When Saint Mother Theodore arrived in the Indiana wilderness to educate young women and found a community of sisters, many obstacles awaited her. As a Catholic woman leader in the 1840s Indiana wilderness, Saint 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 against orders. This sister was dismissed form the community. 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 started 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.”
Protecting the young community
Mother Theodore remained steadfast in working toward what was best for the young community. Even when it meant standing up to the bishop.
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. He 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). 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.
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 allowing 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.