October 27, 2000

From the Editor Emeritus / John Fink

Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin, Indiana missionary

Mother Theodore Guérin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, was born Anne-Therese Guérin in the village of Étables in Brittany, France, on Oct. 2, 1798, as the French Revolution was ending.

When she was 25, she joined the Sisters of Providence and chose Sister St. Theodore as her name in religion.

In 1838, Celestine de la Hailandière, soon to be bishop of Vincennes, arrived in France in search of a congregation of women willing to establish a mission in Indiana. Sister St. Theodore and five other sisters were chosen.

The journey took more than three months. Their ship was almost destroyed by severe storms. After arriving in New York, they traveled by train, stagecoach and steamboat to Indiana.

The bishop sent them on nonexistent roads through forests to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. They arrived on Oct. 22, 1840.

Their home was deep in the woods and Mother Theodore could only wonder how it would ever be possible to establish a novitiate and a school in this remote forest.

During the years that followed, the sisters had numerous trials. They suffered from hunger, sometimes going without food for days. They experienced the heat and humidity, and mosquitoes, of Indiana summers, and the cold and heavy snow of the winters. They planted crops and raised hogs and other animals on their farm, and were beginning to have a bit more to eat, when a
fire destroyed their barn and harvest.

Mother Theodore’s greatest problem from 1843 to 1847, though, concerned her relationship with Bishop de la Hailandière. 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.

The matter reached its climax in 1847 when Bishop de la Hailandière declared that Mother Theodore was no longer a Sister of Providence. He released her from her vows and demanded that she leave his diocese.

However, Mother Theodore wasn’t the only one who was having difficulties with Bishop de la Hailandière. Amid the turmoil in the diocese, he submitted his resignation.

The Vatican accepted it on July 16, 1847, and appointed John Stephen Bazin the Bishop of Vincennes. Both he and his successor, Bishop Jacques M. Maurice Landes d’Aussac de Saint-Palais, supported the sisters without interfering in their work.

Mother Theodore was then able to devote all her energies to building and nurturing her congregation, and establishing schools. Despite health problems that plagued her all of her life, she made visits by steamship and stagecoach to all the establishments, which included parish
schools in 10 cities in Indiana and one in Illinois.

In 1855, the community that began with six sisters 15 years before had increased to 60. The sisters were teaching 1,200 children. The sisters also operated two orphanages.

Mother Theodore died on May 14, 1856, at age 57. Pope John Paul II beatified her on Oct. 25, 1998. †


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