October 20, 2006

St. Theodora Guérin Keepsake Edition

The cherry on top: Sister Marie Kevin Tighe helped guide canonization cause

Providence Sister Marie Kevin Tighe

Photo caption: Providence Sister Marie Kevin Tighe has promoted Mother Theodore Guerin’s canonization cause for 10 years and served as its vice postulator for the last four years.

By Sean Gallagher

SAINT MARY-OF-THE-WOODS—On Oct. 15, hundreds of thousands of people filled St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

From this enormous assembly walked a small woman born 82 years ago in New Albany. She was part of the offertory procession that was met by Pope Benedict XVI, who minutes earlier had canonized the Church’s four newest saints, including St. Theodora Guérin.

The small woman had a deep and abiding love for St. Theodora from the time she was in the first grade at the former Holy Trinity School in her hometown.

Later, she followed in the saint’s footsteps by joining the religious community that St. Theodora founded in 1840, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

And after decades of ministry in a wide variety of fields, this woman, Providence Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, dedicated herself to the sole task of promoting St. Theodora’s canonization cause, a task she described as the “cherry on top of my life.” She helped shepherd it all the way to St. Peter’s Square.

The story of how Sister Marie Kevin made it from New Albany to Rome is, in many ways, the story of how God, in his providence, has led her every step of the way.

The birth of a vocation

Although Sister Marie Kevin was introduced to the Sisters of Providence and first learned about their foundress at Holy Trinity School, it wasn’t until her high school years that her vocation started to emerge.

“It was a Sister of Charity [of Nazareth] who said to me one day in the middle of a mission bazaar, ‘Did anyone ever tell you, you might have a vocation to be a sister?’ “ she said. “And I said no, and that was the end of the conversation.”

Later, however, she discussed the possibility with the associate pastor of her parish. When he asked her what community she might want to join, her answer was immediate.

“Right away I said, ‘I want to be a Sister of Providence,’ ” she recalled.

Soon thereafter, she transferred to a high school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for young women contemplating joining the community.

She entered its novitiate in 1942.

Though, as a young sister, Sister Marie Kevin said that she was not “indoctrinated” in the teachings of St. Theodora, she said the legacy of her community’s foundress was like the air she breathed.

“We never lost sight of her influence, and the power of her wisdom and strength,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “Her courage and her fortitude under great difficulties were always the undergirding impetus for us to carry on the mission that she established.”

Carrying on the mission

Starting in 1944, Sister Marie Kevin helped carry on the mission of Catholic education that St. Theodora had begun a century before.

She taught or served as principal at many Catholic schools in Illinois and Indiana, including St. Philip Neri School, St. Luke School,and the former Bishop Chartrand High School, all in Indianapolis, and St. Anne School in New Castle.

At all of these places, Sister Marie Kevin introduced her young charges to St. Theodora, just as her predecessors in the Sisters of Providence had done for her at Holy Trinity School.

Renewing the mission of St. Theodora in her own community was an important task given to Sister Marie Kevin in the years following the Second Vatican Council when she was asked to be a member of its renewal team.

This leadership had a profound impact on Providence Sister Denise Wilkinson. Now the community’s superior general, she was relatively new to the community when Sister Marie Kevin was serving on the renewal team in the 1970s.

“Her thinking was formative to me because I was so new and, of course, I was taken with it,” Sister Denise said. “It made sense to me.”

Sister Marie Kevin’s thinking, according to Sister Denise, was closely tied to St. Theodora.

“Marie Kevin has … high expectations for the congregation,” Sister Denise said. “And she herself strives to live up to her own expectations and encourages others to do the same. She’s like Mother Theodore, I think. She can encourage without putting people down.”

Sister Marie Kevin described her decision to help guide the renewal of her community as “the absolute turning point of my whole life.”

It led her to help dozens of other religious communities in the same process. Later, Sister Marie Kevin aided seminarians at Saint Meinrad School of Theology and the former Saint Meinrad College, encouraging them to value renewal and collaboration with the laity.

In her ministry as the director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Councils, she assisted Catholics on these boards in parishes throughout central and southern Indiana to renew their faith communities.

Measuring an inch

Spurred by the charism of her order’s foundress, Sister Marie Kevin had for two decades given of herself to others in the ministry of renewal.

In 1994, a diagnosis of gastro-esophageal cancer forced her to pull back. This, too, was not unlike St. Theodora, who suffered from severe gastrointestinal problems for much of her adult life.

For 72 days, Sister Marie Kevin was a patient at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. A surgery to treat the disease resulted in the removal of half of her stomach, half of her esophagus, her spleen and part of her diaphragm.

Despite the gravity of her situation, Sister Marie Kevin not only survived but also recovered her health quickly.

Although she has a deep love for St. Theodora, Sister Marie Kevin never prayed to her for a cure and does not think that her recovery was a miracle.

But the episode was profoundly important for her.

After ministering for so long with such determination to help young people learn and communities to renew, she gained a broader perspective on her life from facing cancer.

“I understand now in a way that I never could have before that my life, even if I live to be 99, is about one inch long,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “And on both ends of that inch there’s a long line—one that goes backward toward eternity and one that goes forward to eternity.

“I’m not going to cling to this inch. I want to live it to the full. But I know that, you know, it’s not the whole show.”

Placing the cherry on top of her life

Soon after looking death in the face, Sister Marie Kevin was given the chance of a lifetime.

Providence Sister Nancy Nolan, the community’s superior general at the time, asked her to become the new promoter of St. Theodora’s then beatification cause.

She thought that Sister Marie Kevin was the “perfect fit” for the ministry.

“She is a very energetic person in spite of her years and the poor health she herself has endured through the years,” Sister Nancy said. “And she took that on and ran with it with a vengeance, and has done just magnificent work.”

Part of that work was keeping in contact with the many people like herself, people faced with life-threatening illnesses who loved St. Theodora.

“I’ve been able to say to people who feel hopeless [that] you have to always maintain your hope and trust … [and] try to know you’re in God’s hands,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “I wouldn’t be able to speak so well and so calmly with them if I hadn’t been through it all myself.”

Philip McCord is one of these people. A non-Catholic employee of the Sisters of Providence, in 2001 he was facing the prospect of needing a corneal transplant. He asked Mother Theodore for her intercession and was subsequently healed.

After telling members of the religious community about the cure, he was asked to tell Sister Marie Kevin about it.

“I asked her, ‘Isn’t this kind of a small thing?’ [I knew] her history,” he said. “And she said, ‘Was it a small thing to you?’ [And I said,] ‘Well, no.’ ”

McCord has grown to have a deep regard for Sister Marie Kevin.

“Every time you talk to her, there’s a sparkle in her eye,” he said. “It’s just a joy being around her.”

Providential timing

The joy that McCord feels when he is with Sister Marie Kevin may just come from her lifelong love of St. Theodora.

“I think I have been absolutely penetrated with the message of Mother Theodore,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “Her life and her spirit and her works are so much a part of me that I always tease people and say, ‘If you ask me to talk about Mother Theodore, you’re in a heap of trouble because you’ve dropped in a nickel and you’re going to get more than you ever wanted to know. My trouble will be trying to stop.’ ”

After making St. Theodora’s message so much a part of herself, it was fitting that Sister Marie Kevin not only would help promote her cause so vigorously, but also would take part in her canonization Mass.

But shortly after the date of the Mass was announced in July, Sister Marie Kevin experienced severe abdominal pains.

She was soon hospitalized and placed in intensive care. It was discovered that her pain was in part due to a long-term effect of her 1994 surgery. Another surgery was required in July. And it looked like Sister Marie Kevin might not be able to make it to Rome.

“By the grace of God, I had a great moment of resignation because at first I thought I would not be able to go,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “And I was amazingly peaceful with that. But, as time went on, and I recovered very well, I became equally elated over the fact that I could go.”

Speaking less than two months before the canonization, Sister Marie Kevin remarked that her recent hospitalization happened at just the right time, with a long enough period before the canonization that she was able to recuperate fully.

“God reveals himself to me in timing,” she said.

In many ways, this woman has, like St. Theodora, placed her trust in God’s providence, believing that God will guide her along her path through this life to the next.

“I just think that [the canonization] is a very appropriate ending,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “Not that I am planning on dying tomorrow or next week, but because of my age, I don’t think I have many more years to live.

“So it just feels that everything that’s happened in my life happened at the right time.” †


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