Home » Blog » Journals and Letters week 5: The measure of the woman

Journals and Letters week 5: The measure of the woman

[Today we are discussingJournals and Letters“: p. 29 to top of p. 39. Join us in reading a portion of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin‘s writings every week in the coming year.]

No surprise here. Ten pages of Journals and Letters and way too much material to consider.

Should I highlight her humor — especially those times I don’t think she meant to be funny?

After attending Mass in a church in New York, Mother Theodore wrote: “The speaker seemed talented, though we really understood nothing of his sermon.”

What about the times our Mother Theodore intended to amuse? On visiting a beautiful park in Philadelphia, she commented on the number of statues — “statues of women, of children, of old soldiers, but all are very modest — they did not forget to clothe them.”

Height, width, speed

No. Her humor is well known and often quoted. Let’s move on to something less obvious. Never mentioned (that I know of) is her ability to judge height, width, speed. It seems she had a keen eye for units of measurement.

Having never set foot in either city, she stated unequivocally that New York’s “streets are 30 feet wide, with fine brick sidewalks… At certain distances there are crossings … the Americans never cross a street except at these places, which are at right angles.” The streets in Philadelphia “are three miles long and fifteen meters wide.”

A walk from Philadelphia’s train station to the Bishop’s residence is “half a league.”

Philadelphia’s Cathedral “would be very fine if it were higher, but it is about 20 feet too low.”

The Sisters traveled on a “splendid steamer. Its length must have measured 100 meters.”

Mother Theodore related the astonishing news that in a one hour train ride, they had traveled “20 miles – more than 8 French leagues.”

At Philadelphia’s Water Works, Mother Theodore marveled at the power of the mechanisms. “By force pumps, through subterranean pipes, the water from the river is forced to the height of 120 feet.”


Did the woman carry a yard stick? A surveyor’s measure? A folded up paper chart that converts leagues to miles, meters to inches or feet?  

Who’s to know how and/or why she developed this astounding skill? And why make this skill the centerpiece of this reflection.

For me, Mother Theodore’s skill is not only mathematical prowess or precision. 

Her written words demonstrate the importance of noticing things around us — old familiar things and new things. She helps us understand words, spoken or written, convey not only the measurable aspects of the objects noticed but our feeling about what we notice.

 I’ve been to New York City once or twice. To Philadelphia — never. Mother Theodore’s noticing give me both an idea of what both cities looked like and how both cities felt for her.

Take notice

Rereading these pages, I’ve noticed new aspects of an old friend. I’ve noticed that I don’t notice – truly notice – things around me. I’ve noticed that, by not noticing, I’m passing up a chance to notice, describe and wonder at what I see.

What about you? Why not notice an object, a thing in your everyday life? Describe its measurable aspects and its feeling (for you) aspects. I’ll do it too, I promise. I choose our back porch at Corbe House. You?

What stood out for you in this week’s reading?

Please leave your comments so we can keep the discussion going.

Next week > Nov. 14 week 6: page 39 to page 45 On the Ohio River

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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  1. Avatar Jean Fuqua on November 7, 2020 at 8:01 am

    I loved this blog. I think you wrote it just for me! Being a high “sensate” on the Myers-Brigg personality test, I can identify with her measures of just about everything she saw. I think Mother Theodore was also a high “sensate.” This characteristic of observing everything (sometimes to one’s dismay) is again portrayed in her description of the log cabin as a Church, their dwelling upon arrival and the beautiful forest in which we live today. Thank you Mother Theodore …. and Denise!

  2. Avatar Jeannie Smith, PA on November 7, 2020 at 10:44 am

    Well, Sister, what a great commentary! I must say that I, too, was struck by all those astute observations, especially the description of the waterworks. I wondered to myself, who was with her that she asked about the details of the water distribution? When she first arrived in NY harbor, she also described the architecture of the houses she saw on the slopes. What an active and curious mind she had, and an ability to acknowledge what she didn’t already know, and eagerness to learn what is new. Surely that makes for a skilled teacher and thoughtful leader. the more you read, the more you love and admire her!

    • Avatar S. DWILKINSON on November 7, 2020 at 2:32 pm

      And, after all these years she keeps teaching me! Love to you!

    • Avatar Cathy Dearing on November 9, 2020 at 8:16 am


      I absolutely agree with you about how curious Mother Theodore was about things. She truly exemplifies the qualities of a life-long learner and her skills as a teacher and leader.

  3. Avatar Cathy Dearing on November 9, 2020 at 8:13 am

    I too am overtaken and extremely impressed by the depth and details that Mother Theodore provides for us in everything that she sees! She clearly was blessed with an analytical and keen eye. Yes, Sister Denise, Mother Theodore took notice AND reflected on what she noticed (and thanks be to God, she wrote about it too!)

    I’d like to share an acrostic I wrote on the word, NOTICE:

    Nestle your
    Tightly into the
    Crevices of an

    Mother Theodore is great example to me to notice, reflect, and be in awe!

    • Amy Miranda Amy Miranda on November 9, 2020 at 8:49 am

      Love the acrostic Cathy! Thanks for sharing.

      • Avatar Cathy Dearing on November 10, 2020 at 2:18 pm

        Thank you Amy!

    • Avatar Sister Denise on November 9, 2020 at 2:06 pm

      It has been years since I’ve thought of or read an acrostic. This was a fine one to be reintroduced to the technique. It’s an example to me – in a very profound way – of “the less said, the better.”

      • Avatar Cathy Dearing on November 10, 2020 at 3:46 pm

        Thank you Sister Denise!

    • Avatar Madonna Wilson on November 10, 2020 at 1:46 pm

      Thank you for the beautiful acrostic – NOTICE.
      It really provided me with a deeper reflection. The two main words that I reflected upon were your words:
      Nestle and Crevices. I think of ‘nestle’ – and I think of: to get comfortable, don’t rush, stay awhile – because I may miss something important, something beautiful. I think of your word ‘Crevices’—those places that are hard to get to, that are hard or impossible to see. And it is in the Noticing that will make it seen.
      And, yes, I agree with you, so thankful that Mother Theodore wrote about all she noticed around her.

      • Avatar Cathy Dearing on November 10, 2020 at 3:47 pm

        Thank you Madonna!

  4. Avatar Gertie. Andrews on November 9, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    From Gertie Andrews.
    I’m noticing the beautiful leaves making a yellow carpet in my yard.

    • Avatar Sister Denise on November 10, 2020 at 3:36 pm

      Gertie, how good to hear from you. How good to know that you are looking at beauty where you are now! I miss your visits to St. Mary’s. Let’s hope we ‘ll see each other soon.

  5. Avatar Linda McMahon, PA on November 9, 2020 at 3:57 pm

    S. Denise, when I read this week’s pages in the Journals and Letters, as well as, your comments, one aspect that especially caused me to ponder were the references to the Philadelphia Mother Theodore experienced in 1840. I am a Philadelphia native, who “left home” in 1973 and Mother Theodore’s descriptions brought a smile to my face and heart. They also brought me to research the history of the Cathedral, which was a meaningful pursuit for me.
    And, S. Denise, your challenge about closely observing an object in my everyday life… as you were going to have a view from the back porch of Corbe House, my view was from my back patio on a very cool, rainy and extremely windy day (not the norm in coastal Southern California even in Nov). Our home backs up to a hillside and I watched the trees all around me being brought very low by the wind as they yielded to its force and then regaining their upright stature. They were resilient and I thought of Mother Theodore’s resiliency as she followed the path traced by Providence.

    • Avatar Jeannie Smith, PA on November 10, 2020 at 12:45 pm

      Linda, when I was a girl in grade school my brother gave me a little slip of paper – maybe cut from the newspaper – that I taped to my desk where I did homework. It said, “The branch is better that bows to the wind than that that breaks.” Wise words for some, maybe most situations – but as I grow old(er) I wonder if there are times… hmm, well, there’s a thought to pursue! Maybe I’ll leave that to simmer and consider resiliency instead.

    • Avatar Madonna Wilson on November 10, 2020 at 2:42 pm

      Linda I enjoyed reading your comment about how reading about Philadelphia brought a smile to your face and to your heart. I have only been to Philadelphia once in my life. And one thing that came to my mind about Philadelphia was one of the tourist attractions that I visited –The Iconic Rocky Steps. The place where in the Rocky movie when Rocky runs up all those steps, arms up in victory! And then I thought—- I bet Mother Theodore just by looking at it would know many steps there were, how tall and how wide, and how long it would take for the average person to complete 🙂

      • Avatar Denise Wilkinson on November 10, 2020 at 3:20 pm

        I haven’t thought of the Rocky movie in a million years! Thanks for bringing that wonderful, exuberant scene to mind, Madonna! Makes me want to see the movie again. I imagine you’re right about MTG knowing the number of steps!

    • Avatar S. Denise Wilkinson on November 10, 2020 at 3:35 pm

      S. Jean Fuqua and I did estimate and then measure Corbe House back porch. We made it a friendly competition. My approach was to look at the length and imagine a yard stick – then go from there. S. Jean had a more mathematical approach – how long and wide each separate “section” of the porch measured.

      To find out how close we had come, we got a length of ribbon and stretched it out – then measured the length of the ribbon with a yard stick. We had to laugh that we were no match for the foundress! We each came pretty close to the length and width – and we had a good time.

      Our back porch overlooks a ravine. In spring, summer and even fall, it’s a gathering space for us before suppertime. Change of seasons, a variety of birds, the occasional deer or raccoon visit us Our least favorite visitor this past summer was a long black snake that managed to slide up the wall and wind itself along the black railing. We called our trusty security office. Security officer Bob convinced the snake to return to ground level and into the bushes. The next day, S, Lisa read in the security report “removed Corbe House cobra.” From my perspective the snake was block long! More than you asked for, Linda.

      • Avatar Madonna Wilson on November 13, 2020 at 7:45 am

        Sister Denise.
        I so enjoyed reading about the process you and Sister Jean undertook when measuring your back porch!
        It sounds like a lovely space during all of the seasons of the year.
        ……… I’m wondering what the Corbe House Cobra is up to these days??

  6. Avatar Madonna Wilson on November 10, 2020 at 2:22 pm

    Thank you Sister Denise for your opening comments this week. So insightful.

    What stood out for me in this week’s reading? I too agree with Mother Theodore’s level of observation and noticing and describing all those things around her. I was also thinking about not only noticing things, but also noticing people. There were multiple times in the readings about Mr. Byerly noticing the needs of Mother Theodore. And Mr. Byerly, not only does he notice, but he does something more- he does a deeper noticing. He becomes aware and then he acts. He is of service to others.

    I also liked the section where Mother Theodore writes about recognizing God’s Providence. She says, “….it is for God that we have made this sacrifice. He has already repaid us, for his protecting hand has assisted us in a visible manner, and we cannot but recognize the attentions of His Providence.”
    How important! And how I want to recognize too God’s Providence in my life and in the world around me.

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