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Touched by the Woods for a lifetime

Mary, Guerin and Mike Cassell at the Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Dinner in O’Shaughnessy Dining Hall
in June 2023

It was June 1984 the first time I was “touched by the Woods.” As I drove through the main gates for the first time onto The Avenue, it was definitely a “wow” experience. I knew Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was a special place. I quickly began to see why my Sister of Providence professor at Lewis University would talk about the beauty of the Woods. I spent most of my time that summer as a research assistant for my professor. She and I poured through documents in the Sisters of Providence archives with the late Sister Ann Kathleen, who was the archivist at that time. We reviewed them for inclusion and reference in my professor’s doctor of philosophy dissertation: “Educational Movements that have influenced the Sister Teacher Program of the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence 1840—1940.”

Drawn back to the Woods

This was the beginning of being drawn back “into the Woods” over and over again through the years and to a deep connection with the Sisters of Providence. Each time I go through the main gates, that feeling I experienced on my first visit comes back to me. I know there’s something about Saint Mary-of-the-Woods that sets it apart from other places — it’s holy ground. It feels like home and it keeps drawing me back.

A gift from the Cassell family helped restore the Our Lady of Providence Shrine in the Sisters of Providence Cemetery.

When it came time to propose to my wife, Mary, I chose to do so at the St. Anne Shell Chapel at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. We became engaged there on June 26, 1994. Early in our marriage, we found out that we had infertility issues. Mary and I made a promise to Mother Theodore that if she would help intercede on our behalf and we would be gifted with a child, we would name that child after her.

Ten years went by and several failed attempts at adoption. As Providence would have it, we received a referral in August 2006 from our adoption agency in Chicago. A 15-month-old boy in Prokopyevsk, Russia, was available to be adopted. We flew to Russia in September to meet him and signed the paperwork stating our intent to adopt him. Mother Theodore was canonized a Saint on Oct. 15 that same year. We traveled back to Russia for the court hearing on Nov. 30 to finalize the adoption. We returned to our home in Decatur, Illinois on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We named our son Guerin Michael.

“We are not called upon to do all the good possible but only that which we can do.”

– Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Giving back

The landscaping near the St. Michael statue in all its beauty. The Cassell family helped to fund the project.

Through the years, we have in return helped “touch the Woods” by designating our financial gifts to areas around Saint Mary-of- the-Woods that could use some love. To recognize Guerin’s First Holy Communion in 2014, we gave a gift to the Sisters of Providence to re-landscape the area surrounding the statue of Saint Michael the Archangel that is to the left of the bronze Saint Mother Theodore Guerin statue outside of the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

During one of our visits to the Woods, we noticed that the shrine of Our Lady of Providence in the Sisters’ cemetery, constructed in 1963, needed refurbished due to a lightning strike and chipping paint on the statue. We designated our contributions toward demolishing the existing brickwork and reconstructing the walls with new bricks and masonry and repainting the statue back to its original beauty. That project was completed in 2021.

Our next focus is to contribute to the restoration of the St. Anne Shell Chapel.(see story here).

Touched by Love, Mercy and Justice

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is more than a place. It’s alive with the mission of the Sisters of Providence. It’s a place where I’m renewed and continually touched. The Sisters of Providence “are dedicated to being God’s Providence in the world by committing ourselves to works of love, mercy and justice in service among God’s people.” Love, mercy and justice — it’s how I aspire to model my life and it’s the foundation of our family. I continually learn from the Sisters of Providence how to go out into the world and live love, mercy and justice. And I am challenged to be love, mercy and justice in our blessed and broken world.

Originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of HOPE magazine.

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Mike Cassell

Mike Cassell

Mike lives in Forsyth, Illinois, with his wife, Mary and their son, Guerin. He is a communications consultant at Memorial Health in Springfield, Illinois. He is vice-chair of the Sisters of Providence Mission Advisory Board, having also served on the Providence Health Care board of directors and the Sisters of Providence National Development Council.

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