October 18, 2013

Hoosier Catholics gain admiration, devotion for St. Theodora on her feast day

Members of the Sisters of Providence choir, joined by the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Chorale, sing during the Mass celebrating the feast of St. Theodora at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in St. Mary-of-the-Woods on Oct. 3. The wooden box in front of the choir director contains the remains of St. Theodora, and the hanging banner was the one displayed in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican when the founder of the Sisters of Providence was beatified in 1998. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Members of the Sisters of Providence choir, joined by the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Chorale, sing during the Mass celebrating the feast of St. Theodora at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in St. Mary-of-the-Woods on Oct. 3. The wooden box in front of the choir director contains the remains of St. Theodora, and the hanging banner was the one displayed in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican when the founder of the Sisters of Providence was beatified in 1998. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

ST. MARY-OF-THE-WOODS—On Oct. 22, 1840, the 41-year-old French nun of fragile health felt small and intimidated among the towering trees in the area of western Indiana known as St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

With so dense a forest, in so remote a location, at her age and with her inability to eat anything but soft, bland food or liquids, Mother Theodore wondered how she would establish the motherhouse and institute for learning she was expected to build with the five sisters who joined her from France.

But she threw the weight of her faith upon God and Providence, and encouraged her companions to do the same.

Walking among many of the same trees, now spaciously spread out 173 years later, Jim Huser considered the landscape.

“You come here in Indiana on Oct. 22—that’s the hard fall of the year. That’s a heck of a time to start building. That’s pretty remarkable,” said the member of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis.

He and 27 other archdiocesan Catholics participated in a day trip sponsored by the Benedict Inn at Our Lady of Grace monastery in Beech Grove to the Sisters of Providence motherhouse in St. Mary-of-the-Woods on Oct. 3, the feast day of the founder of the order.

The outing was the first in a series of trips to women’s religious communities around Indiana offered by the Sisters of St. Benedict to help raise funds to refurbish the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center.

“It was an easy decision [to start the series at St. Mary-of-the-Woods], with St. Mother Theodore Guerin’s feast day falling on Oct. 3,” said Annie Endris, director of programs for the Benedict Inn. “What a wonderful way to start the trail [of women’s religious communities of Indiana]!”

Mother Theodore, Indiana’s first saint, was canonized as St. Theodora by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Permission was granted to the Sisters of Providence to call her “St. Mother Theodore” in honor of the name by which the sisters have always referred to their founder.

Among other activities, the day included Mass and a guided tour by Providence Sister Jan Craven through the grounds and church at St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

Through a video, anecdotes and details from St. Theodora’s journals, Sister Jan shared the inspirational story of the holy woman who founded her order.

Bearing hardship with faith seemed to be the constant story of St. Theodora, who was born Anne-Thérèse Guérin in Etables, France, in 1798.

She lost two siblings at a young age, and her father was murdered by bandits when she was 15. With her mother’s need for financial help in raising Anne-Thérèse’s remaining sister, she put off her desire to join the Sisters of Providence in Ruille-sur-Loir, France, until the age of 25.

During her novitiate, she became ill. The medicines that cured her illness severely damaged her digestive system. For the rest of her life, Mother Theodore could only consume bland food or liquids.

Despite her frail health, she was chosen to lead a missionary group of Sisters of Providence to the U.S. to establish a motherhouse, open schools and evangelize the residents of the Diocese of Vincennes in the state of Indiana. Feeling incompetent and unsure, she nevertheless obeyed.

The hardships Mother Theodore and her sister companions endured during the journey and once settled in St. Mary-of-the-Woods were almost constant. Harsh conditions, language barriers, the politics of being women at a time when only men owned property, health issues, financial stress, fires, even severe challenges from an early bishop—through them all, Mother Theodore encouraged her sisters that, “if you lean with all your weight upon Providence, you will find yourselves well supported.”

Love for God and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament sustained Mother Theodore. By the time of her death in 1856, she had opened 11 schools and two orphanages in Indiana, and the independent congregation had grown to 67 professed sisters, nine novices and seven postulants.

“I admire her spirit,” said Benedictine Sister Carol Falkner, administrator of the Benedict Inn. “I do think the spirit of women can bring so much to the Church.

“She had great courage because she suffered so much. But she stayed true to her seeking of God, and that in turn led to the Sisters of Providence founding the motherhouse and all the influence they’ve had around the world.”

Elaine Davidson of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis was glad for the opportunity to visit St. Mary-of-the-Woods for the first time. But she walked away with much more than checking the site off of her list of places to visit.

“[St. Theodora] was an ordinary lady who did extraordinary things. She was human and real, a real woman. I have more respect for her having spent the day here and learning about her. I didn’t have devotion to her before today, but I probably will now,” she said.

Huser, whose birthday falls on St. Theodora’s feast day, attended the trip with his wife, Barbara, as a birthday present from his parents.

He was particularly impressed with the two round-trips the Hoosier saint made between France and the United States, the second excursion for the purpose of raising desperately needed funds.

“To make that trip twice back then—I wouldn’t even want to do it once,” he said.

The image pictured in the painting of St. Theodora currently popularized around the archdiocese gave Chris Guedel of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis the impression that the saint was “a hard woman.”

“I grew up with the Sisters of Providence through Catholic grade school, and they were always so fun and vibrant,” she said. “Then I’d look at this picture and think, ‘She’s their mother?’

“But after being here, I was touched by the love she had for all the nuns and knowing the challenges they were forced to live with. She kept their faith up, kept them spiritually up. That was not what I envisioned her to be like!

“And after she came back [from France] the second time, she said she knew she was home—she called Indiana ‘home’! I love that!” Guedel said.

Work on the permanent shrine for the Hoosier saint will begin on Nov. 1, with plans for dedication to take place in October 2014.

Meanwhile, the temporary shrine to St. Theodora resides in the Church of the Immaculate Conception near the motherhouse at St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

The shrine is centered around a locally-made wooden box containing her remains, with the banner displayed in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for her 1998 beatification hanging behind the box.

Guedel said she appreciates that at the temporary shrine “you can actually go up and touch the coffin. I like that they put her out there because she is ours.”

Finding that St. Theodora is an “accessible” saint was a goal Endris had for the participants on the trip.

“What I hope the participants received from the day was [realizing] how accessible St. Mother Theodore Guérin is for us, especially those who live in Indiana.

“We hear and read about the lives of the saints, and they sometimes seem so remote. But St. Theodore Guérin lived, worked, and prayed with her community in Indiana. She experienced the changing of the seasons here.

“How awesome is it to be able to go for a short drive to visit and walk the grounds where she lived and prayed.”
 

(The next trip to an Indiana religious community will occur in the fall of 2014, with a visit to the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand and the Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad. For more information on other events sponsored by the Benedict Inn, log on to www.benedictinn.org.)

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