September 15, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Sister St. Theodore Guérin leaves France

(Second of five columns)

In 1825, while Sister St. Theodore Guérin 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, probably smallpox. In curing the sickness, the doctors damaged her digestive system to such an extent that she could thereafter eat only a simple, bland diet.

After she professed first vows, Sister St. Theodore was named superior of the sisters’ establishment in the parish of St. Aubin in a rough section of the town of Rennes. She was there for eight years, during which she honed her skills at teaching young girls, skills that she would later teach to other sisters.

In 1834, Sister St. Theodore was transferred to Soulaines in the Diocese of Angers, where she was superior of the sisters there.

In 1838, Father Celestine de la Hailandiere arrived in Rennes in search of a congregation of women willing to establish a mission in Indiana. He was a native of Rennes who had been persuaded by Bishop Simon Gabriel Bruté, the first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, Ind., to become his vicar general in 1835. Bishop Bruté died on June 26, 1839, and Father de la Hailandiere succeeded him. He was consecrated in Paris on Aug. 18 of that year.

When Bishop de la Hailandiere spoke with the Sisters of Providence about the need for sisters in the United States, Mother Mary agreed to ask for volunteers to go to Indiana. Sister St. Theodore did not volunteer. She feared that her fragile health might hinder the mission, and didn’t feel capable of leading it.

Encouraged, though, by Mother Mary and the bishops of Rennes and Le Mans, and after prayer and reflection, she 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.”

Sister St. Theodore and five other sisters left Ruille on July 12, 1840, for what proved to be a hazardous journey to the wilderness of Indiana. The journey took more than three months. Their ship was almost destroyed several times by a hurricane and other severe storms, and Sister St. 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 Sept. 4, 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 de la Hailandiere to meet the ship, but he was not there. 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 said that he would contact the bishop of New York about their plight. †



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