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Mother Theodore offers support for living with mental illness

A woman, who at times suffered thoughts of wanting to die and flashbacks to traumatic times, managed to found an order of Catholic sisters and a college. Both are still making a positive impact on the world nearly 200 years later.

She also left, in her “Journals and Letters,” a blueprint for handling emotional distress and mental anxieties. Its hallmarks: kindness and common sense.

That woman was Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. In her time that area was a wilderness, a river’s crossing from the nearest town. Mother Theodore was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church in 2006.

Mother Theodore offers support

I had my first bout of bipolar disorder as a freshman at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. My friends and my boss in the library wrapped me in Mother Theodore’s legacy of kindness. Even though I didn’t make grades, the sisters offered to extend my scholarship. They gave me hope.

When I learned of Mother Guerin’s struggles, it eased my pain and shame.

Every morning, I meditate on her writings.

Sometimes the advice is as simple as, “What strength the soul draws from prayer.”

Other days, her words are funny, “The more we stir up a dunghill the more it exhales bad odors.”

A saint’s challenges

When the sisters’ enemies burned down their barn and granaries and destroyed their food, she wrote: “How often this winter have I started out of my sleep, thinking that I have heard the noise of the flames and saw their terrible light.”

As a child her two brothers died in accidental fires in their home.

She wrote, “I have often felt that I should be glad to die.”

Facing struggles

The medicines and therapy available now didn’t exist then. If I had lived in that time I would have been unable to work and unable to retain the love of my family friends without those meds.

Going it alone can be a threat to your life.

A fact I learned that is extremely helpful: Not all my thoughts are correct.

I don’t use Mother Guerin’s writings as a Ouija board. I use them as prompts.

The saint’s example

Recently I reflected on her writings about making sacrifices.

Sacrifice is an old word for the cost of a wise decision. I talked to my doctor about how stress would affect my improving health. I decided not to do something, even though it hurt.

Mother Theodore wrote to friends. We can talk by phone or text. She walks. She weeps.

When she is too exhausted to function, she rests.

She talks to herself about the good in her life. She reminds herself how much she loves the sisters entrusted to her care and how much they need her.

And she has confidence in “the Providence that has never failed us.”

Providence through people

I have found that Providence often acts through people.

She counsels, “Never speak when excited.” That is particularly good advice for people who are quick to anger.

Some mornings she keeps me from my impulses by saying, “The way is not yet clear, grope along slowly. Be patient. Be trustful.”

Sometimes when I am overwhelmed, I read, “We are not called upon to do all the good possible, but only that which we can do.”

Some mornings, when I am struggling and could use a hug, I open to this, “No one will ever love you as your old Mother Theodore does.”

Mother Theodore Guerin Journals and Letters,” is available through the Linden Leaf Gift Shop. You can also purchase a digital download here.

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Theresa Tighe

Theresa M. Tighe attended her freshman year of college at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1967-68 and never forgot the kindness and peace she found there. She found her calling at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She spent nearly 30 years as a reporter and feature writer at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She is retired and lives in St. Louis surrounded by family and the friends of a lifetime. She is now a Providence Associate.

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  1. Diane Weidenbenner on July 21, 2021 at 8:50 am

    Thank you for sharing your story, and the encouragement you found in Mother Theodore. I hope to meet you one day in person – I’m a Providence Associate as well. Thank you also for sharing your gift of writing with us.

    • Theresa Marie Tighe on July 21, 2021 at 3:31 pm

      Thank you. I hope I meet you too.

  2. Mary Heins on July 21, 2021 at 11:20 am

    Thanks for sharing those words of encouragement, Theresa!

    • Theresa Marie Tighe on July 21, 2021 at 3:36 pm

      Thank you for reading it. If you know anyone it could help, pass it on.

  3. Sharon Maronski, PA on July 21, 2021 at 2:37 pm

    So grateful for these words! Blessings.

  4. Theresa Marie Tighe on July 21, 2021 at 3:37 pm

    Thank you for reading it. If you know anyone it can help pass it on.

  5. Sister Editha Ben, SP on July 22, 2021 at 10:00 am

    Theresa, I appreciate your reflection. It shows the humanness of our dear St Mother Theodore and how Providence transformed her in her humanness. Thanks, I shared the article in my FB.

  6. Theresa Marie Tighe on July 22, 2021 at 11:36 am

    Thank you! The knowledge of human nature she received in her illness and her awareness of the help of God in dark days allowed her to better serve others and cope with the their vagaries. There is hope and purpose in that. Thanks for sharing it on your Facebook. My hope is that it will help someone else.

  7. Kay Hassan on July 24, 2021 at 9:31 am

    Thank you, Theresa, for sharing this. Each time a person speaks about their experiences, many people benefit from the diminishment of shame. Now I have another lens from which to see St. Mother Theodore as an example of healing.

  8. Theresa Marie Tighe on July 27, 2021 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you, Kay. Your reaction makes the going public and the emotions writing it worth it. It’s taken me more than 40 years to get here, but I plan to continue telling people the truth about my illness. I have always hidden it. I just said a prayer to St. Mother Guerin to continue embracing you and I. I know she does.

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