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A Reflection on the Feast Day of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

(Note: The following is the reflection General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski offered on the Feast Day of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin):

The readings for this Feast Day of our beloved Saint Mother Theodore Guerin have become like old friends.

That first reading from Sirach sounds like a biography of our beloved Theodore.

If you come forward to serve God, prepare yourself …

Set your heart right and be steadfast …

Cleave to God; do not depart …

Accept whatever is brought upon you …

Trust in God.

Trust she did.

And Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

I have suffered the loss of all things

and I consider them so much rubbish,

that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

She consecrated her life to be found in Christ.

And finally, Luke’s Gospel, with its images of purses and treasure.

But the words from that reading that struck me this year?

“Fear not, little flock …”

Sometimes in these COVID-19 days, I have wondered, “Was Mother Theodore ever as afraid as I am on some days?”

So I came to these readings this year, to the story of her life, looking for solace and comfort. As I was wandering through the pages of the Positio, as I am apt to do at this time of year, the word or thought that came to me was – vulnerability. Mother Theodore was so vulnerable.

A traditional definition of the word vulnerable reads: Susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm. It comes from the Latin, meaning “to wound.”

It would be hard to even number the times Mother Theodore was susceptible to physical harm – her very constitution took her to her sick bed OFTEN. She had hardly arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods when she was bedridden for nearly two months.

At the height of her entanglement with the Bishop of Vincennes to ensure the future of the community, she was and I quote: “seized with a violent fever, the result of the fatigues of her long journey with her strength lowered by her recent illness and by so many cares and inquietudes; and finally by her treatment at the hands of the bishop. The physician, Dr. Baty, pronounced her condition alarming. Thinking herself at the point of death, she had the vicar-general, Father Dupontavice, called. He refused to see her, believing her to have been excommunicated.

Praise Providence that what happened next was the acceptance by the Holy Father of the bishop’s resignation and the naming of a successor. It would, however, be some time before Mother Theodore recovered sufficiently to return to Saint Mary’s.

The vulnerability she faced did not end when the bishop’s resignation was accepted. The separation of the American foundation from Ruille provided additional angst in her life, not to mention her tremendous ongoing need to win Mother Mary’s approval.

On a community level, the anti-Catholic sentiment in the area made the Congregation very susceptible to harm. We have the evidence of two fires to prove that. And beyond anti-Catholic sentiment, what was it like to be a woman in the 1840s in Indiana and try to conduct business with the men of that time?

And let’s not forget the illnesses of epidemic proportion that endangered all who lived during those pioneer times. Recall Mother Theodore’s letter in 1849 to the Sisters in Madison:

“My very dear and beloved Daughters: Just this moment I hear that the cholera has made its entrance into your dear Madison. I cannot tell you how anxious I am about you.”

It would be easy to dismiss our own vulnerability in light of the dramatic events of Mother Theodore’s life. However, we, too, are very vulnerable at this time in the life of the Providence Community.  And though COVID-19 is a major factor in those feelings of vulnerability, there are forces at work in our country and in our world that are threatening the very life of this planet. This is certainly a time of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

That is how writer and researcher Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability – uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. She invites us to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability. She suggests we need courage, compassion and connection. ASAP (as soon as possible).

Perhaps we should offer for Brené’s research work the example of Mother Theodore. We need only to read her Journals and Letters to know Theodore as a woman who responded to the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of her life with courage, compassion and many, many connections. (This might be a good time for all of us to reread those Journals and Letters).

I stumbled onto this account in the Journals and Letters that exemplifies all three attributes. The report is about the return to the Woods of Sister Mary Liguori, one of the foundresses who came with Mother Theodore from France.

On January 13, 1847, Mother Theodore wrote in her diary:

“We receive the news that Sister Mary Liguori in a dying state left Madison on the 29th of December.”

It will be two weeks before they reach Terre Haute. The account continues:

“As soon as Mother Theodore learned of their arrival in the city she set out to get them. … At the bottoms she had to leave the wagon and cross the frozen river, now nearly a mile wide, on foot.”

Of what followed, Mother Theodore added in the diary:

“Three times we endeavored to have our invalid taken over this sea of ice in a carriage, but we had to give it up and carry her in a chair. Four strong men rendered us this service with the greatest of difficulty, for it was almost impossible for them to keep on their feet. Finally, after much fatigue and all kinds of dangers, we were happy to see this dear invalid installed in our infirmary at Saint Mary’s.”

In the closing words of her circular letter announcing the death of Mary Liguori 11 days later, Mother Theodore notes:

You, especially, above all, dear Sisters, be other Sister Mary Liguoris to us; that will be the way of consoling the broken heart of your affectionate, Sister St. Theodore.

Brené Brown says the heart of spirituality is connection. This connection Mother Theodore had with her sisters was outdone only by the connection she had with her God. To paraphrase Luke, a Provident God was her treasure; so there also was her heart – cor unum – one heart.

It is her heart and the witness of her life that gives me solace and comfort at times like these. I do hear her say to me in those moments of my own vulnerability:

Fear not, little flock. No one loves you like your ole Mother Theodore.

Saint Mother Theodore … pray for us. Amen.

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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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