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“Be cheerful, kind to one another” Mother Theodore’s response to epidemic

The original 1850 letter in Mother Theodore’s own handwriting in which she advises the sisters during an epidemic

On March 2, 1849, Mother Theodore Guerin wrote to the Sisters in Madison, Indiana: “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.”

Her anxiety was not without good cause. Before the advent of COVID-19, those of us who live in developed countries probably gave little thought to epidemics. Today we know a great deal about the causes and treatments of contagious diseases. Moreover, our access to clean water and adequate sanitation has sheltered us from the experience of uncontrolled epidemics of diseases like cholera. Not so the residents of Indiana in the 1800s.

Epidemics

Devastating cholera epidemics sprang up in 1832, 1849 and 1852. In a July 8, 1849, letter to Bishop Bouvier, Mother Theodore’s description of the horrifying spread of the epidemic is frighteningly similar to contemporary accounts of the effects of COVID-19: “The epidemic is terrible all around us. The last news by telegraph informs us that within 24 hours, on the third of July, 160 persons died at St. Louis, 127 at Cincinnati and in the other cities of the West the same proportion.”

Terrible as COVID-19 is, today we can identify the virus and produce vaccines to prevent its spread. In the nineteenth century little was known about the causes of cholera. In time it was found that cholera is caused by bacteria from human waste contaminating drinking water. And we’ve learned that hydration could often prevent death from severe dehydration. However, in the 1840s cholera was blamed on bad air, immoral behavior, drinking alcohol, filthy living conditions, the religion of Irish immigrants, and “the just wrath of an angry God.”

Mother Theodore’s advice

Mother Theodore’s sound advice to the sisters pretty much covers all of the possible causes of cholera at the time, and foreshadows some of our current practices: “Be cheerful, kind to one another. Have nothing on your conscience that could trouble you. Do not fast. Let your food be wholesome and well prepared. Keep your house, the yard, and also your persons clean. Change your linen often and have your children clean also, if they are still with you. Finally, my dear daughters, pray.”

Today we feel both admiration and concern for caregivers who risk their own health to care for victims of COVID-19. Back in the 1800s, Mother Theodore wavered between urging her sisters to care for the victims of the epidemic and her fear for their lives. She wrote to the sisters in Madison: “Finally, if the plague makes great ravages in your city, arm yourselves with courage, and devote yourselves generously to the care of your suffering brethren. Without distinction of persons, do good to all for the love of God, and if you have to die, well, my dear daughters, die for Him who died for you. I cannot feel, however, that our good and merciful God would demand of me the great and painful sacrifice by taking any one among you.”

Caring for the sick

The Fort Wayne, Indiana, grave of Sister Lawrence, SP, who died in 1854 during a cholera epidemic.

Many of the sisters wished to devote themselves to caring for the sick. In July it seemed likely they would have this opportunity. The plague had arrived in Indianapolis, Vincennes, Lafayette, Washington, Terre Haute and even in the village at Saint Mary’s. When cholera struck Fort Wayne in 1849 at Saint Augustine, the sisters there spent the summer caring for the sick.

But the Community’s greatest loss to cholera occurred during the next outbreak in the summer of 1854. In Fort Wayne, Sister Lawrence, a lay sister described as a sturdy little peasant girl, wept as the other sisters left for the annual retreat at Saint Mary’s. She had to remain behind to care for the boarders. That summer, cholera once more swept through Fort Wayne. And with skill and courage, Sister Lawrence devoted herself to caring for its victims. On Aug. 18, she herself became ill and she died that very evening.

Mother Theodore grieved deeply over this loss. But she took comfort in the fact “that our beloved Sister is now wearing the martyr’s crown.” Perhaps Mother Theodore is not the only saint watching over us during the current pandemic. We might also invoke the aid of the little peasant sister who died as a result of her devotion to the care of victims of cholera in 1854.

(Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Janet Gilligan

Sister Janet Gilligan is a volunteer in the Sisters of Providence Archives. A retired English professor, she enjoys her role as an archivist — answering queries, writing grants, and learning how to digitize collections.

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