“Love the children first, and then teach them.” — Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
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.”
Benefactors had created a mission there and asked the Sisters of Providence to set up a school. It 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.”
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.
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).
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.
Sister St. Theodore continued to excel as a teacher, and so her students excelled. An inspector at the school noticed this and in 1839 she was awarded a medal for excellence in teaching form the Academy of Angers in France.
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.