American Catholic Report:
Mother Theodore Guérin: Indiana's Very Own Saint By John F. Fink
The founder of the Sisters of Providence survived rough seas, poor health and one bad-tempered bishop. Last month she was canonized.
SIX NUNS AND A PRIEST—Father Stanislaus Buteux—were traveling on a stagecoach through thick forests on a nonexistent road on October 22, 1840. The coach had already overturned once in a deep mud hole, throwing the passengers out. At another point, they had crossed the Wabash River, which was so deep the horses were swimming.
“Suddenly,” one of the nuns later recorded, “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.”
Father Buteux led them down into a ravine from which they could see a frame house and some sheds on the other side. This was to be their home, deep in the woods of western Indiana. The sisters wondered how it would ever be possible to establish a novitiate and a school in this remote forest. That, though, was their plan.
The nun who recorded their arrival was Mother Theodore Guérin, who was canonized on October 15 of this year as St. Theodora. She and the other five Sisters of Providence had already experienced a harrowing trip from France. The journey had taken more than three months. Their ship was almost destroyed several times by a hurricane and other severe storms.
Mother Theodore’s diary described the feeling of “passing the night in the bottom of a vessel, hearing continually the dreadful creaking which makes one fear that it will split open.” After another storm, she wrote, “Nothing was heard on board but screams and lamentations.”
Finally reaching New York on September 4, 1840, she wrote, “We threw ourselves on our knees with hearts full of gratitude.” But their problems weren’t over yet. The sisters had expected a representative of Bishop Celestine de la Hailandière of Vincennes, Indiana, to meet the ship when it docked, but there was no one.
None of the sisters could speak English and they had no idea how to get to Indiana. A doctor who boarded the ship with customs officials took pity on them and contacted the bishop of New York about their plight.
The next day they were taken to Brooklyn where they stayed with a woman accustomed to caring for missionaries. A man who spoke French accompanied them to Philadelphia, where they stayed with the Sisters of Charity. There they accompanied a French priest who was going to Vincennes.
They traveled by train, stagecoach and steamboat and finally reached Madison, Indiana. There they met Bishop Celestine de la Hailandière, who told them that they were to be settled on land northwest of Terre Haute.
Another steamboat took them to Evansville, Indiana, and then a stagecoach to Vincennes. That’s where they met Father Buteux, assigned as their chaplain, who accompanied them the rest of the way.
Four postulants (candidates) were waiting for the sisters when they arrived. The sisters began studying English, and Mother Theodore started to instruct the postulants in the way of religious life.
Thus began the community of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Mother Theodore was born Anne-Thérèse Guérin in the village of Etables in Brittany, France, on October 2, 1798, as the French Revolution was drawing to a close. She was the second child and first daughter of Laurent and Isabelle Lefevre Guérin.
Two more children would be born to the family but two of them—the firstborn son and the fourth child, also a son—died very young. Anne-Thérèse and her younger sister, Marie-Jeanne, survived.
Laurent was an officer in the French Navy and was away from home most of the time, leaving Isabelle to care for the children. Since it was dangerous in those days to practice their religion openly, Isabelle taught her daughters reading and catechism at home. Anne-Thérèse, however, attended a small school in Etables for a short time and was taught by a former seminarian who lived with the Guérin family for several months.
She became a devout young girl and her spiritual development was so sufficient that she was permitted to receive her First Communion when she was 10—two years earlier than normal in those days.
When Anne-Thérèse was 15, her father was murdered. This was more than Isabelle could take. The intensity of her grief incapacitated her so much that her eldest daughter had to assume the responsibility of caring for herself and for Marie-Jeanne. In time, Anne-Thérèse worked as a seamstress to support the family.
When she was 20, Anne-Thérèse asked her mother for permission to join a religious order. Isabelle refused. She could not lose her daughter, too! It was another five years before Isabelle recovered from her grief enough to give her daughter permission to follow her vocation.
Anne-Thérèse chose the Sisters of Providence, a new order in France founded by Father Jacques-Francois Dujarié. The French Revolution was over, but few priests remained in France and the people were suffering from the effects of the revolution. His religious order would be devoted to teaching and working among the poor.
Anne-Thérèse entered the Sisters of Providence novitiate at Ruille on August 18, 1823, professed her first vows on September 8, 1825, and her perpetual vows on September 5, 1831.
In 1825, while Anne-Thérèse was still a novice, Mother Mary Lecor, the order’s superior, sent her to teach at Preuilly-sur-Claise. While she was there, she contracted a serious illness. In curing the sickness, the doctors damaged her digestive system to such an extent that afterward she could eat only a simple, bland diet.
After she professed first vows, Sister Theodore was named superior of the sisters’ establishment in the parish of St. Aubin in a town called Rennes. She was there for eight years during which she honed her skills at teaching young girls.
In 1834, Sister Theodore was transferred to Soulanis in the Diocese of Angers, where she was again superior of the sisters.
In 1838, Father Hailandière arrived in Rennes in search of a congregation of women willing to establish a mission in Indiana. Father Hailandière was a native of Rennes who had been persuaded by Bishop Simon Gabriel Bruté of Vincennes, Indiana, to become his vicar general in 1835.
The Diocese of Vincennes included the state of Indiana and the eastern part of Illinois—330 miles long and just as wide—with about 50,000 Catholics amid a population of about 600,000.
When Bishop Bruté was looking for priests, Father Hailandière was one of 20 who answered the call. He returned to France in search of sisters in 1838.
Bishop Bruté died in 1839 and Father Hailandière was consecrated bishop of Vincennes in Paris on August 18 of that year. When Bishop Hailandière spoke of the need for sisters in the United States, Mother Mary agreed to ask for volunteers to go to Indiana. Although Mother Theodore seemed to be the logical person to lead the group, she did not volunteer. But Mother Mary encouraged her to think about it.
Mother Theodore had never had any dreams of being a missionary. She feared that her fragile health might hinder the mission, and she didn’t feel capable of leading it.
After long hours of prayer and reflection, Mother Theodore agreed to go. She had, after all, taken a vow of obedience, and the rule of the congregation stated that “sisters will be disposed to go to whatsoever part of the world obedience calls them.”
After the sisters’ miserable trip to the forests of Indiana, Mother Theodore began the task of instructing her postulants. On Christmas night in 1840, though, she became critically ill, suffering from fever, severe headaches and periods of unconsciousness. The illness continued for almost two months.
After she recovered to some extent, Mother Theodore began to plan her academy for girls that would eventually become Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. By July of 1841, 10 young women were studying there. The following March the sisters opened a school in Jasper, Indiana, and in October 1842 two sisters were sent to St. Francisville, Illinois.
During the years that followed, the sisters faced numerous trials. They suffered from hunger, sometimes going without food for days. They experienced the heat, humidity and mosquitoes of Indiana summers and the heavy snows of winters. They planted crops and raised hogs and other animals on their farm. Once they suffered a fire that destroyed their barn and harvest.
The sisters were also short of money, and Bishop Hailandière refused to support them. He suggested that Mother Theodore go back to France to raise money for the community. In 1843, she returned to France and was gone for 11 months. She was successful in raising money and in solidifying the relationship between the sisters in the United States and those in France.
Mother Theodore’s return trip to Indiana was nearly as difficult as her first journey there. Her ship again experienced bad weather and she was ill when she reached New Orleans. Her health continued to be frail.
Mother Theodore’s greatest problem from 1843 to 1847, however, concerned her relationship with Bishop Hailandière. Even before she left for France, it was clear that the bishop believed he possessed total control over the Sisters of Providence, despite what the community’s Rule stated. Mother Theodore often had to oppose his decisions as they affected her community.
While she was in France, Bishop Hailandière took over the community. He admitted novices to vows, closed the school at St. Francisville, received three nuns from another community, opened a new establishment and called for the election of a new superior—all without input from the sisters and contrary to the community’s Rule. He hoped that the sisters would elect a different superior, but they reelected Mother Theodore.
After her return, Mother Theodore’s meetings with Bishop Hailandière grew more and more contentious, often lasting for hours. Sometimes the bishop berated her for her leadership of the community and other times he insisted that he did not want to be involved in their affairs.
The diocese still owned the property at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. At times the bishop would promise to give it to the sisters and other times he would refuse to do so. He insisted on an “Act of Reparation” from the sisters because he believed they had spoken out against him to his superiors.
The matter reached a crisis in 1847. Bishop Hailandière declared that Mother Theodore was no longer the superior. Furthermore, she was no longer a Sister of Providence. He released her from her vows and demanded that she leave his diocese.
It was at this point that the Vatican came to the rescue of Mother Theodore, who wasn’t the only one having difficulties with Bishop Hailandière. So were many of the diocesan and religious order priests. Holy Cross Father Edward Sorin, for example, also had been recruited from France. After a year of living in Vincennes, he wrote to his superior in France that he was determined to put as much distance as possible between Bishop Hailandière and himself. He located land at an unmanned old Indian mission near South Bend and there established the University of Notre Dame.
Amid the turmoil in the diocese, Bishop Hailandière submitted his resignation to the Vatican. The Vatican accepted his resignation in 1847 and appointed John Stephen Bazin the bishop of Vincennes. Bishop Hailandière returned to France, where he lived another 35 years before his death in 1882.
Bishop Bazin was consecrated bishop of the diocese on October 24, and one of his first acts was to deliver a valid deed to the property at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to Mother Theodore.
Bishop Bazin was able to restore peace and harmony to the Diocese of Vincennes. But he died only six months after his consecration. Seven months later, Jacques M. Maurice Landes d’Aussac de Saint-Palais was named bishop of Vincennes and he, too, supported the sisters without interfering in their work.
After discovering the pitiful condition of the building used as the motherhouse, he promised financial assistance so the sisters could erect a new building. A three-story brick structure with a basement was built, and the sisters occupied it in 1853.
Mother Theodore was finally able to devote all her energies to building and nurturing her congregation and establishing schools. She made annual visits by steamship and stagecoach to all the community’s foundations, which included parish schools in 10 cities in Indiana and one in Illinois.
In 1855, the community that began with six sisters 15 years earlier had increased to 60. The sisters were teaching 1,200 children and operating two orphanages. Between visits to each house, she kept up a large correspondence with the sisters there.
But Mother Theodore’s health continued to worsen. She died during the early morning hours of May 14, 1856, at the age of 57.
Since 1840, 5,239 women have entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Today there are 465 sisters.
The sisters still sponsor Saint Mary-of- the-Woods College, the country’s oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College boasts an enrollment of approximately 1,700 students in campus-based, undergraduate distance-learning and graduate programs, according to its Web site,www.smwc.edu.
The Sisters of Providence also have touched tens of thousands of lives through their various ministries in 20 states, the District of Columbia, Taiwan and China.
A statue of Mother Theodore is currently being sculpted. When it is completed, it will be placed in the garden outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Author and journalist John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. One of his books, American Saints (Alba House), includes a chapter about St. Mother Theodore Guérin. (Shared from American Catholic)