Beginning in her mid-twenties and continuing for the rest of her life, Saint Mother Theodore suffered chronic ill health. It all began not long after Sister St. Theodore entered the Sisters of Providence in France.
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.”
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.
And Saint Mother Theodore was indeed frequently ill during her time in the United States. Despite these challenges, for 15 years she inspired young women to follow her. She founded schools and set the foundation for a long legacy of good in the United States.
M. Leon Aubineau, an editor at l’Univers in France who met Saint Mother Theodore on her fundraising trip to France in 1843, described her thus:
“Not only did she lack material resources, but to look at Sister St. Theodore, one would think her incapable of accomplishing anything substantial. If her heart was great and strong, her heart abounding in devotedness and generosity, if she possessed an incomparable grace of eloquence, all these excellent gifts of mind and soul were united to a body so delicate and fragile in appearance that it seemed that the least exertion would destroy it. During the difficult years of her superiority, the most complicated and terrible illnesses attacked that frail constitution.”