January 23, 2009

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

A journey of faith: Teacher travels to France to seek essence of St. Theodora

Madonna Paskash used an $8,000 Teacher Creativity Fellowship to study the life of St. Theodora Guérin so she could play the role for students at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington, where she teaches third-grade students. (Submitted photo)

Madonna Paskash used an $8,000 Teacher Creativity Fellowship to study the life of St. Theodora Guérin so she could play the role for students at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington, where she teaches third-grade students. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Even while everything possible seemed to go wrong, Madonna Paskash still believed she would eventually make it to the home of the woman who inspires her life.

Never mind that the Catholic school teacher from Bloomington hadn’t ever traveled outside the United States.

Never mind that she had just arrived in France, a country where she didn’t know the language.

Never mind that she kept getting lost as she drove to the small French town that was her destination—a journey that was supposed to take six hours and ended up taking 12—all day long.

Whenever she became frustrated during the trip, Paskash thought of the hardships that were faced by the woman who inspired her and this once-in-a-lifetime adventure—St. Theodora Guérin, the Sister of Providence who endured a three-month journey from France in 1840 and arrived in the Indiana wilderness with a dream of providing a Catholic education for children of all backgrounds.

“When she came to Indiana, she got plunked in the mud in the middle of the forest,” says Paskash, an assistant principal and a third-grade teacher at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington. “Yet she was so loving of everyone she met, and she had such a great faith in Providence. Making the trip to France was a real challenge for me. I thought it would give me a small sense of what she encountered because I didn’t know the language or the culture. It made me a stronger person.”

Paskash made the trip to France in the summer of 2008, thanks to an $8,000 Teacher Creativity Fellowship that she received from Lilly Endowment Inc. in Indianapolis. In applying for the grant, Paskash wanted to learn about the life of St. Theodora so she could give school performances as the Hoosier educational pioneer.

“I’ve always had a really close connection to the Sisters of Providence in a lot of ways,” Paskash says. “I graduated in 1974 from Ladywood-St. Agnes Academy in Indianapolis. The Sisters of Providence owned and ran that school. I felt they made a real difference in my life. They taught me how to think, not what to think. They taught me leadership and to have the courage of my convictions. I like to believe we pass those things along to our children at St. Charles.”

Since religious sisters haven’t taught at St. Charles for a long time, Paskash wanted to give the school’s students a sense of the historical significance of the Sisters of Providence, especially St. Theodora.

“I wrote my fellowship so I would spend six weeks of the summer studying her life,” she says. “I read several books about her. I visited and worked with sisters at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. I did storytelling workshops to get my skills better. I practiced and learned some basic French and worked on a French accent so I would sound like her.”

The Sisters of Providence were so thrilled by her interest that one of them, Sister Mary Loyola Bender, volunteered to create and sew a reproduction of a religious habit from 1840 for Paskash.

“She was 90 at the time,” Paskash says about Sister Mary. “She’s just a doll.”

The journey to France with her husband and their two children was the key part of her education about St. Theodora.

“I wanted to visit her birthplace, Etables, France,” Paskash says. “They still have the home where she was born. It’s been renovated so you can visit it. You can’t really take a bus or a train to Etables. I had to rent a vehicle in Paris. That was very challenging for me. I knew a few basic French phrases, but not many people there speak English and there weren’t many signs. I got lost a lot.”

Surviving those struggles added to her appreciation of finally visiting the home where St. Theodora spent her early years.

“I was amazed it was still there,” she recalls. “It gave me a real sense of what she was like as a person, what her life was like. They showed me where her garden was. They took me to the beautiful church where she would have gone to Mass. It was fun.”

The fun continued when she gave her first performance as St. Theodora at St. Charles Borromeo School on Oct. 2, the birthday of the saint.

“I dressed up in her habit and told her story to the children with her accent,” she says. “I felt it was an important thing to do for the children. Instead of reading them a book or telling them about her life, I wanted to give them a chance to see her. The children were very sweet. The little ones were in awe of me. The older ones had a lot of questions.”

The extra effort reflects the approach that Paskash has given during her 30 years as a teacher. Her time spent learning more about St. Theodora reflects the inspiration that the saint has had on her life.

“It has reinforced my faith,” Paskash says. “I try to stress to my students that faith isn’t waiting for God to make miracles in your life, it’s doing everything you possibly can and then giving it over to God to make things happen.

“St. Mother Theodore is such a great example of that. She was tireless in her efforts and never gave up. She believed in her heart that God would care for them. That fits my life as well. I try to live that every day. You need to pray every day. But I also try to do everything I can to live my faith every day.” †

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