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.
Purchasing the home
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 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.