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Journals and Letters week 23: Clash of the bishop and the saint

[Today we are discussing “Journals and Letters” page 209 to page 219 mid-page. Join us in reading a portion of Saint Mother Theodore’s writings every week in the coming year.]

What a perfect time to highlight the strength and courage of Mother Theodore as March is Women’s History Month, this past week we celebrated International Women’s Day and we are presently celebrating Catholic Sisters Week. How fortunate was I to get this section of the reading? My head is spinning with all the trials and tribulations Mother Theodore faced. It honestly felt like I was reading a script from a daytime drama. I could almost hear the ominous music in my head with each twist and turn. (Cue dun dun dun sound effect.) Here are my humble observations on these jam-packed ten pages of the reading.

Mother Theodore was a fierce woman

Fierce was not my first choice of the adjective I want to use here. The kids (that’s the way I refer to anyone 30 or under) have a term that I would love to use to describe our beloved Mother Theodore. Sadly, I cannot as it does not sound very nice and there are some who would be offended. But it truly is a high compliment. The definition of this self-censored slang word I did not use is “a strong, confident, bold woman who knows her own mind.” I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest.

Bishop Celestine de la Hailandière

Our fierce French female (thank you Sister Barbara Batista for alliteration suggestion) finally met with the bishop at his house to discuss his desire for her removal as Superior. Mother Theodore held her ground and instead proposed an election of a new Superior to the Community. If the sisters accepted it she would then step down freely. Until then she would not leave. I think she was pretty confident they wanted her to stay. This idea was not acceptable to the overbearing and controlling Bishop de la Hailandière. Because she did not immediately submit to his will, he actually locked her in a room. (dun dun dun) LOCKED HER IN A ROOM! This actually made my blood boil. To me the bishop was acting like a toddler who throws a temper tantrum when they don’t get their own way.

The Community stepped up

Sister St. Francis Xavier Le Fer

The other thing that impressed me was the commitment of the women in the Community. (I believe the kids may call these women her “squad” or “posse.”) When the Bishop (dun dun dun) basically kicks her out of the Sisters of Providence, Mother Theodore was prepared to leave. Before she could go illness struck. While she was bedridden and fighting for her life the other sisters decided that if Mother Theodore was leaving then they were following. Even the postulants (women who had not yet taken vows) and the workmen (staff members) decided to go with them. This really showed me how respected and loved Mother Theodore was. During this time the sisters were busy arranging their exodus from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Trunks were packed, apple trees were being prepared to be moved and Sister Basilide was even selling the cows so they could buy horses for their anticipated journey. Sister St. Francis Xavier was also busy fervently corresponding with everyone what was happening. Fortunately for us all, the trip never transpired. Months earlier, the bishop had submitted his resignation. It was finally accepted by Pope Pius IX just in the nick of time. (Yay!) The new bishop had no desire to give Mother Theodore the boot. Providence prevailed and Mother Theodore could go back to her work.

A few good men

Corbe House is one of several buildings at
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods listed on the
National Register of Historic Places.

Another thing that touched me was the men who rallied around her. Despite the bad behavior from the bishop, there were those who ardently supported Mother Theodore. (The kids might call them peeps but this could also be a term I learned in 1999.) Many of these good people stuck up for Mother Theodore even though they were clearly scared of the bishop and what he could do to them. Father Corbe (we have a building named for him) even resigned in a seeming protest. It’s nice to see the respect Mother Theodore garnered from these men at a time when women were not treated equally. And even though Bishop de la Hailandière’s behavior was cruel and misogynistic, I do wonder what was going on with him that he could not see all the good Mother Theodore was trying to do. Was it his ego? Was he jealous? Was it a mental health issue? As mad as I am at him, I also do feel a bit sorry for him.

Your turn

How did this passage make you feel? Have you ever had to stand up for yourself or others against someone in a position of power or authority?

Imagine what it would be like if Mother Theodore had been supported by Bishop de la Hailandière. What do you think might have changed?

Next week > page 219 mid-page to page 227

View the complete reading series.

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Mary Riley

Mary Riley

Mary Riley is director of operations for White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Prior to her current role, she served as the marketing manager for some ministries of the Sisters of Providence including White Violet Center for Eco-Justice and the Volunteer Services.

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  1. Avatar Joyce Smith PRovidence Associate on March 13, 2021 at 7:05 am

    Thank you for this series! Absolutely a story for our times too.

  2. Avatar Cathy Dearing on March 14, 2021 at 10:01 am

    Thank you, Mary, for your reflection. What struck me most is that FINALLY the unacceptable cruelty doled out by this Bishop for seven years has FINALLY come to an end! Praise be to Jesus.

    When you wrote of how her community and a few priests came together in ardent loving support of her, it made me realize that out of something of great pain and difficulty came amazing solidarity and support.

    You posed the question what would have been different if Mother Theodore was supported by this Bishop. I believe her health would not have been so severely affected. I believe she may have possibly lived longer on this earth but the combination of her already compromised health with the emotional and psychological abuse at his hand certainly made living her life those years all the more challenging.

    I loved the conclusion of this assigned reading: the beautiful, supportive, kind, understanding, empathetic, and respectful words in a letter to Mother Theodore from the new Bishop of Vincennes , Bishop Bazin.

  3. Avatar Jeannie Smith on March 14, 2021 at 6:31 pm

    Thanks Mary and Cathy – I am loving hearing everyone’s take on this! Today it struck me – if that news about the Bishop’s accepted resignation had been delayed just a few weeks more, there would be no St. Mary-of-the-Woods! Can you even imagine that? How all our lives would be so different. For myself, I’d maybe never had ended up in California working for Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and wouldn’t have met my husband the Third Mate! Wow! I could go on & on about that. But I want to add some joy to this reading. Here is a paragraph from the Community History Vol I about Mother’s return to St. Mary’s after the crisis: “After a quick and uneventful trip up the river on the Daniel Boone, she arrived on the 10th of June …a fine summer day. The lovely forest home which she had thought never to see again was a verdant bower. Every tree and shrub and flower was at its best, and the birds were twittering and singing in the thick woods around their convent. Their Mother was received by the Community with all the enthusiasm and tenderness that love could suggest. Father Lalumiere had the cannon fired at Terre Haute, and a volley of gun shots from the workmen announced the approach of the wagon. Mother was met by a procession of Sisters and postulants, Fr. L. wearing a white scarf, on horseback at its head. The people of the countryside and the employees on the farm joined in the general rejoicing. S. Basilide and her pupils brought up the rear with the dog bouncing and barking about them for joy. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament given by Fr. Corbe closed this never-to-be-forgotten day of rejoicing.” wow!

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