September 29, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Mother Theodore’s conflict with the bishop

(Fourth of five columns)

After Mother Theodore Guérin established the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the Woods, Ind., they were often desperate to keep their convent and schools solvent.

They were short of money, and Bishop Celestine de la Hailandiere of Vincennes—who recruited the sisters to come here from France—refused to support them. He suggested that Mother Theodore go back to France to raise money for the community.

In 1843, she did return to France and was gone for 11 months. She was successful in raising money, and also in clarifying the relationship between the sisters in the United States and those in France.

Mother Theodore’s return trip to Indiana was nearly as difficult as her first journey there. Her ship again experienced bad weather, and she was ill when she reached New Orleans. Her health continued to be very frail.

Mother Theodore’s greatest problem from 1843 to 1847, though, concerned her relationship with Bishop de la Hailandiere. Even before she left for France, it was clear that the bishop believed that he possessed total control over the Sisters of Providence, despite what the community’s rule said. Mother Theodore often had to oppose his decisions as they affected her community, always doing so as respectfully as possible.

While she was in France, Bishop de la Hailandiere took over the community. He admitted novices to vows, closed the school the sisters had established in St. Francis-ville, Ill., received three nuns from another community, opened a new establishment, and called for the election of a new superior—all without input from the sisters and contrary to the community’s rule. He hoped that the sisters would elect a different superior, but they re-elected Mother Theodore.

After her return, Mother Theodore’s meetings with Bishop de la Hailandiere grew more and more contentious, often lasting for hours. Sometimes the bishop berated her for her leadership of the community, and other times he insisted that he did not want to be involved in the affairs of the community.

The diocese still owned the property at St. Mary-of-the-Woods and, at times, the bishop would promise to give it to the sisters and other times would refuse to do so. He insisted on an “Act of Reparation” from the sisters because he believed that they had spoken out against him to his superiors.

The matter reached its climax on May 20, 1847. After visiting her establishments, which by then were scattered from one end of Indiana to the other, Mother Theodore went to meet with Bishop Hailandiere. During that meeting, the bishop insisted that Mother Theodore agree to everything he proposed and then left the room, locking the door as he left.

That night, when two sisters arrived to see where Mother Theodore was, Bishop Hailandiere released her, but then declared to her and the sisters that Mother Theodore was no longer the superior.

Furthermore, he said, she was no longer a Sister of Providence. He demanded that she leave his diocese and forbade her to return to St. Mary-of-the-Woods. †

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