St. Theodore Guerin, SP

(1798-1856)

Mother Theodore Guérin belongs to that little cluster of nuns who came from Europe to America in our country’s youth and pioneered here the Catholic faith, Catholic religious life, and Catholic education.

Anne-Thérèse Guérin, like several of these trail-blazing religious women, came from France. She was born in Etaples, Brittany, on October 2, 1798, to parents noted for their integrity and devotion. She owed her early education and formation largely to her cousin, a seminarian who spent several years hiding in her home after the French Revolution shut down his seminary and scattered its students.

At age ten Anne-Thérèse decided to embrace a religious life. Her purpose was long postponed, however, because her father’s death left the family impoverished, and her mother’s invalidism demanded her own prolonged attention. Not until she was 25, in 1823, was she finally able to enter the Community of the Sisters of Providence at Pouille-sur-Loire. She took her first vows the following year.

Sister Theodore’s instinct for the religious life and a teaching career quickly proved to have been correct. Appointed superior of the convent at Rennes as her first assignment, she developed there not only her managerial skills but also her mathematical talents, which were great. Eight years later she was transferred to Soulaines as superior. The French government was by now more friendly to religious, and it bestowed on Sister Theodore a decoration in public recognition of her educational efforts.

In the 1830s, a voice from America called Anne-Thérèse to Indiana. The bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, Simon Brute de Remur, himself a native of France, sought the Sisters of Providence as missionaries to Indiana. His successor, Bishop Celestin de la Hailandière, completed the negotiations. The Sisters of Providence saw the invitation as providing growth to their community and giving them an opportunity to expand Christian education. The American foundation was to be independent of the French community. Mother Theodore was to head the undertaking.

The highly qualified foundress and her five companions arrived at St. Mary of the Woods on October 22, 1840. It had been no easy task for them to sever all ties to family and homeland. The journey itself was incredibly difficult, and Saint Mary of the Woods was more name than place. Yet despite the problems, Mother Guérin was able to open, after a few months, a boarding school for young girls, the first such school in Indiana, (out of it evolved the present College of Our Lady-of-the-Woods.) Before her death she established 10 other schools throughout Indiana. Thanks to this impetus, the work of the Sisters of Providence later spread into other states, and in 1920 the work was carried to China. The novitiate set up by the foundress in Indiana still provides the training of the Sisters.

What prompted the Church to consider Mother Theodore a woman of heroic sanctity, deserving to be ranked as “saint”?

I have a hunch that God picks as American saints people calculated to appeal to the American mentality.

Saints allotted to other countries may be mystics, visionaries, recipients of such charismatic gifts as prophecy, miracle-working, stigmatization, etc. While these graces cannot be excluded even here, holy American persons seem to win praise more by their heroic efforts to serve God in their neighbor. This, I think, is why Mother Teresa of Calcutta, while not an American, was hailed by Americans of every belief as a saint: her total philanthropy.

Mother Guérin accepted whatever came along in the work to which she was called, and carried through, come rain, come shine, in the strength of her intimate reliance on God. There were many “rainy days” in her task as foundress. The harsh challenge of the frontier. The shortage of food and necessities for her Sisters. The endless other contradictions of everyday life. And added to these was the antagonism of non-Catholic Hoosiers in those Anti-Catholic days, when there was a constant fear that enemies would burn down their convent, perhaps with all its residents inside, as had been threatened elsewhere in the “free” but often bigoted United States. There were also problems within the religious community itself: the defection of some of its members; the death of others; misunderstandings; the defamation of the Order itself (for seven years on the point of collapsing). Most grievous of all the trials was the opposition of Bishop Hailandière. He sought to tamper with the rule of the Order, and when the Superior withstood him, he excommunicated her! The excommunication was brief, for the Bishop himself soon retired to France, and his successor promptly lifted the ban. All along she had maintained a serenity that could have been explained only by heroic faith, hope and charity. What an example she set for her nuns!

When Pope John Paul II beatified this remarkable religious in Rome on October 25, 1998, he gave a Christian model not only to the Hoosiers (Indianans) but to all Americans who appreciate greatness of character. Pope Benedict XVI canonized Mother Theodore on October 15, 2006.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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