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Digitizing the letters and journals of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Jazmyne Magee, a student from Indiana State University in Terre Haute, helps scan and preserve letters written by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

When Mother Mary Lecor sent six French Sisters of Providence to the wilderness of Indiana in 1840, she told Sister St. Theodore Guerin to keep careful records of all that happened. Mother Theodore complied enthusiastically with lengthy, lively, detailed journals and letters. Mother Mary wryly cautioned — “More piety, less romance.” Fortunately, Sister St. Theodore was incapable of penning only dry, conventional platitudes. She continued to write vibrant, entertaining letters and dramatic accounts of her travels.

Her sisters recognized the extraordinary abilities and holiness of the author of these writings. They began preserving them after her death. They transcribed them into copy books, translated them, and preserved the original autographs whenever possible. In 1937, Sister Mary Theodosia Mug published 160 of the translated and edited letters as well as the three journals of travel in The Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guerin.

Shortly after this publication, the French community discovered 91 personally signed and written letters by Mother Theodore and gave them to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Sister Mary Borromeo Brown based many details in her History of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary of the Woods on information provided in the French collection. However, most of the published letters are translations from the French, and many of them are excerpted and edited. There are also a number of letters that have never been published.

Making history accessible

The original manuscripts of all the existing letters and journals, mostly in French, have been carefully preserved in the Sisters of Providence Archives. But these fragile pages have never been available to the public. Now, thanks to a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant from the Indiana State Library, digital representations of the personal letters, along with transcriptions and translations, will be available sometime after the July project completion on Indiana Memory, a free internet digital library. This project, “Digitizing Letters and Journals of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin,” is a collaborative effort between the Indiana State University Library Digital Initiatives Unit and the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Archives. Indiana State University students have been working on this project at both the Sisters of Providence Archives and the ISU Library Digitization Lab. Sister of Providence volunteers have been typing translations and providing metadata.

These letters and journals provide valuable insights into the history and culture of nineteenth-century Indiana. They also bring to life the story of the fledgling Congregation of the Sisters of Providence. And they reveal vividly and compellingly the charm, the grace, the determination, the humility and the courage of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

(Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Janet Gilligan

Sister Janet Gilligan

Sister Janet Gilligan is a volunteer in the Sisters of Providence Archives. A retired English professor, she enjoys her role as an archivist — answering queries, writing grants, and learning how to digitize collections.

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