Remembering who we are and why we are here!
Note: The following is the reflection our General Superior, Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, provided during the 2023 Foundation Day Mass.
The author Sue Monk Kidd has written, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
We are here today because the story of our foundation is alive and well. We have been telling and retelling that story for 183 years now. How on Oct. 22, 1840, six missionary Sisters of Providence from Ruille, France, led by Sister St. Theodore Guerin, arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, to establish a school and a novitiate.
That’s the short version.
The slightly longer version actually started in the Spring of 1830, when Bishop Simon Brute of Vincennes sent his vicar general Father Celestin de la Hailandiere to Europe to seek missionaries. Following Bishop Brute’s death that June, de la Hailandiere, while he was still in Europe, was named bishop.
It was he who approached the Sisters of Providence of Ruille and received the promise for a colony of sisters of Indiana ONLY IF Sister St. Theodore consented to lead the group. (As we know for reasons of health, she had not readily volunteered.) Like the call of Cyrus recounted in today’s first reading from Isaiah, five women were chosen to accompany her and a year later in July of 1840, they departed for the United States.
After an arduous journey of more than three months, across the ocean, over land via railroad and stagecoach, up rivers and across streams via steamboats and ferries, “what was their astonishment to find themselves still in the midst of a forest, no village, not even a house in sight.”
A ‘Master’ Storyteller
Later, our Saint Mother Theodore, a master storyteller herself, would write in her journal: “It is astonishing that this remote solitude has been chosen for a novitiate and especially for an academy. All appearances are against it.” Mother Theodore and her little band would prove otherwise.
That quote is imprinted on one of the walls in the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore, and, whenever I bring friends through on a visit, I tell them that this is the Sisters of Providence call to action. Whenever someone tells us that all appearances are against something or against all odds, we throw ourselves into action and show them that Providence has other designs.
That is one of the ways that I believe our foundation story, our foremothers’ story, has shaped us and continues to remind us who we are. We are daughters of Mother Theodore and her companions: Sisters Basilide, Mary Xavier, Mary Liguori, Olympiade and St. Vincent Ferrer. We are part of something enduring, something much, much bigger than ourselves.
So, in honor of this particular Foundation Day, I set out to discover how the foundation story has impacted the lives of some of our sisters and associates. What aspect of the foundation story is most inspiring to them? What aspect is most important to them? Why do they feel that way?
Why do they feel that way?
I begin with Sister Grace Marie Meehan. She was so straightforward about the impact of Mother Theodore and the foundation story on her own personal journey. Here’s what she said, “It was back in the 1970s, and the community started a renewal team and I was chosen to be part of the team! I was not expecting that at all. I felt like Mother Theodore, but at least I didn’t have to go to another country – just to St. Louis with the other five women.”
That experience, said Grace Marie, pushed her beyond her wildest imagination, until finally she was able to say of it: “This is our future; either I’m going to go along with it (the renewal) or be dropped off the wagon.” Thankfully, Gracie is still with us.
So, imagine my surprise when I received this same theme song in an email response from Providence Associate Mel Wolff. “Mother Theodore did not want to go to Indiana, but when she was told the mission would not proceed without her, she said, ‘Yes!’ That makes me think about times when I might have to say YES to something I am reluctant to do.”
And she added, “Mother Theodore’s YES is so meaningful because we would not all be here, we would not all be connected in the family of Providence.” (Thank you, Mel.)
Another PA, Jeannie Smith, also tied her own experience to that of Mother Theodore’s. She wrote: “Something that always touches my heart about the foundation story is the sorrow of separation that the foundresses, especially Mother Theodore, felt on leaving Ruille, their beloved home. That pain was always with her, yet her love of her new woodland home became such a healing for her that it filled her heart.”
Jeannie related this to the generations of sisters, and so many other who have loved the Holy Ground of the Woods for a time in their lives and have also felt that dual experience of love of place and community, then pain of loss and separation as they “leave the nest” to do their life’s work.
Jeannie concluded: “loss and fulfillment, emptying and filing up, letting go and letting come – it’s a theme that runs through the legacy.” (Thank you, Jeannie.)
Sister of Providence Betty Paul shared a wonderful story about legacy as she reflected on the impact of our foundation story on her life, especially the challenges Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and her companions accepted in coming to America.
Her special memory actually occurred in 2021. She and Sister Kathy French had, in her words, “an overwhelming and heart-warming experience when we visited St. Ann School in Fayetteville and walked in the footsteps of the Sisters of Providence who had accepted the challenge to go to the mission diocese of Raleigh in North Caroline in 1956. They were missioned to Fayetteville to teach at St. Ann School and to establish the first integrated Catholic School in North Carolina.”
Betty said, it is the inspiration and commitment of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the SPs who have followed in her footsteps that have inspired her own ministry as she carries on the legacy of SP presence in North Carolina. (Thank you, Betty.)
A number of my reflectors mentioned resilience as the most inspiring aspect of our foundation story. Sister Regina Gallo called it the “sheer resilience” of Mother Theodore and her companions. “They traveled an arduous journey … to come to a foreign land where they did not speak the language, were not accepted, welcomed, or treated justly. … I think about how they managed to leave the familiar, their homeland, coming to this foreign land, looking out for each other in the process, going out of themselves for the greater whole and good. In the midst of all they endured, physically, mentally, and socially their resilience was unbreakable.”
Regina offered that there is a lesson here for us – “Sisters, associates, all celebrating this Foundation Day, no matter what we go through, no matter how arduous the journey may seem at any given time in our own lives, let our own resilience be unbreakable.” (Thank you, Regina!)
Sister Teresa Kang, as a native of Taiwan now living in the U.S., has, no doubt, experienced this need for resilience first-hand. Teresa highlighted Mother Theodore’s courage, her bravery in facing all the difficulties and challenges that followed her response to God’s call to mission. And, as a result, Mother Theodore has enabled the continuation of Jesus’ mission in the world: To bring and live out God’s Love, Mercy and Justice. (Thank you, Teresa!)
Sister Patty Wallace also named the facing of these types of challenges as the most inspiring aspect of the story for her, especially the challenges of communicating in another language, and facing a different culture with totally unexpected experiences.
Patty likened this to migrants today. “Our migrants have left their beloved homeland and encounter similar challenges including the foreign language and culture, physical hardships and unacceptance. Mother Theodore’s compassion reaches across the years to the migrants in our society and country.”
And Patty added a happy ending to her remembrance: “Mother Theodore comes to see Indiana as her home. … she was no longer an exile, and refers to ‘My Indiana’ as her land of inheritance where she wants to live the rest of her life.” As Patty noted, “Care of creation and connection to God through nature are foundational to Mother Theodore’s community and now to us.” (Thank you, Patty.)
Sister Marian Brady also picked up on the challenges and particularly noted the troubles the foundresses went through when they arrived in New York. “No one met them at the ship.”
She related one of the secrets of Mother Theodore’s success and certainly an integral part of the foundation story – people showed up to help them. In fact, it was a Doctor Sidney A. Doane who informed the bishop of New York of their arrival. The bishop sent Father Felix Varela Morales, a Cuban-Spanish priest who spoke French. Father Varela found lodging for them with a French lady, Madame Parmentier!
Interestingly enough, Sister Marian met Father Varela years later while reading the Washington Post. Actually, she met Father Varela’s commemorative stamp. In 1997, the United States Post Office issued a postage stamp honoring Father Varela because of his dedication to social reform and as a constant champion for the civil rights of migrants, especially poor women, youth, children and the sick. Father Varela worked in the U.S. from 1823-1853. (Thank you, Sister Marian, for making this connection for us.)
Sister Marian’s comments are a perfect transition to Providence Associate Marie Price’s offering.
Maria points out that” “the sisters created bonds at every step, from their departure in France to their arrival at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and beyond. They were sent with prayerful support. They were provided financial support. They were welcomed by a family who had little to share. Even their detractors have a place in the foundation story, inviting the sisters to focus on their mission and their reliance on God. When the sisters had no one else, they had one another.”
Maria calls this the saving grace that saw them through the trials of those foundational years. “Through everything, everything, they had one another and their shared reliance on our Provident God.”
Maria offered advice for those of us walking in the footsteps of these foundresses: “I increase my own suffering when I try to face difficult things alone. When I reach for a hand to clasp or seek wise counsel, my anxieties subside. And when I see the suffering of others, I reach out to lend a hand in whatever small way I can. In fact, when any of us foster community, we are more fully responding to the call to create the kin-dom of God on earth. (Thank you, Maria.)
Sister Teresa Costello would see this kind of community as an imitation of the love ethic of Mother Theodore, who inherited this ethic and maintained it all her life. Teresa believes it was this love that helped her through her suffering and was the source of her deep-down joy. As Teresa noted, “This love is evident in her writings, oozes out of her guidance.” (Thank you, Teresa.)
And it was Sister Terri Boland’s comments that bring us back to where I began – the power of a story and the power of Mother Theodore’s writings. Terri found an interesting reference to Mother Theodore’s writings in Volume I of the History of the Sisters of Providence. When Mother Theodore was ill from seasickness and the sisters feared she wouldn’t survive, she continued to record their story.
In fact, Sister Mary Borromeo Brown wrote, “Nevertheless no day passed when Mother Theodore was able to hold her pen without an entry in her faithful journal.”
Thank you, Terri, for reminding us that “her gift to us was to cherish the power of story – hers as well as our own.”
“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
So, I invite you to spend some time today reflecting on and perhaps sharing with one another the impact of the Foundation Day story on your life as a member of this Providence Community.
I’ll conclude the storytelling now with Sister Donna Butler’s poetic offering:
“Sisters, we have arrived.”
Mother Theodore, with sheer exhaustion and extraordinary relief you stepped down.
But then with utter disbelief you faced a forest with no home prepared for you.
Your heart sank at the total impossibility to establish an academy in such a place.
Your heart was further torn asunder seeing the Eucharist housed in such poverty.
But God’s presence was here and, in that moment, perhaps as never before, you totally surrendered your life to God’s Providence.
Thank you, Donna, AND thank you Theodore, Basilide, Mary Xavier, Mary Liguori, Olympiade and St. Vincent Ferrer.