Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s story
Saint Mother Theodore was a woman of courage, determination and compassion. From a young age she faced many challenges. Her trust in Providence – the protective care of God – helped her accomplish many things.
After the tragic deaths of both her brothers and her father, Saint Mother Theodore spent many years taking care of her mother and sister. Her deep desire to serve God would have to wait. At the age of 25 her mother finally allowed her to follow her dream and devote her life entirely to God.
Saint Mother Theodore entered religious life with the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé sur-Loir, France. It was around this time that she began having health issues that would plague her for the rest of her life. This did not deter her.
As a new sister Saint Mother Theodore was sent to various parishes in France where she taught, helped the poor and cared for the sick. When the bishop of Vincennes, Indiana requested sisters to come to the New World to help with the influx of Catholic immigrants, Saint Mother Theodore was thought to be the only woman who could undertake such a demanding mission.
The journey was long and difficult. After traveling for nearly three months Saint Mother Theodore and her five companions arrived only to discover they were in the remote wilderness of Indiana known as Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. There was not a village or a house in sight. Life was not going to get any easier.
Despite the obstacles, Saint Mother Theodore was able to open an academy for girls in less than a year. Once this was done she continued forward and established schools throughout Indiana and Eastern Illinois. She also opened two orphanages in Vincennes and a free pharmacy at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and Vincennes.
Saint Mother Theodore died May 14, 1856. On Oct. 15, 2006 at St. Peter’s Square in Rome Mother Theodore was canonized and received the title, “Saint” from the Catholic Church. She is designated in the Vatican’s official record as Saint Theodora.
Her life still continues to inspire. She is remembered as a woman devoted to prayer, an educator, caregiver and leader. Her love and respect for nature is still evident in her beloved woods. Here you can visit her final resting place at the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was a champion of justice and was empathetic to those who suffered, inspiring the work of her Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods today.
Want even more details about the amazing life story of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin? Read on!
- Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s story
- Sister St. Theodore
- Missionary to the United States
- A Woman of Determination and Courage
- Death of a saint
Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s story
Anne-Therese’s Early Years
Anne-Therese Guerin was born on Oct. 2, 1798 to Laurent and Isabelle Guerin. The Guerins were a well-respected and faith-filled family. They lived in the village of Etables-sur-Mer in Brittany, France in a thatched cottage by a little field near the seashore.
Laurent served an officer in the French Navy under Napoleon. He was often away at sea for long periods of time. Isabelle took care of the family by herself while her husband was away. She valued education and spent much of her time teaching young Anne-Therese and her siblings. These lessons in reading, writing and Scripture would serve her well throughout her life.
When she wasn’t immersed in her studies, Anne-Therese enjoyed spending time outdoors. She would often play down by the seashore. The vastness of the ocean compelled her to pray and contemplate God. When she was just ten year old here by the sea Anne-Therese first decided she would one day give herself totally to God as a religious sister.
Tragedy at a Young Age
The Guerins endured a devastating heartbreak when Anne-Therese was only two years old. Her oldest brother died in a house fire. He was just three years old. Several years later when Anne-Therese had turned 15, tragedy once again struck the Guerin family. Her four year old brother was sleeping near the hearth to stay warm, when a spark from the fire caught on his blanket. The family once again suffered the shattering loss of a child from fire. Later that same year Laurent was returning home after three long years away. Bandits robbed him and murdered him as he travled. To make matters worse, he had been carrying his earnings from the last three years.
All of this was more than Isabelle could bear. Her grief was so profound she was not able to cope with the daily tasks of living. And so at the age 15, Anne Therese found herself in charge of a household. She did the housework, taught her sister, cared for her ailing mother and for the garden. When her sister became old enough to take on household tasks, Anne-Therese took sewing jobs and work in a factory to help support the family.
Sister Mary Cecilia Bailly, who served as Saint Mother Theodore’s assistant for many years, wrote in the first biography ever written of Mother Theodore’s life, “This misfortune of losing her father drew forth all the energies of Anne Therese. She was now the help and companion of her mother; very likely this reverse of fortune formed that decision and strength of character which distinguished her in after life, and by which she could so well surmount the obstacles that sometimes opposed her in the discharge of her duties.”
Anne-Therese still yearned to follow her heart and give her whole life to God as a religious sister. Although she put her own dreams on hold for many years in order to care for her family she never forgot the promise she made to herself and to God as a young child. When she was 20, she began begging her mother to let her enter the Sisters of Providence at Ruillé sur-Loir. Isabelle was reluctant to let her go. It was another five years before her mother finally relented. She said, “My daughter, you may leave now; you have your mother’s consent and her blessing. I can no longer refuse God the sacrifice that he asks of me.”
Sister St. Theodore
And so, less than two months before her 25th birthday – on August 18, 1823 – Anne-Therese entered the Sisters of Providence, a young community of women religious who served as teachers and cared for the sick and poor. She would no longer be Anne-Therese but was known by her religious name, Sister St. Theodore.
Chronic ill health begins
Not long after Sister St. Theodore first entered the Sisters of Providence in France, she began suffering from a chronic health issue that would plague her rest of her life. Sister Mary Cecilia Bailly tells of it in the first biography written on Mother Theodore:
“During her novitiate she was attacked with a dangerous sickness. When reduced to a state almost beyond recovery, to save her if possible, they gave her a violent remedy, administered as a last resort. It cured her and probably saved her life, but it injured permanently her digestive organs. From that period she suffered continually from the food she took. The lightest diet and in small quantities was her only nourishment. It as a subject of astonishment to those who knew her that she could live with so little sustenance. She seldom passed a year without having a severe illness; three times she was on the point of death and received the last Sacraments.”
“Love the children first, and then teach them.”
The demand for qualified sisters to teach the poor and uneducated was great in 1823 when Sister St. Theodore joined the Sisters of Providence in Ruille, France. Sister St. Theodore had only been in formation with the sisters for six months, and had been sick much of that time, when she was sent out to teach. Soon thereafter, in 1826, she was named superior of a particularly difficult mission.
In a section of the city of Rennes lived people who were devastatingly poor, unchurched and rough-mannered — products of the aftermath of the French Revolution. To walk down the street in the area, one was “assailed by the most obscene language.”
Wealthy benefactors had created a mission in Rennes and asked the Sisters of Providence to set up a school which was to offer religious and academic instruction and prepare the children for manual jobs. The hope was that this would improve the whole area.
For four years before Sister St. Theodore’s arrival, the Sisters of Providence had attempted without much success to run a school there. In her first biography of Saint Mother Theodore, Sister Mary Cecilia Bailly writes,
“It was certainly the hardest mission of the Community. The Sisters employed in it were disheartened; some of them would often cry before entering the classes to teach, and the children seeing it by their eyes, exulted and became bolder in their unruliness.”
So this was the setting into which Sister St. Theodore was sent as superior. Sister Mary Cecilia continues, Sister St. Theodore “was full of zeal, was endowed with a firmness and strength of character able to carry through any project, and gifted with an imposing appearance and winning manners. To entrust a young religious just on leaving the novitiate with an employment that had baffled others proves the high opinion the superiors had of her virtue and ability, and the great confidence they reposed in her.”
Winning over the children
Sister Mary Cecilia continues on from her memories of the stories told my Mother Theodore during the 15 years she lived and ministered with her in Indiana. “Mother often amused us by relating the dispositions in which she found those wicked children, and her first attempt to govern them. When she appeared before them as the new Superior, they stared at her with meaning impudence. They gave glances at one another that means: ‘She will cry, too, before long.’
“She went to them assembled in the classroom and began to address them with some remarks in the form of an instruction. She had not spoken long when one of them, apparently the ringleader, exclaimed aloud: ‘Is she a fool? She thinks we are going to be like Sisters.’ Then a burst of laughter from everyone. She tried to impose silence, but the laughter of mockery only grew louder. She had no alternative but to control her feelings and appear composed. Nothing more could be done at that time.
“The following day she went again to speak to them. When they saw her enter they gave a look that announced they enjoyed beforehand another triumph over her. They listened to her a little while; then, all at once, they arose in a body and giving the hand to one another, they struck up a tune and began to dance round and round noisily as children do when they dance for a frolic. She sat quietly, determined to keep her self-possession, until they would be tired and stop of themselves.
“At last they had to stop; when all had directed their eyes to her to see how she was looking, she took a switch, that was kept by as a last resource, and broke it in pieces as a thing no more to be needed. This surprised them much, and seemed to please them, too. She seized this moment, while they appeared disposed to pay attention to what she would do or say, to speak to them. She did not accuse them of being bad children, nor reproach them for the gross ill-conduct they had just shown. But with a pleasant countenance she said that she intended to reward them if they would apply and behave well.
“Her words acted like magic upon them. Their countenance assumed a better expression, and their manner settled down and appeared subdued. Having concluded her little discourse, she dismissed them, and the day closed with a hope that something might yet be done with those poor children; but, in fact, all was gained.
“Sister St. Theodore strictly kept her promise. She gave tickets at the end of each day to those who had applied and behaved well, making great allowances.”
Sister St. Theodore’s method of reward as motivation worked on the little girls. Soon they were learning well, being schooled in religion and prepared for the workforce. Over time the change in the children began to bring change for the better in the whole community. In nine years’ time, when Sister St. Theodore left, a change for the better was visible. Where all had seemed hopeless and impossible, now there was hope. She put into practice her philosophy of “Love the children first, and then teach them.”
A misunderstanding and false accusations brought an end to Sister St. Theodore’s ministry at Rennes. Mother Mary, the Sisters of Providence general superior, had found it necessary to stand up to Father Dujarie, the founder of the Sisters of Providence and Ruille. He was using funds from the sisters to try to establish an order of brothers and it was compromising the sisters’ congregation. Sister St. Theodore expressed sympathy to Father Dujarie. Another sister misconstrued this as her speaking out against the actions of her superior and trying to thwart her efforts.
In 1834, likely as retribution for this misunderstanding, Sister St. Theodore she was removed from her position as superior at Rennes and sent to an out-of-the-way country ministry at Soulaines (Sue-lan).
Schooled in medicine
The mission at Soulaines was to teach the country children and visit the sick. Sister St. Theodore was an experienced teacher, but she knew little about attending the sick. She began to study medicine and remedies under a local doctor. In time she was able to treat many ailments as well as the doctor could.
She also continued to excel as a teacher which led her students to excel. An inspector at the school noticed this and the Academy of Angers in France awarded Sister St. Theodore a medal for excellence in teaching in 1839.
In addition to studying medicine, the smaller mission gave Sister St. Theodore more time for prayer and spiritual study. These things all helped prepare her for her next mission to the United States.
Missionary to the United States
In 1839 the new Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, a native of France, asked the French congregation for a group of sisters who could start a mission to educate the pioneer children in the Indiana wilderness. At that point Sister St. Theodore had already lived for 15 years on a very limited diet of soft, bland foods. She knew that she was weak and frequently sick.
The Sister of Providence superiors in France asked for volunteers willing to take on the mission to the United States. Several sisters came forward. Saint Mother Theodore was not among them. She thought that her ill health would weaken the mission. But the sister in charge sent for her. She told her she thought her the only sister capable of successfully leading the mission. If she did not lead them, no sisters would go.
Sister St. Theodore took the decision to prayer. Despite her ill health and her reluctance to separate from her congregation in France, she trusted in God’s Providence and agreed to lead the mission.
Journey and disappointment
On July 12, 1840, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and her five sister companions left their home in France. The parting was difficult and sad. They left their families and all they knew. The six set out for their new mission in the United States. After a long and difficult trip across land and sea, the sisters arrived at their destination on Oct. 22, 1840.
To the sisters’ shock, little awaited them there. No home. No school.
Saint Mother Theodore tells the story of their arrival herself in her journals and letters.
“We continued to advance into the thick woods till suddenly Father Buteux stopped the carriage and said, ‘Come down, Sisters, we have arrived.’ What was our astonishment to find ourselves still in the midst of the forest, no village, not even a house in sight. Our guide having given orders to the driver, led us down into a ravine, whence we beheld through the trees on the other side a frame house with a stable and some sheds. ‘There,’ he said, ‘is the house where the postulants have a room, and where you will lodge until your house is ready.’”
She later continues “…we went to embrace the postulants who were awaiting us. They led us to a small room that had been given up to them by the good farmer, Joseph Thralls. This room serves as bakery, refectory, recreation room. It is also an infirmary, and this is the only use it serves constantly. We have also a part of a garret [attic], where they had put eight ticks, filled with straw, on the floor. It is so crowded that we have to dress ourselves on the beds and make them up one after the other. This strange dormitory is directly under the roof which is made of shingles badly joined, thus letting in the wind and rain, making it very cold.”
And so Saint Mother Theodore and her companions come to a new country. They did not speak the language or know the customs. The home they had been promised was not ready. The sisters were dependent on the hospitality of neighbors to house them.
Sarah and Joseph Thralls owned the two-room farm house. The six French Sisters of Providence, four American postulants and the entire Thralls family lived there for more than a month. Mother Theodore proposed they purchase the Thralls home and use the home that was under construction as a school to provide income for the fledgling community. So in November 1840, the former Thralls house became the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods first motherhouse. It served as such for the next 13 years.
The sisters continued on in difficult pioneer conditions. The French sisters found it particularly difficult living in a drafty home in the midst of Indiana winter. They were accustomed to weather that rarely approached freezing. The early community suffered from lack of food, lack of money and lack of proper warmth. “Everything is frozen, even the bread,” wrote one sister during their early years.
The home that had been promised and was being built for the sisters was used instead for their first academy. The sisters made no delay in opening the school on July 4, 1841, just eight months after their arrival. That academy continues today as Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
A Woman of Determination and Courage
As a Catholic woman leader in the 1840s Indiana wilderness, Mother Theodore stood up to an unjust system that threatened to weaken her fledgling Congregation.
Mother Theodore experienced an early clash with Father Buteux. He served as chaplain for the Sisters of Providence. Father Buteux believed he held authority over all aspects of life for the sisters. Eventually he was removed as chaplain. He continued to communicate with an American Sister of Providence against orders. The Congregation dismissed the sister. Still, she continued to stir up controversy against the Sisters of Providence in the nearby city of Terre Haute. As a result enrollment dropped at the Academy and shopkeepers began denying credit to the impoverished Sisters of Providence.
Conflict with the bishop
Meanwhile, Mother Theodore began to experience conflict with the bishop. Each respected the other, but both had strong personalities. Mother Theodore wrote that Bishop de la Hailandière, “has one of those temperaments which makes martyrs of their possessors and still more of those who must put up with them from time to time.… He is jealous of his authority and wishes to do everything himself.”
Her problems as a woman leader were societal as well as religious. She continued, “It is not surprising that he (Bishop de la Hailandière) wishes to do everything himself. Here superiors have the title of ‘mother’ and nothing more. One does not see a woman in this country involved in the smallest business affairs, the religious any more than the others. They stare at me in Terre Haute and elsewhere when they see me doing business, paying, purchasing…”
As struggles with the bishop continued, Mother Theodore wrote to Mother Mary in France, “What makes us suffer most is the mania of this good bishop for changing the sisters.… He wants the establishments to depend on the priest, who would furnish the sisters with whatever they need.… I have the greatest aversion to this kind of administration; it seems to me it would keep our sisters in a species of slavery; they could not even write a letter without the priests’ knowledge. Besides, it would require too frequent contacts between them, and here above all this must not be, for the Protestants are always prepared to criticize actions the most innocent in themselves.… I have to struggle against all these difficulties, hold myself firm against all that I believe would change the spirit of our institute and our dear Rules.”
Mother Theodore remained steadfast in working toward what was best for the young community. Bishop de la Hailandière and Mother Theodore agreed that she should return to France in the spring of 1843. Her mission was to seek prayers, financial assistance, and new members for her community. A decision in Rome made the trip even more necessary. In a letter to Bishop Bouvier of Le Mans, Mother Theodore wrote, “I have just learned for a certainty that the Society of the Propagation of the Faith will do nothing more for us than it has already done through his Lordship, the Bishop of Vincennes, for the Councils have made it a law not to give to Congregations of women; hence, no alternative is left to us but to solicit private contributions.”
Mother Theodore returned to the United States with less than she had hoped to support her struggling community. She also returned to find, as she had feared, many changes made by Bishop de la Hailandière without her consent. The bishop had insisted that the sisters hold their annual retreat, which they had agreed to delay until Mother Theodore returned. He instigated the election of a new superior (the sisters re-elected Mother Theodore). Then he closed a school the sisters operated and admitted novices to the vows. He believed that, as bishop, he had total control over the congregation of women. This thought was common among bishops educated in France and settled in the United States.
Despite all the frustration and hardship caused by the bishop’s actions, Mother Theodore treated him with respect and deference. She nevertheless refused to back down and allow the community to be weakened.
Locked up and excommunicated
Struggles with the bishop escalated. At one point the bishop imprisoned Saint Mother Theodore in a room for a full day. As the situation came to a head, the bishop excommunicated Mother Theodore. He removed her from the Congregation she loved and did not allow her to communicate with any of the sisters. She became very ill for several weeks. The Congregation prepared to follow Mother Theodore and move to another state.
All the struggle ended abruptly. Word came that the pope had accepted the bishop’s resignation. Mother Theodore returned to her role in leadership with the Congregation.
Despite all the challenges that came with being a woman leader in the Catholic Church in the 1840s, Mother Theodore’s determination and strong leadership still shine forth today in the thriving community which she helped to create.
Death of a saint
Mother Theodore died on May 14, 1856. The Catholic Telegraph and Advocate in Cincinnati, Ohio, published the following notice about Saint Mother Theodore’s death:
“Died – At Saint Mary’s-of-the-Woods, in the 58th year of her age, Wednesday, 14th inst., Sister St. Theodore, Superior General of the Sisters of Providence in Indiana.
“This woman, distinguished by her eminent virtues, governed the community of which she was the superior from its commencement, to the time of her death, a period of nearly sixteen years. Being a perfect religious herself, and endowed with mental qualities of a high order, she was peculiarly fitted to fill the duties which Providence assigned her.
“Not only her Sisters are bereaved by her death, but all those who knew her excellence and the amount of good she did, join in lamenting that she should have been removed from the sphere of her usefulness. To judge from the celestial expression of her countenance as she lay in death, there is every reason to believe that she has already taken her abode among the Saints in Heaven, enjoying the munificence of God, who rewards His servants ‘according to their works.’”
Local devotion to Mother Theodore began after her death in 1856. Her successor Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly began writing historical sketches of Mother Theodore. The sisters took special care to preserve her writings and collect first-hand accounts of her interactions with others. Community historian Sister Mary Theodosia Mug published a biography of Mother Theodore in 1904. During this time, there were growing reports of special favors granted to the intercession of Mother Theodore.
On Oct. 15, 2006 Pope Benedict XVI canonized Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church during a ceremony and Eucharistic Liturgy at the Vatican. She is designated in the Vatican’s official record as Saint Theodora but we all lovingly know her as Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. She is the eighth American saint and the first saint from the state of Indiana.