The sisters and their helpers had toiled all year to create a bountiful harvest. Less than two years into their effort to establish a foothold in the Indiana wilderness, they stowed their precious grains and other foodstuffs in their new barn, which was also a product of their labor. It was October 2, 1842, the birthday of Mother Theodore, and she was visiting with one of the sisters in their nearby convent when the cries went up: “Fire! Fire!”
The sisters and the children boarding at their school tried to combat the flames, but their cause was hopeless. By the time enough local farmers arrived to help, the granary was in ruins. Mother Theodore surveyed the devastation and said in a low voice, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.”
This story exhibits the resignation to Providence that characterized the extraordinary life of Mother Theodore Guérin. Born Anne-Thérèse Guérin in Brittany in 1798, her father was killed when she was fourteen years old and her mother fell into a deep depression. Anne-Thérèse took responsibility for the family, including a sister; she abandoned her own education and served as a nurse for her mother. After ten years of waiting to fulfill the desire of her heart, she finally secured her mother’s permission to answer God’s call to religious life. She joined a young, local congregation of women religious, the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir, taking the name Theodore. She began working as a teacher.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Throughout the 1800s many native French served as missionaries and bishops in the United States. Because the Catholic community in the U.S. lacked both financial and personnel resources, these priests and bishops commonly sent letters or made personal visits to the Old Country to raise money and to recruit seminarians, priests, and sisters. During one such trip in 1839, Father Celestine de la Hailandière, acting on behalf of Bishop Simon Bruté of the Diocese of Vincennes, invited the Sisters of Providence to come and found a school in the remote forests of western Indiana. There were few educational institutions on the frontier, and the children of settlers often went without schooling. There was plenty of work to keep a community of sisters busy.
The mother superior asked Sister Theodore to lead a group consisting of six women. Stunned by the proposal of traveling across the world, she nonetheless saw it as the will of God and consented. The six sisters embarked at Le Havre, France in July 1840. None of them had ever been to America, and none of them spoke English.
Their journey from the convent of Ruillé to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana took 102 days. When they arrived in New York, a miscommunication between the bishop of Vincennes and his assistants in the City resulted in no one being present to meet them. They stayed the first night on board the sailing vessel that had brought them, not knowing what lay ahead.
Finally on their way to the frontier, they took a train—none of the sisters had ever seen one—from New York to Philadelphia at the breakneck speed of 20 miles per hour. From Philadelphia they moved on to Baltimore, whence they caught a stagecoach to Wheeling over the National Road. Next was a riverboat on the Ohio down to Cincinnati where they had Mass with Bishop John Purcell. It was in Cincinnati that Mother Theodore began recording her concerns about the state of the American church. Although the peasants of the French countryside were poor, the architectural assets of the Church were plentiful. The churches and cathedrals of France were grand affairs, and clergy and other consecrated religious were enjoying a renaissance under the normalization of church-state relations that followed the turmoil of the Revolution.
The situation in the United States was rather different. Mother Theodore was surprised by the mediocrity of the edifice that served as the cathedral of Cincinnati. She had never before seen a church as humble and plain. And this was a cathedral!
Still, the experience in Cincinnati failed to prepare the sisters for Vincennes. When Mother Theodore beheld the cathedral there—a half-finished brick structure with broken windows, a worm-infested wood altar and railing, and a crumbling steeple—she broke down in tears.
But the sisters’ journey was not yet complete. Vincennes at least could be considered part of the civilized world. They were on their way into the woods. By wagon and ferry they made their way to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, a little settlement so named a few years earlier by Bishop Bruté. The pastor lived in a one-room log cabin that doubled as the parish church, and the sisters’ first convent would be the attic of a family’s (occupied) farmhouse. In her journal, Mother Theodore wrote, “It is astonishing that this remote solitude has been chosen for a novitiate and especially for an academy. All appearances are against it.”
But, as she did time and time again, Mother Theodore accepted the will of the Providence to Whom her order was dedicated. Before a year had passed, St. Mary’s Academy for Young Ladies was open for business. It would develop into Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the oldest Catholic institution of higher education for women in the United States.
Not all of the challenges that Mother Theodore and her sisters faced were a function of the rough, frontier environment. As is too often the case, this holy woman suffered from persecution within her own Church. Bishop Bruté had died while Hailandière was still in Europe recruiting for the Diocese of Vincennes, and Hailandière succeed him as bishop. Although Hailandière had himself urged the Sisters of Providence to come to Indiana, he proved to be a difficult spiritual father. Mother Theodore wrestled with him on a number of occasions, most of them related to financial matters and the governance of the Sisters of Providence. Innocent miscommunication and the normal tension between two strong personalities may explain some of the conflict, but it seems clear that the bulk of the blame deserves to be laid at the feet of Bishop Hailandière, who exhibited a disconcerting combination of obstinacy and unpredictability.
The years-long battle of wills culminated in a bizarre epsisode wherein the bishop not only relieved Mother Theodore of her position as superior, but removed her from the congregation altogether and denied her the right to communicate in any way with her religious sisters. Shortly thereafter, Hailandière resigned and Rome replaced him with a more nurturing shepherd. Mother Theodore’s restraint through the entire affair was remarkable. She wrote sparingly about the strife with her bishop and apparently said very little about it to anyone around her. She managed to walk a fine line, demonstrating unfailing respect and obedience toward her bishop, yet offering staunch resistance on points that she believed to be essential to the welfare of her community of sisters—the family for whom she had primary responsibility.
Under Mother Theodore’s leadership, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods thrived. They established schools in Vincennes, Terre Haute, Ft. Wayne, and elsewhere, often providing the best—and sometimes the only—education available to the region’s families. By the time she died, May 14, 1856, the nucleus of six had grown to 67 professed sisters plus 16 novices and postulants. Frequently sick, she had done well to survive more than fifteen years of hard work and harsh conditions. The Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati printed an effusive obituary that described her as a woman “distinguished by her eminent virtues,” who had “governed the community of which she was the superior from its commencement, to the time of her death, a period of nearly sixteen years. Being a perfect religious herself, and endowed with mental qualities of a high order, she was peculiarly fitted to fill the duties which Providence assigned her.”
In 2006, Pope Benedict canonized this “Hoosier Pioneer,” the official designation granted by the Indiana Historical Society for her contributions to the development of the state. St. Theodore Guérin’s feast day is October 3.
The author gratefully acknowledges the outstanding research presented in Katherine Burton, The Eighth American Saint (Skokie, Ill.: Acta Publications, 2007; originally published as A Life of Substance, Herder and Herder, 1959).