his parish. He asked Mother Mary Cleophas Foley for Sisters of Providence to move that mission forward. And, oh, by the way, could they be there by Sept. 14 for the opening of the school.
Here are Mother Mary Cleophas’ words: “Since our very hurried agreement to take your high school, we have been casting about for sisters for as you know we have no reserves. Our Lord has made it possible to gather the required teachers and they will leave for Joliet, next Tuesday, the 10th. …We feel Providence has some special design in bringing us thus to Joliet. May we not disappoint him.”
One hundred years ago today the name of the high school was officially announced as Providence High School. The school moved into a new school building in New Lenox in 1962 and serves more 800+ students today. I love this line from their mission statement: “We invite young men and women, along with their families, to join us in the blessing that is Providence, and in so doing, become something greater together.”
We are the blessing that is Providence. We are the legacy of those six women in the log cabin chapel. We are also the legacy of those five women who made their way to Joliet with only two weeks’ notice to open a school. The Providence of God has, in fact, provided many shoulders on which we stand today. Truly, we are something greater together. May we not disappoint our Provident God in continuing that work first begun in the midst of a forest. May we honor our foundational story by loving God, loving one another and never forgetting what happened in that little log cabin chapel.