April 12, 2002

Waiting for a Miracle

Sisters of Providence promote Mother Theodore Guérin
as a role model and her cause for sainthood

By Jennifer Del Vechio

SAINT MARY-OF-THE-WOODS, Ind.—Providence Sister Marie Kevin Tighe stares out her office window at a stand of pine trees. She has little time for daydreaming.

What once was an isolated forest ventured into by a French nun 162 years ago has become the site of the oldest Catholic women’s college in the nation and the hub of a busy office dedicated to
promoting the life of Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin.

Sitting at her computer, Sister Marie Kevin, the promoter of the cause for Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin, is trying to find out what her foundress has been up to while in heaven.

There are e-mails from Sri Lanka, Poland, Malaysia, Saudia Arabia, Norway, Spain, Italy and Belgium from people wanting to know more about the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the Woods.

Most requests are for prayer, either for healings in their families, for themselves or for help with
other difficulties.

Dutifully, the Sisters of Providence pray for those intentions daily, seeking Mother Theodore’s intercession.

Others write to report favors gained through the intercession of Mother Theodore, such as a priest
who recently wrote that his left arm was healed of paralysis after having a “friendly” talk with Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin and saying one Hail Mary.

Sorting through her numerous e-mails, Sister Marie Kevin decides which ones merit further
investigation in the hope that one may lead to the second miracle Mother Theodore needs to be declared an official saint.

But don’t get the idea that all Sister Marie Kevin cares about is miracles. While her job is to investigate possible miracles, it’s also about wanting to “downplay the miracles and ‘up-play’ the quality of life” that Mother Theodore lived, she said.

“We believe Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin is with God in heaven and is a holy person whose life we can imitate,” she said. “The title of saint is a confirmation of that. But we want to call attention to her life so other people can learn how to live their lives in a more authentic Christian manner.”

It’s a goal the sisters take seriously in their own lives.

“Our community, since the beatification, has worked at strengthening and deepening the founding spirit,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “To me, that’s the main work of this office.”

Often, she is able to use her job to explain Church teaching about why Catholics pray to saints for their intercession.

The route to sainthood is a complex, long and tedious process. Mother Theodore’s cause for canonization officially began in 1909, but work started in 1901 when Sister Mary Theodosia Mug—the same nun whose cure from cancer was accepted as the first miracle attributed to Mother Theodore—wrote Mother Theodore’s biography.

In 1907, Bishop Francis Silas Marean Chatard had Mother Theodore Guérin’s body exhumed 51 years after her death. Bishop Chatard, a doctor who graduated from the University of Maryland Medical School in 1854, was surprised to find Mother Theodore’s brain intact. Three doctors, one of
them not Catholic, examined it, stating there was “no satisfactory scientific explanation to offer for this strange phenomenon.”

From there, Mother Theodore’s body was moved to the main cemetery at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Her body was again moved in 1958 to the crypt church, located under the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. This time her brain had disintegrated.

Renovation work on the church required Mother Theodore’s remains to be moved to its current location under the altar of the Virgin Mary inside the main church.

“I always said that Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin never rested in peace,” said Sister Marie Kevin. “She’s had four resting places.”

Mother Theodore began her journey to America by embarking from her beloved France to the Indiana frontier to start a new order and a school in response to Bishop Guillaume Gabriel Bruté’s request that was later fulfilled under Bishop Célestin de la Hailandière.

She arrived when stagecoaches were the main mode of transportation through primitive roads and letter writing was the primary means of communication. Mother Theodore was in missionary territory and found it “astonishing that this remote solitude has been chosen for a novitiate and especially for an academy. All appearances are against it,” she wrote.

Mother Theodore and her sisters had to survive persecution from those who did not like Catholics, a fire that destroyed all their food and cold winters in shanty housing. Casting their lot with Providence, the sisters persevered and Mother Theodore said that if they were to survive it would be established on the Cross, her only sign of hope.

What started with five nuns barely surviving the harshness of the Indiana frontier has grown to more than 550 sisters in ministries around the world.

Sister Marie Kevin is taking the attitude of her foundress by turning over her worries to God as she works to promote Mother Theodore’s cause for sainthood. Despite her hours of work, contacts across the world and travels across the state, she doesn’t know if she’ll ever see the fruit of her

“There is no way to know how it will end,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “That’s all in God’s hands.”

It wasn’t until 1992 that Mother Theodore received the title Venerable, which recognizes a virtuous life lived to a heroic degree. To be declared Venerable, the thousands of documents of Mother Theodore’s, from her letters to her journals and diaries, had to be examined by cardinals to ensure they contained nothing contradictory to the faith or morals of the Church.

In 1998, she was beatified in Rome, earning the title of Blessed. To be declared Blessed, one miracle was attributed to Mother Theodore’s intercession—Sister Theodosia Mug’s instantaneous
healing of cancer in 1908.

In honoring Mother Theodore with the title Blessed, the Church also has proclaimed that she has
characteristics of leading a holy life close to God that the faithful can emulate.

Before she can be canonized, a second miracle must be documented. In the realm of sainthood causes, Mother Theodore’s is “far along,” said Sister Marie Kevin. It’s taken only 90 years to get to its current point compared to the 700 years it took for St. Kunigunde, a medieval Polish princess who later became a Claretian nun, to be canonized.

With more than 2,000 beatifications and canonizations in line at the Vatican, Mother Theodore’s cause has been moving rapidly by Church standards. It might have moved faster if it hadn’t
been for two World Wars, the Great Depression and delays caused by not getting eyewitness
accounts and finding more of Mother Theodore’s letters in Holland that had been moved there for safe-keeping because of the wars.

The cost of promoting a cause to sainthood varies and includes travel expenses, document preparation, translation of documents and collecting testimonies, expert fees and printing costs.

According to a report by Catholic News Service, the average cost is $250,000. However, some causes may cost less or more depending on how long it takes and how many alleged cures are investigated before the required two miracles are validated, CNS reported.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes also has a fund for causes that originate
in poorer countries.

Although Sister Marie Kevin patiently explains the canonization process to visitors, what’s she’s most interested in is living Mother Theodore’s example of a strong faith.

Sister Marie Kevin likes to take visitors to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and tell them how Mother Theodore and her five sisters decided they would speak to no one until they had visited their Lord and thanked him for their safe journey after first arriving at what would become Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Touring the grounds, Sister Marie Kevin points out a boulder that marks the place where Mother Theodore first stepped out of the stagecoach.

“What was our astonishment to find ourselves still in the midst of a forest, no village not even a house in sight,” Mother Theodore wrote. “Our guide led us down into a ravine and we beheld through the trees a frame house.”

The ravine is still there, but now passes by Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto. The house Mother Theodore saw is long gone and is remembered with a simple stone marker.

The first church on the grounds was 13 feet by 15 feet with three planks forming a table for an altar that held the Blessed Sacrament. It was also the priest’s dwelling. Today, the Church of the Immaculate Conception raises its steeple to the sky.

More than 160 years after arriving in Indiana, people are still drawn to Mother Theodore’s story.

“Holiness is attractive,” said Sister Marie Kevin.

Because of the Second Vatican Council’s call for all people to be holy and Pope John’s common exhortation that all are called to be saints, Sister Marie Kevin is convinced of the “need for role models for holiness in today’s world.

“Today our public media often splatters our minds and our vision with what might be called the flip-side of holiness. For me, Blessed Mother Theodore’s life exemplifies all that is to be admired and imitated in Christian womanhood in our time … commitment to the mission of Jesus, courage in
the face of difficulties, compassionate love and a passion for justice,” she said.

As the sainthood cause progresses, Sister Marie Kevin is certain of only one thing: Mother Theodore always will be a good role model.

She also finds hope in the words of her foundress, especially those inscribed on Mother Theodore’s cemetery marker: “I sleep but my heart watches over this house which I have built.” †


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