Reflections for Foundation Day 2021
The timing of this General Chapter to coincide with our 181st Foundation Day seems quite providential, doesn’t it? To be together again as a community on this day after the long COVID-induced hiatus feels like a life-giving vaccine in and of itself.
It also seems to me that a Chapter is a foundational moment — an opportunity to cooperate with our Provident God in making plans for our welfare, as Jeremiah reminds us in the first reading today, in order to give us a future filled with hope. And always for me, just being together gives me hope.
In preparing for this moment, I turned to our Archivist Sister Janet Gilligan and asked her if there were any proceedings from the Chapters convened by our foundresses. What plans had they made?
Guess what? No proceedings. No discussions recorded … no direction statements or proposals beautifully calligraphed on a card. It turns out, according to Janet and Sister Maureen Abbott, one of our community historians, that until 1954 only Chapters of Election took place. In 1954, for the first time they devoted one day of the Chapter to discussion!
Oh … if they could see us now. We have had more than a year-long process of discussion about our directions through LGU and Circle meetings and two Annual Meetings.
But, if they could see us now and tell us … what would Theodore and Basilide, Vincent Ferrer, St. Liguori, Mary Xavier and Olympiade say? Would they find resonance in the plans we are making, in the directions we just set? Would they be proud of how we are honoring our imperishable inheritance from them?
Thanks to the Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore and the monumental work of Sister Mary Borromeo Brown in Vol. 1 of the History of the Sisters of Providence, I would like to share a few glimpses of how I think the directions we just affirmed find resonance in the lives of our foundresses.
I begin with COLLABORATION, because indeed, if Mother Theodore and her companions had not had some wonderful collaborators and had they not been willing collaborators themselves, they might never have gotten to Indiana. In fact, I think our Motherhouse would have ended up somewhere in New York, given that no one was waiting for them when they arrived there after nearly six weeks at sea.
However, as Sister Mary Borromeo points out, “At every turn, friends appeared who vied with one another to serve them.” From Le Havre, France, to New York and beyond, people like Madame Sylvie Parmentier and Mr. Samuel Byerley attached themselves to our foundresses. A number of these friends continued their assistance to the mission of Providence throughout their lifetimes.
And though there was no Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1840, even then, religious communities were collaborating. The hospitality of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brooklyn, the Sisters of Charity in Philadelphia and Cincinnati made the long trek across the country bearable. And how could we forget the devoted Ursulines of New Orleans who cared for Mother Theodore for seven weeks in her illness following her return from a fund-raising trip to France.
But perhaps the power of collaboration is best seen in the lives of our foundresses in the chapter of the history entitled, “The Crisis.” We know that the heart of the crisis between our beloved foundress and Bishop de la Hailandiere was his understanding of his rights as Bishop of Vincennes to control the Congregation and its Rule. His rights were, in Theodore’s eyes, contrary to the sacred obligations to which she and the others had given their lives.
His abuse of power led him in 1847 to forbid Mother Theodore to return to Saint Mary’s, to deprive her of all her rights of superiorship, to dispense her from her vows, and to ban any communication with the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary’s. Mary Borromeo sums it up like this: “The worst had now come. For no fault of hers, but for her constancy and fidelity to the Rule she had vowed to observe …
Meanwhile, back at Saint Mary’s, once they learned the news of what had happened to Mother Theodore, the bell was rung, all the professed sisters assembled in “Mother’s room” where they “declared their unanimous resolution to reject any attempt at an election, to adhere to their absent, proscribed, and suffering Mother, and to follow her where she would go.
“Next, the postulants were consulted, and not one hesitated. The workmen, too, agreed in the general resolution to leave Saint Mary’s at once. Packing of trunks began and preparations for the journey.”
The history continues, “The gardener was planning to carry off with him his young apple trees, and Sister Basilide was arranging to sell the cows and buy four good horses to draw the heavy wagons that would be needed for the migration.”
It seems collaboration is in our bones, and leaning on Providence often takes the shape of partnership with others. We celebrate today in Indiana because the bishop was relieved of his post — a providential intervention for sure. But I feel sure had he not been dismissed, we would be celebrating somewhere else today as the result of a collaborative effort and for the sake of the mission.
May our new direction statement about collaboration lead to an ever-deepening sense of the power of this continuing call to be together in ever-widening circles of who WE are meant to be.
Another of our directions — embracing and reverencing DIVERSITY — was certainly at play in the lives of our foundresses. They were victims of bigotry, both religious and cultural. They were instructed at points during their travel to exchange their habit for secular dress to avoid recrimination.
We have set out for ourselves a powerful challenge in this new direction statement about diversity. We may find ourselves needing to couple it with some aspects of our chosen justice focus on racism.
But one of the most powerful lessons for me about what it means to truly embrace and reverence diversity comes from Mother Theodore’s encounter with the washerwoman.
The day after the foundresses arrived at the Woods, Mother Theodore spent a considerable amount of time training, in her words: “a young woman, an orphan, wretchedly poor and miserably clad, to do the wash.”
“When dinner time came,” said Mother Theodore, “there was my washerwoman sitting down at table with us. I was so indiscreet as to say it would be better for her not to take dinner with the Community. I wish you could have seen the change in the countenances of our American postulants! I had to compromise by telling the girl she might eat with the reader at the second table.”
Who are the washerwomen of our time? Who is asking for a place at our table? In the context information that accompanied the Chapter diversity direction statement, no less than 29 forms of diversity were identified, diversities that need our embrace and reverence as revelations of Providence.
If we are to affirm the dignity and sacredness of every person made in the image of God, we, like our Mother Theodore, will need to change our minds and our hearts about who should sit at our tables.
It was easy for me to find an example of resonance in our new RESOURCES/SUSTAINABILITY direction with something from Mother Theodore’s time. In the circular letter dated July 6, 1853, calling her sisters home to Saint Mary’s for the annual retreat, she announces:
“By the help of God and the union which reigns among you, a house is here to receive you. … you will love it, for it is the fruit of your labors and privations.”
She goes on:
“When we compare the little frame house in which we were received in charity 12 years ago with the splendid building erected here now, we clearly see the effects of those powerful words, ‘Increase and multiply.’ Indeed, my Sisters, we have increased and multiplied. Our exterior improvements are astonishing, but does our interior advancement correspond with the exterior? Have we increased in humility, mortification, self-denial, and all the other virtues which constitute a true Religious? It is in the silence of the retreat that we shall be able to answer these important questions.”
During the next five years, may we — in the silence, as well as in our listening and speaking to one another — be able to answer these important questions.
And finally, we come to the statement related to the MISSION OF RELIGIOUS LIFE and its call to be anchored in Providence Spirituality, to strengthen our prayer lives and participate in communities that are welcoming and inclusive, communities of compassion, openness, respect and belonging.
We know that the first thing the foundresses did when they arrived at the Woods was to visit the Log Cabin Chapel. I have always loved the end of that description of their time there: “having prayed, wept, and thanked Almighty God for past favors and begged his assistance for the future … we went to embrace the postulants who were awaiting us.”
Grounded in love of God, they set out to embrace the postulants, to build a community, and most importantly, to fulfill a mission. Mother Theodore would write to her dear friend Bishop Bouvier in 1854 about that mission:
“When you sent your six daughters to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, you thought they were going to lay the foundation of an establishment which, later on, would be of service to religion; but with the means you made use of — these persons, so poor in every respect, strangers to the country, the customs, and the language of the New World — you never expected to see the fruits of your zeal crowned with so much success. Today we are 80 persons in our Community; 64, including 12 novices, wearing the religious habit, and 16 postulants. There are nearly a thousand children in our schools, 85 boarders here at the Academy, 37 of who are Catholics.”
In the days ahead, may our good God make use of us, such as we are — sisters, associates, ministry partners — to live out the radical Gospel message of love, mercy and justice in today’s world. Inspired by our foundresses, may we be passionate about our lives of prayer, education, service and advocacy. May we be dedicated to helping those who might otherwise be forgotten. May we create a more just and hope-filled world.
With openness and audacity, let us embrace the new lights offered during these Chapter days that are now reflected in our direction statements. Trusting in that Providence that so far has never failed us, let us move forward with aspiration and courage. After all, we follow in the footsteps of Theodore and Basilide, St. Vincent Ferrer, Mary Liguori, Mary Xavier and Olympiade.