St. Theodora Guerin

by Delores Riley

St. Theodora Guerin was born Anne-Therese Guerin on October 2, 1798, in the village of Etables-sur-Mer in Brittany, France. Her parents were Laurent Guerin, an officer in the French Navy under Napoleon Bonaparte, and Isabelle Guerin, née Lefebvre. Laurent and Isabelle had four children, but only two, Anne-Therese and Marie-Jeanne, survived to adulthood. Anne-Therese was mostly educated at home by her mother. At the age of 10, she was allowed to take her First Communion which was two years earlier than the custom of the time. On the day of her First Communion, she confided to the priest in Etables that she wished to enter a religious community.

When Anne-Therese was 15, tragedy struck the family when her father was killed by bandits as he travelled home to his family. The grief proved to be too much for her mother, who already had lost two children, and she fell into a deep and incapacitating depression. For many years, Anne-Therese accepted the responsibility of caring for her mother and sister, as well as the family’s home and garden. At the age of 20, Anne-Therese asked her mother’s blessing to join a religious order, but Isabelle, still unable to cope with her loss, refused. Five years later, Isabelle recognized the depth of Anne-Therese’s devotion and permitted her to leave. Anne-Therese entered the young congregation of the Sisters of Providence of Ruille-sur-Loir. She was given the religious name, Sister St. Theodore. She professed her first vows September 8, 1825, and perpetual vows, on September 5, 1831.

Sister St. Theodore was first sent to teach in central France. There, she became ill, most likely with smallpox and nearly died. The illness damaged her digestive system and for the rest of her life she could only eat a simple, bland diet. During her career in France, Sister St. Theodore also taught at parish schools in Rennes and taught and visited the sick and poor in Soulaines in the Diocese of Angers. During this time, she received a medal for her teaching from the inspector for the Academy of Angers.

In 1839 the Most Reverend Simon William Gabriel Brute, the first bishop of the vast Diocese of Vincennes, Indiana sent Celestine Guynemer de la Hailandiere as a representative to their native France. Bruté was in search of a religious congregation to come to the diocese in Indiana and teach, provide religious instruction, and assist the sick. With only a few priests and a great influx of Catholic immigrants of French, Irish and German descent, the diocese was in need of assistance. Bruté knew the great assistance a religious order could provide, having worked with Mother St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her Sisters of Charity during the founding and early years of Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmetsburg, Maryland.

While Hailandière was in France, Bishop Bruté died in Vincennes, and Hailandière was then consecrated bishop of the diocese. One of the first acts of the newly ordained bishop was to request the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir to send a group of sisters to minister in Vincennes, Indiana. The superior general of the Sisters of Providence suggested Sister St. Theodore for the task. Although unsure, after considerable discernment, Sister Theodore agreed to answer the American call. In July 1840, Sister St. Theodore and five companion sisters departed from France to sail to America. After a treacherous journey across the  Atlantic Ocean, the six women traveled by steamboat and stagecoach to the dense forest of the Indiana territory.

On October 22, 1840, Sister St. Theodore and her companions stepped from a carriage in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, a small village in Vigo County a few miles northwest of Terre Haute. For several months, they lived packed into the small frontier farmhouse of the local Thralls family along with a few postulants that had been waiting for them when they arrived. With the founding of this new order separate from that in France, Guerin became known as Mother Theodore, the superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Despite their humble resources, in July 1841 Guerin and the sisters opened St. Mary’s Academy for Young Ladies, which later became  Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Guerin had doubts concerning the success of the institution. In her journals she recorded, “It is astonishing that this remote solitude has been chosen for a novitiate and especially for an academy. All appearances are against it.” For more than a decade, from 1841 to 1852, this Academy was the only Catholic boarding school for girls in Indiana. In an attempt to help parishes establish schools for their children, Mother Theodore, from the time of her arrival at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1840 to January 1849, established parish schools at Jasper, St. Peter’s, Vincennes, Madison, Fort Wayne and Terre Haute, all in Indiana.

This woman, distinguished by her eminent virtues, 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 uniquely fitted to fill the duties which Providence assigned her. Not only her Sisters were bereaved by her death, but all those who knew her excellence and the amount of good she did, joined in lamenting her death and the fact that she had been removed from the sphere of her usefulness. A deep impression of the holiness of Mother Theodore remained in all who knew her and upon her death, seculars and religious alike pressed around her bier to touch their devotional objects to her precious remains. Many at once invoked her and favors were obtained that were attributed to her power with God. To judge from the celestial expression of her countenance as she lay in death, there is every reason to believe that she had already taken her abode among the Saints in Heaven, enjoying the munificence of God, who rewards His servants according to their works. Later generations have imbibed the same spirit of confidence in her and finally her cause was introduced at Rome. The Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods prayerfully awaited the Sainthood of their beloved Mother Foundress.

Foot note: Mother Theodore and her community persevered despite fires, crop failures, prejudice against Catholic women religious, misunderstandings and separation from their original religious congregation. She once told her sisters, “Have confidence in the Providence that so far has never failed us. The way is not yet clear. Grope along slowly. Do not press matters; be patient, be trustful.” Another time, she asked, “With Jesus, what shall we have to fear?”

During his homily on the occasion of her beatification in 1998, Pope John Paul II said that Blessed Mother Theodore “continues to teach Christians to abandon themselves to the providence of our heavenly Father and to be totally committed to doing what pleases him. The life of Blessed Theodore Guerin is a testimony that everything is possible with God and for God.” St. Theodore was canonized Oct. 15, 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI. She is buried in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. St. Theodore is Indiana’s first saint.

Note:  Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is a Roman Catholic, four-year liberal arts women’s college located in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, northwest of Terre Haute, between the Wabash River  and the Illinois state line and is the nation’s oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women.

Mother Theodore Guerin, Journals and Letters, 4th printing


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