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Journals and Letters week 21: The cross awaits

[Today we are discussing “Journals and Letters” page 190 bottom to page 199. Join us in reading a portion of Saint Mother Theodore’s writings every week in the coming year.]

Whenever the words “the bishop” occur in “Journals and Letters,” we can expect the worst. In the pages we’ve read for this week, events justify our expectations.

A display in the church at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods with candles, cross and image of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

For five long years, over and over again, Mother Theodore confronted the bishop to do what he had promised to do: approve the Rule of the Sisters of Providence in the United States and deed the property of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods over to the Sisters of Providence.

During the course of those five years, the bishop evaded, avoided and ignored the representations made by Mother Theodore. He tried to have her released from her vows, removed as superior general. He wrote a ten-page letter “full of accusations and reproaches which are personal, three-fourths of which are palpably untrue.” 

Responsibility and leadership

What does Mother Theodore do? She takes responsibility. Mother Theodore leads; she crafts letters to the bishop that are assertive, clear and calm. She lives her deep and abiding trust in Providence and her acknowledgement of the Cross. … and she mails a shopping list to the retired vicar general of Vincennes, Father Martin, who had relocated to New Orleans.

She takes responsibility, leads, writes. Leading and taking responsibility for what must be done, she writes to the sisters. “The moment has come in which we must leave the distressing state in which we have been for such a long time.” She writes a letter, an ultimatum to the bishop. Approve our Rule; deed us the property of Saint Mary’s or we “will take a definitive resolution, and that with very little delay.” The sisters would accept the invitation of the bishop of Detroit to relocate in Michigan.

When the bishop replies to the ultimatum, demanding an “Act of Reparation” from the sisters, Mother Theodore responds in a letter worthy of a Supreme Court judge. I’ve read and re-read that letter, pages 194-196. Would that the political discourse in our nation were as respectful of one’s opponent, as even and calm in laying out the request and the consequences of the final decision.

Twists and turns

It is clear in the pages we read that Mother Theodore’s words to her sisters were painfully accurate. “Let us take courage, my very dear Sisters, the Cross, it is true, awaits us at every turn, but it is the way to heaven.”

The cross did await Mother Theodore and her sisters “at every turn.” The conflict with the bishop took many more twists and turns before the Rule was approved and the land deeded over.  Yet she persisted.

Oh — the shopping list! She asks Father Martin, the former vicar general of the diocese of Vincennes, now living in New Orleans: “If you would have the goodness to buy the altar wine for us, and if it has not yet been sent, put it in care of Mr. John Crawford of Terre Haute. … Pardon me the liberty I take of giving you so much to do on the eve of a voyage. That is what one gets by being so good.”

Your turn!

The Sisters of Providence and Providence Associates hosted a webinar called “Facing challenges with Saint Mother Theodore” on 2/4/21. Sister Jan Craven, SP, focused on the struggles and challenges Mother Theodore faced with the bishop. A participant posed this thought-provoking question. “Did Mother Theodore respect the bishop or did she show respect for the bishop?” What do you think?

Next week > page 200 to page 209 mid-page

View the complete reading series.

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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 Jeannie Smith on February 27, 2021 at 6:43 pm

    Thanks, Denise, for your good and thoughtful reflection. I, too, was struck by how calm and measured and even loving were the letters Mother wrote to that woefully disturbed Bishop. I can’t imagine how she was able to be so reasonable with a personification of “unreason”! Well, I can imagine – and the answer has to be her deep prayer life. How else could a human, especially an emotional French human, be so firm but without anger or reproof? I say that about the French emotion because I was reading elsewhere Mother’s comparison of the American sisters to the French, and it is she herself who notes the difference between the “cold” Americans and the French; the Americans fervent and fully devoted yet lacking the passion of the French personality. Passionate and emotive as our French Mother was, she knew how to put that aside to deal with the Bishop.

    • Avatar Denise on March 2, 2021 at 12:45 pm

      I have often quoted MTG “What do we have to do to become saints? Only that which we do every day but do it for love of God.” It’s the “only” word that always trips me up. While reading these pages, I was so often reminded of those words of hers – and how she lived them.

  2. Avatar Cathy Dearing on March 1, 2021 at 7:18 am

    Sister Denise,

    Thank you for your comments and reflection. Midway in your reflection, you asked, “What does Mother Theodore do?” Your answer, “She wrote letters….” That’s exactly what stood out most for me in these pages. Mother Theodore was blessed with the gift of letter writing; but more importantly she had a command of language! She was able to write and speak in a manner that was “assertive, clear, and calm” (your words).

    I am beginning to think that is was HER WORDS that got the job done! Of course, those words came from a heart of love and passion; a mind of keen intellect , determination, and wit; a body that she pushed to the limits; and a soul always united with God and his purpose for her. Because she was all those things, she showed respect to the Bishop, yet without compromising. What a great model for us, for women especially, who need the courage to find and speak/write the words of assertiveness, clarity, and calm.

  3. Avatar Denise on March 2, 2021 at 12:49 pm

    “from a heart of love and passion; a mind of keen intellect, determination and wit…(your words) – and so match my experience of MTG. She feels so alive doesn’t she? May we be open to what she models and how.

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