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Foundation Day and our French connection

Note: The following are the reflections offered by General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, Vicar Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp and General Councilor Sister Carole Kimes during our Foundation Day Mass, which took place on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.

Introduction Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Peace be to this house on this our 182nd Foundation Day!

General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski reflecting during the 2022 Foundation Day Mass as Father Terry Johnson listens.

I don’t know how it is for you, but for me — our foundational story never grows old. Every time I hear those words, “Come down, Sisters, we have arrived,” something stirs within me. I feel connected to our origins and to our foremothers. I feel inspired to hop on a stagecoach myself and set out for some new adventure.

We need to celebrate the story of how six French Sisters of Providence responded to the same call that we hear Jesus issue in the Gospel of Luke: to go forth as laborers into the harvest; to sow peace…and love, mercy, justice; to be sharers of education and of care for the sick poor;  to be witnesses to the power of God’s Providence.

Today I would invite us to celebrate another piece of our story — the foundation on which our foundation is based. Today let us remember the faithfulness to the call of the Gospel by the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir, France. It was their response to the Bishop of Indiana 183 years ago that led to the arrival of our foremothers in the midst of a forest.  

So, this seemed like just the right moment to ask Sisters Jeanne Hagelskamp and Carole Kimes to share their reflections about the visit they made to that foundation in France this past June. Jeanne and Carole participated in the 200th anniversary celebration of the death of Mother Marie Madeleine du Roscoat, the first general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé. Like most of us who have had the opportunity to visit our foundational sites in France, they were moved by that experience. I have asked them to share some of their impressions with you.

Connections and commonalities of her trip to Ruillé — By Sister Carole Kimes

Sister Carole Kimes reflecting during the 2022 Foundation Day Mass as Father Terry Johnson listens.

“Foundation, two by two, moment of separation, painful sacrifices, it was a portion of my inheritance.” These words leapt off the pages of today’s readings as I began to reflect upon walking in the footsteps of Mother Theodore Guerin. I can’t begin to tell you how these words were deepened by my trip to France this past June with Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp. On June 13 as we traveled from Paris to the rural area of Ruillé, my heart was beating with excitement and anticipation. When we entered the courtyard of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé, there was an immediate experience of hospitality from all the sisters, including the sisters from Sri Lanka and Madagascar. We were greeted with song, dance, flowers and hugs. The words of Father Buteaux flashed in my mind. “Come down, Sisters, we have arrived.”  It took my breath away. 

It did not take very long to realize that this, too, was part of our inheritance. 

When we met with the younger sisters who were from Sri Lanka and Madagascar, they asked what it was like to be here. Immediately my words were “It is like finding my religious family of origin.” It was an overwhelming aha experience. To me that means we are more alike than different. In that moment, there was a convergence and a deepening of all that my life had inherited as a Sister of Providence.

Mother Theodore’s leadership and spirituality brought to us the very heart of what she had received in her own foundation. The rules, the traditions, the customs, values, the mission were palpable. It was like a lightening-rod of awareness that this too was home. Ruillé was no longer a land of unknown exile!

For me, the questions and hunger in the sisters and our conversations led us to moments of wonder as to how can we be more united. How can we give witness to the call of Providence together? How can we become One Community built upon the foundation of the Gospel and the leadership of Mother Marie Madeleine and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin? Are we being called to become a global Congregation? 

It is clear that their Sister, Theodore Guerin, and our foundress, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin is one and the same woman who is loved by us all. Praying in the chapel from which Mother Theodore departed to begin her journey to the New World, united me in a way that is indescribable. There is no doubt, we have been sent to be Providence.

Spending time in the home that Mother Theodore grew up in and imagining her waiting for her father to return home sent shivers down my spine. Praying in her family living quarters (a one-room house) and gazing upon the simplicity of her home in Étables blessed me with such a yearning to grow more deeply into our roots and to recognize the legacy that we are called to pass on. This home and these grounds have been walked upon by many of our own sisters and to see the pictures of our own Sisters Ann Margaret O’Hara, Denise Wilkinson and Diane Ris hanging on the walls in Mother Theodore’s home in Étables mirrored for me the indisputable relationship we have with Ruillé. There is no denial that we share a common bond, a common heritage and a common call.

Going to the Breton shores and putting my feet in the waters where Mother Theodore would go to reflect and pray while she was young led me to see that these waters unite us more than divide us. I took a moment to write in the sand on the shore all the names of our sisters dealing with cancer and to watch the waves wash my prayer into something so much bigger than myself. It gave me a sense of connectedness, not separation by the ocean. So much more possibility we have to connect across the ocean than Mother Theodore had in 1840. How can we take advantage of this now?

Spending time in the La Petite Providence Chapel praying with their sisters who were celebrating their jubilee was a humble experience. As we prayed, I thought of our own sisters who have spent decades of years carrying the same mission into the world and relying on the same Providence that so far has never failed us. In this moment of prayer, I joined the Sisters in Ruillé with our own Sisters who would be celebrating an anniversary this year. Interesting enough, we have no Golden Jubilarians this year and neither did they.  We have four Sisters who are/were tertians. Two of ours professed perpetual vows on Aug. 20, 2022. They have four sisters in Sri Lanka who professed their final vows on August 20, 2022.

During the Celebration Liturgy all the places/missions that sprung from France are identified as part of the Ruillé genealogy. This was depicted by a large boat/ship in the sanctuary with the names of all the missions building the foundation as the base of the boat. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods 1840 was among them. During the liturgy and meal, the Sisters from Sri Lanka and Madagascar shared their dancing. What a wonderful intercultural celebration it was!

We had the opportunity to visit the home of Mother Marie Madeleine at Plehedel where she both grew up and died. Being there reiterated for me the Mystery of call within each of us. What if Mother Marie Madeleine had chosen not to respond to Father Dujarie’s invitation to establish a mission, would any of us be here? 

The sacrifices of so many have impacted who we are today and what we are being called to. Are we ready to sacrifice our inheritance for the sake of the Mission? Now and for the future? 

On the last day, we had the opportunity to meet the great-great niece of Mother Theodore. Seeing the resemblance and the pride in her eyes was an added gift of our time in Ruillé. Our foundation was built upon the very soul of Mother Theodore’s own foundation, both her family of origin and her Sisters of Providence in Ruillé.  

There will always be moments of separation and painful sacrifices as we pass on our portion of inheritance. There was a tug in my heart the day we said our good-byes. It was as if we had been there forever, and yet, the time was so brief. 

Since that time, the call of Providence haunts me with the question as to how are we to carry on in the footsteps of Mother Theodore Guerin? Perhaps, now is the time to become more unified in our efforts with our Sisters in Ruillé as witnesses of diversity and oneness, witnesses of collaboration and sustainability, and witnesses of the Mission of Religious Life. We have a shared history and charism which have made a profound difference in the world. Do we dare to embrace the courage which led Mother Theodore and her five companions into the new world so we can make anew our world?

Happy Foundation Day Sisters and Associates!

Reflections on Trip to Ruillé — Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp

At the outset I want to say that our hostesses, especially Sister Josette, Gill and her housemates and Gillian, took great care to give us the time and space we needed to make our visit much more than a tour — truly almost a retreat experience. We will be forever indebted to them for that. And it’s in that context that I offer these reflections.

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp reflecting during the 2022 Foundation Day Mass as Father Terry Johnson listens.

After Mother Marie Madeleine’s untimely death, Mother Mary Lecor was named General Superior. I wonder if Mother Mary ever read the words of 1 Corinthians and thought about her daughters in America: “Like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it.” Yes, it was so evident to me that as descendants of Mother Marie Madeleine and Mother Mary, Mother Theodore and her five companions did, indeed, build on the foundation they had learned and embraced in Ruillé. There are undeniable evidences of this in the buildings, culture and traditions of the two congregations.

But the foundation is perhaps most evident in the spirituality that has been shared through the ages. All of these women — Mother Marie Madeleine, Mother Mary, and Mother Theodore —  had “left home” to respond to a call in a time of “great unknown” in France in the early 1800s. And all of them, through their yes’s to Holy Mystery, demonstrated sometimes unthinkable courage to embrace that call, often with little insight about what lay ahead of them. They were women whose yes was unconditional, whose courage was unshakable, and whose hope in Providence was unfailing. This is the spiritual foundation which they built, both in Ruillé and at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and it is on that foundation that thousands of us have depended as we have said our “yes” to God as Sisters of Providence or as Providence Associates.

One of my favorite places of our visit was Mother Theodore’s family home. As I prayed there in Étables, I couldn’t help but think about her years of longing to say that “yes,” to commit herself to her God in religious life, though recognizing that her mother needed her at home. I tried to imagine the heartbreak she endured in that dwelling — the loss of her father and two brothers, all to tragic situations, and the subsequent emotional suffering of her mother. Yet through it all, she never wavered. Amidst the pain and sadness of her life, her “yes” was constant. As the psalmist wrote: Her soul yearned and pined for the courts of the Lord; her heart and her flesh cried out for the living God. 

And I wondered how young Anne Thérèse envisioned the religious life that she so desired. Did she know how religious life in Europe was emerging at that time in history? Did she ever have an inkling that she might find herself in “a land of exile?” As I knelt in that house, I prayed for us and the entire Providence Community, that, like Mother Theodore, we, too, will be open to receiving a call to mission that we might never imagine will be ours to do and will respond courageously and wholeheartedly to it. 

As I walked the grounds of the motherhouse at Ruillé, as I gazed out my bedroom window at the statue of Mother Theodore, turned as though to say her final goodbye, and most particularly each time I sat in the chapel where Mother Theodore had prayed before she left (another of my other favorite places), I was almost overcome by her words which we heard a few minutes ago. “The moment of separation and of death had come at last. We had to leave all. After having made the most painful sacrifices, which had cost our hearts so much, we had to break the last ties by tearing ourselves away from our dear ‘Providence’ of Ruillé, that home so tenderly loved by all the Sisters of Providence.” 

We know that Mother Theodore never really wanted to be separated from Ruillé, so the goodbyes must have been heartwrenching. I kept wondering what must have been going through her mind as she prepared to leave. Was her yes like that of the 72 being sent out by Jesus, embarking on a journey that was largely unknown?  Was she filled with fear and anxiety? Probably. But no doubt she derived some strength for the journey, knowing that daily, all the Sisters of Providence would be united in the prayer of reunion, which both of our congregations hold dear.

Sister Carole and I took with us a gift from our Congregation. It was a plaque with each of our reunions and with pictures of Mother Marie Madeleine and Mother Theodore on it. We presented it to their Leadership Team one evening when we had dinner together. The next morning, we were with the young Sri Lankan and Malagasy sisters who were at Ruillé for a “formation” of sorts. Their very first question to us was “Do you pray the reunion every day?” Of course we said yes and told them of the gift we had brought with us. I wish you could have seen the faces of those young women. It was almost as if they were saying, “Oh, wow, we really are united with one another.”

Many Sisters of Providence and others during the 2022 Foundation Day Mass.

I must say, over and over during our week there, that was a recurring theme. We heard members of the leadership team, the young sisters from Sri Lanka and Madagascar, and the sisters from Belgium and England all verbalizing their wish that we could more closely unify in some way. Each time, I couldn’t help but think about our discussions about the emerging future of religious life and wondered whether this might be a piece of our emerging future. 

It hit me most poignantly during our meeting with the Sri Lankan and Malagasy sisters. After they had asked myriad questions, I asked them, “Sisters, if you could dream big and have any dream you want come true, what would it be?” There was dead silence in the room. Then after some moments of thought, one of the sisters responded, “I dream that, together, the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and Ruillé congregations will go somewhere that neither of us has ever been — and engage in a ministry that neither of us has done.” My heart almost leapt out of my chest. What might that mean? Was that a call to which we need to pay attention? Or was it just one person’s dream? 

And so, now, I often pray that as we embrace the emerging future of religious life, we might at least keep our hearts and minds open to new possibilities to which Providence might be beckoning us together. Of course we would need to discern whether such a call is truly meant for us. 

But no matter where Providence may invite us, of this I am sure. If we, like Mother Theodore, respond with an unconditional yes to whatever may lie ahead, our future will have been built on a firm foundation — a foundation centered in unwavering trust in our Provident God. And that is a portion of our shared inheritance that we will enjoy all the days of our lives.

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski concludes

Thank you, Sisters Carole and Jeanne, for helping to celebrate the foundation of our foundation.

And thank you, Mother Marie Madeleine, that first responder to Father Dujarie’s call to join a community of women on the heights of Ruillé. Thank you Mother Mary for choosing and calling Mother Theodore to lead the mission to Indiana.

Thank you, Sisters St. Theodore and Basilide, St. Vincent Ferrer and Mary Xavier, Mary Liguori and Olympiade for not getting back on the stagecoach and returning to France once you arrived in this Indiana wilderness.

And let us thank the thousands of sisters, benefactors, co-workers who over these 182 years have helped make this house, God’s house, God’s field. I think we all know that our Mother Theodore is not the only one whose heart watches over this house which she helped build. 

Let us thank them all with the witness of our lives and our own response to the call of the Gospel … to sow peace … and love, mercy, justice; to be witnesses to the power of God’s Providence and to hold ourselves in readiness for what calls are still to come as both Sisters Carole and Jeanne reminded us today.

To paraphrase Saint Mother Theodore a bit:

“…ours is the preparation for the generation that will succeed us, and eminent good will be done this way by us. We may not live to see it, but we will have sown the seed, and those yet to come will reap what will have been sown.”

Sister My Huong Pham with Father Dan Hopcus during the Feast following the 2022 Foundation Day.

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Sisters of Providence

The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, are a congregation of Roman Catholic women religious (sisters) who minister throughout the United States and Taiwan. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded the Sisters of Providence in 1840. The congregation has a mission of being God's Providence in the world by committing to performing works of love, mercy and justice in service among God's people.

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