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A Reflection for the Feast of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

A request came to me in July to review a reflection about our Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. This reflection included information about her early life. The author made note of the violent and early death of her father but made no reference to the tragic deaths of her older and younger brothers. Was inclusion of these deaths important, I thought, as I endeavored to respond to the author?

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski during her reflection for the Feast Day of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

This incident and my question led me to turn again to the various accounts of Mother Theodore’s early life.

Her father – an officer in the French Navy – wasn’t even home when her brother Jean Laurent – a year and a half older than Anne-Therese – died as a result of a fire in their thatched cottage. It was Anne-Therese’s second birthday when this happened. Accounts say that she was saved in an extraordinary manner. One of those narratives tells us that she was her mother’s only companion during the next three years.

Some 13 years later, her younger brother, Laurent-Marie, at age 4, perished when his bed covers caught fire. Later, Sister Mary Theodore Letouze, Mother Theodore’s niece, would write of this time in Anne-Therese’s life: “She became more sedate and wept much with her mother.”

Then, only a year later, when Anne-Therese was not yet 16, her father, returning home when the French forces were demobilized following Napoleon’s defeat, was attacked and assassinated by highwaymen. This news left her mother Isabelle broken in body and spirit. Anne-Therese was now not only companion and consolation but also nurse and support of her widowed mother and her young sister. We know it would be 10 years before her mother felt strong enough to let Anne-Therese leave home to follow her heart’s desire to be a religious.

Students from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College performing during the Feast Day for Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

Why have these images of Anne-Therese’s childhood so haunted me these last few months?

It seems everywhere I turn these days, I see people struggling to find hope in the midst of sorrow and low.

  • I see the faces of immigrant children being held in detention centers. In fact, the faces of the children who have died in these centers were printed with a prayer that we have prayed during liturgy the past several Sundays. And did not one of our Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College students recently invite us to participate in The Butterfly Effect Migration is Beautiful project to help us be mindful of the 15,000 children in detention centers across this country who are separated from those they love?
  • I see Earth ravaged by climate change leading to – among other things – migration patterns that often result in separation and death; or, climate disasters that result in loss of property, natural resources and life. Has not the Providence Community been called to reduce our own carbon footprint in a concerted effort to stem the tide of destruction of our poor beleaguered planet?
  • I can look around this church or think about those watching via live stream or closed circuit and know that many of you carry your own stories of sorrow or loss or are struggling with issues in our church and in our world. What weighs heavy on your heart right now?

And I can hear our saint say, “If ever this poor little Community becomes settled, it will be established on the cross; and that is what gives me confidence and makes me hope, sometimes even against hope.”

The gift of a feast day like today is to remind this poor little community of Providence that we follow in the footsteps of one who hoped even against hope. We are daughters and sons of one who embraced the cross. Our community is established on the cross.

Is it any wonder, then, that the scripture passage we just heard from Sirach is the one chosen to mark this feast day every year: “Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in changes that humble you be patient. For gold is tested in the fire.” Or the section from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

Amid the sorrows of Anne-Therese’s early life and those that were to follow, she seemed never to lose hope because she never lost sight of God’s unfailing love for her no matter what happened. How did she come to this?

We could speculate that Isabelle, her bereft mother, was also a loving mother, a mother who provided what a child needs most – an experience of being deeply, personally loved, just as she was. Someone in her life provided that kind of love.

Many Sisters of Providence and others at the Feast Day for Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

Or perhaps the knowledge that she – Anne-Therese – was saved from perishing in the fire that had taken her brother put her on that path to a deep-rooted confidence in the love and care of God.

However God’s love moved in Ann-Therese/Mother Theodore’s life, she recognized it; she welcomed it; she leaned on it. In her own words, “God’s protecting hand has supported us in so visible a manner that we cannot fail to see therein the solicitude of (God’s) Providence.”

Give me, give us, these eyes of Mother Theodore’s with which to recognize, to welcome, to lean on the absolute attentiveness of God’s Providence.

Mother Theodore also trusted the power and promise of the cross. It too, was a source of her hope. “The cross, it is true, awaits us at every turn,” she said, “but it is the way to heaven.”

Mother Theodore seemed to treasure the cross in the way Luke refers to treasure in the Gospel. As a sign of the way to new life in God, the cross was her treasure and where you could find her heart.

Give me, give us, this heart of Mother Theodore with which to treasure the power and promise of the cross.

Contemporary theologian Dorothy Soelle, who has written extensively about the suffering and the cross, especially in light of her own experiences of the Holocaust, says that the cross shows that God is always suffering with the one who is suffering. We are called to do the same.

Soelle also speaks of the promise of the cross – new life in God – resurrection. She calls the resurrection of Christ an event of God’s power, an event that made and continues to make the divine power of God available to all of us. This is the power that flows through relationships, bringing others to life – power as love. She likens it to the power of the grass pushing up through cracks in the asphalt, a surge of life.

Is this not the power of the 15,000 butterflies’ project, a project begun by young people that has spread across the world and become a powerful symbol in communicating the magnitude of those affected by migration and immigration?

Is this not the power behind the achievement of our goal to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 2 million pounds, proving once again what a community can do when it puts its mind and heart to it?

If we are to speak a word of hope to this world, then it seems to me that what weighs us down needs to be transformed by that same love, by that same power that pushes the grass up through the cracks; by that same love, that same Providence that enabled our Mother Theodore to hop even against hope. We are daughters and sons of one who embraced the cross.

We are her legacy. She is counting on us.

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Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski was elected General Superior of the Sisters of Providence in 2016. She has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. Previously she ministered as a teacher, as communication and development director for the sisters and their ministries and as a member of elected leadership on the general council of the Sisters of Providence.

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