October 6, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Mother Theodore leads community to growth

John F. Fink(Fifth of five columns)

As I wrote last week, on May 20, 1847, the conflict between Mother Theodore and Bishop Celestine de la Hailandiere of Vincennes came to a head when the bishop declared that she was no longer the superior of the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. He released her from her vows, and ordered her to leave his diocese.

It was precisely at this point that the Vatican came to Mother Theodore’s rescue. It turned out that Mother Theodore wasn’t the only one who was having difficulties with Bishop de la Hailandiere. So were many of the diocesan priests as well as religious order priests.

Holy Cross Father Edward Sorin, for example, also had been recruited from France. After a year of living in Vincennes, he became determined to put as much distance as possible between Bishop de la Hailandiere and himself. He located land at an unmanned old Indian mission near South Bend, and there he established the University of Notre Dame.

Amid the turmoil in the diocese, Bishop de la Hailandiere submitted his resignation to the Vatican. The Vatican accepted it on July 16, 1847, and appointed John Stephen Bazin the bishop of Vincennes. Bishop de la Hailandiere returned to France, where he lived another 35 years before his death in 1882.

Bishop Bazin was consecrated bishop of the diocese on Oct. 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. However, 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 sisters’ mother-house, he promised financial assistance so the sisters could build 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 over very bad roads to all the establishments, which included parish schools in 10 cities in Indiana and one in Illinois.

In 1855, the community that began with six sisters 15 years before had increased to 60. The sisters were teaching 1,200 children. They also operated two orphanages. Between visits to the establishments, Mother Theodore kept up a large correspondence with the sisters there.

But her health continued to get worse. She died during the early morning hours of May 14, 1856, at age 57. Pope John Paul II beatified her on Oct. 25, 1998.

For much more information about soon-to-be St. Theodora Guérin, I recommend the book Mother Theodore Guérin: A Woman for Our Time by Penny Blaker Mitchell, published by the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, my source for this series of columns. †

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