Journals and Letters week 26: Overcoming great loss
We are used to reading history in chronological order, but with Journals and Letters, sometimes the next chapter contains letters that were written before the last chapter’s events. In this chapter we’ve regressed to some months before the striking crisis at the residence of Bishop de la Hailandière when Mother Theodore was released from her vows, sent away from the diocese and forbidden contact with her Sisters – that all happened in May of 1847.
This week’s letters, announcing the deaths of Sister Mary Liguori and Sister Seraphine, were written four months before the crisis. So, Mother Theodore suffered these losses during the difficult months when she and her council were almost certain they would have to leave the holy ground of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods forever and the future of the struggling community was bleak, to say the least.
It was a time of uncertainty and grief, and now the great loss of beloved sisters added to the intense worries and fear. Surely Sister Mary Liguori was so dear to Mother, the youngest of the original French Sisters, her “consolation.” Yet her words in the circular are not a cry of her own suffering, but rather meant to assure and soothe the rest of the Community. How wonderful her closing words: “ … above all, dear Sisters, be other Sister Mary Liguoris to us! … ”
As if that weren’t enough, less than a month later they lose their “laughing Eliza,” Sister Seraphine, so young, innocent and open. I love that story about how she was jokingly told she’d never laugh again after becoming a sister; then she was amazed at the laughter around her at her first experience of a convent recreation. So those very obvious traits of the SP Community: joy and celebration, were present from the start.
Don’t you love Mother Theodore’s humor in her letters – her apologies for her unreadable scribblings and the ink no better than dishwater that hopefully will darken with age? And that mare, Finette, shedding hairs all over Mother’s habit, who “guessed” at Mother’s annoyance and made up to her with caresses! How could you not smile and fall in love with this woman?
Tough conditions lead to ill health
As for the last two letters, I’m struck by how much illness the early Community suffered. I tried to find out more about Sister Augustine, and all the references I could find told of her many times of sickness. Then we have references to Mother’s concern for the health of Sister St. Francis Xavier and Sister Mary Cecilia, not to mention the early deaths of Sister Mary Liguori and Sister Seraphine. I think the prevalence of ill health in those early days is understandable considering the privation, poor nutrition and cold living places, not to mention worries about the status of the Community itself.
These women faced circumstances we can barely imagine in the world we live in – most of us anyway. That letter was written as Mother was traveling from Fort Wayne down a canal to Cincinnati to board a river boat to Madison, then on to Jasper and Vincennes to visit the missions – some 700 miles, I think, on boats and primitive roads – this by a woman in very poor health herself. It’s no wonder that the Bishop’s treatment of her after that trip nearly killed her. What a story! Sure beats anything I’ve seen on TV!
We are more than halfway through Journals and Letters. What have you learned that has surprised you about Mother Theodore?
If you could ask Mother Theodore anything what would it be?