December 14, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

St. Theodora Guérin, a providential gift to us

Cynthia DewesProvidence is kind of an old-fashioned concept, up there with chastity and prudence and humility on the list of Quaint-Words-Used-By-No-One-Under-Age-50.

But Providence is exactly what we are about to celebrate with the birth of Christ. It’s providential that God gives us a Savior solely out of love to free us from our sins just when we are the least lovable.

That’s why I feel we’re especially favored in Indiana to have had the Sisters of Providence living and working among us for the past 150-some years. And it’s providential that their order was founded by St. Theodora Guérin, the first Hoosier to be canonized as a saint.

Mother Theodore didn’t start out as a Hoosier. She was a Frenchwoman sent in the early 19th century with five other nuns by Jean-Baptiste Bouvier, the bishop of LeMans, France, to establish a community in the Diocese of Vincennes. Their chief mission was the education of children, although they were not above feeding, clothing and housing anyone in need as well.

Mother Theodore was particularly interested in the education of girls, which was innovative at a time when women were generally not educated at all—except at home in housekeeping and childrearing skills. Nor were they generally given the same authority as men. Thus, while Mother Theodore was the superior of her community, she was also under the direct authority of the bishop of Vincennes, a man impressively named Célestin René Laurent Guynemer de la Hailandière.

This man proved to be an incompetent and unstable person who hampered Mother Theodore’s plans in many cruel ways. As a result, because of his erratic demands, her nuns were often hungry and poorly housed. She herself at one time or another was accused of duplicity, forbidden to serve as superior and even ejected from her order entirely.

Bishop Hailandière believed the sisters’ community was his personal possession, and he intended to run it accordingly. He gave little money to their efforts, established schools without the knowledge of Mother Theodore and otherwise interfered with their mission.

Fortunately, Bishop Hailandière’s machinations did not go unnoticed by Bishop Bouvier and other prelates and bishops. Mother Theodore was eventually vindicated and allowed to establish her community and its various locales as she had originally envisioned. Through her wise leadership, the Sisters of Providence ministry came to include several schools and many students, some of them non-Catholic.

Then, as now, Indiana was not heavily populated with Catholics, and there was much prejudice against them. Mother Theodore was gratified to see that through their children’s acquaintance with the Church in her schools, many parents of non-Catholic students became friends and supporters of Catholicism. Some became converts to the faith.

The more I read about Mother Theodore in Penny Blaker Mitchell’s book, Mother Theodore Guérin: A Woman for All Time, the more I liked her. Not only was she smart, kind, spiritual and authoritative, but also she was downright funny at times.

Writing of her journey with the sisters to their assignment in America, she good-humoredly described weathering a terrible storm at sea: “Our dear, plump Sister Liguori fell against me with all her weight. I thought I was killed.” Mother Theodore’s diary includes many such amusing entries.

Saints are saints because they try to stick to doing God’s will—no matter what. St. Theodora is a wonderful person to take as a model during Advent.

I would say “God bless her” but, then, God already has.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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