CNS PHOTO/COURTESY OF THE SISTERS OF PROVIDENCE
SIX NUNS AND A PRIEST—Father
Stanislaus Buteux—were traveling
on a stagecoach through thick
forests on a nonexistent road on
October 22, 1840. The coach had
already overturned once in a deep
mud hole, throwing the passengers
out. At another point, they had crossed the Wabash
River, which was so deep the horses were swimming.
“Suddenly,” one of the nuns later recorded,
“Father Buteux stopped the carriage and said, ‘Come
down, sisters, we have arrived.’ What was our astonishment
to find ourselves still in the midst of the
forest, no village, not even a house in sight.”
Father Buteux led them down into a ravine from
which they could see a frame house and some
sheds on the other side. This was to be their home,
deep in the woods of western Indiana. The sisters
wondered how it would ever be possible to establish
a novitiate and a school in this remote forest.
That, though, was their plan.
The nun who recorded their arrival was Mother
Theodore Guérin, who was canonized on October
15 of this year as St. Theodora. She and the other
five Sisters of Providence had already experienced
a harrowing trip from France. The journey had
taken more than three months. Their ship was
almost destroyed several times by a hurricane and
other severe storms.
Mother Theodore’s diary described the feeling of
“passing the night in the bottom of a vessel, hearing
continually the dreadful creaking which makes
one fear that it will split open.” After another
storm, she wrote, “Nothing was heard on board but
screams and lamentations.”
Finally reaching New York on September 4, 1840,
she wrote, “We threw ourselves on our knees with
hearts full of gratitude.” But their problems weren’t
over yet. The sisters had expected a representative
of Bishop Celestine de la Hailandière of Vincennes,
Indiana, to meet the ship when it docked, but there
was no one.
None of the sisters could speak English and they
had no idea how to get to Indiana. A doctor who
boarded the ship with customs officials took pity
on them and contacted the bishop of New York
about their plight.
The next day they were taken to Brooklyn where
they stayed with a woman accustomed to caring for
missionaries. A man who spoke French accompanied
them to Philadelphia, where they stayed with
the Sisters of Charity. There they accompanied a
French priest who was going to Vincennes.
They traveled by train, stagecoach and steamboat
and finally reached Madison, Indiana. There they
met Bishop Celestine de la Hailandière, who told
them that they were to be settled on land northwest
of Terre Haute.
Another steamboat took
them to Evansville, Indiana,
and then a stagecoach to Vincennes.
That’s where they met
Father Buteux, assigned as their
chaplain, who accompanied
them the rest of the way.
Four postulants (candidates)
were waiting for the sisters when they
arrived. The sisters began studying English,
and Mother Theodore started to
instruct the postulants in the way of
Thus began the community of the
Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Mother Theodore was born Anne-Thérèse Guérin in the village of Etables
in Brittany, France, on October 2,
1798, as the French Revolution was
drawing to a close. She was the second
child and first daughter of Laurent and
Isabelle Lefevre Guérin.
Two more children would be born to
the family but two of them—the firstborn
son and the fourth child, also a
son—died very young. Anne-Thérèse
and her younger sister, Marie-Jeanne,
Laurent was an officer in the French
Navy and was away from home most of
the time, leaving Isabelle to care for
the children. Since it was dangerous in
those days to practice their religion
openly, Isabelle taught her daughters
reading and catechism at home. Anne-Thérèse, however, attended a small
school in Etables for a short time and
was taught by a former seminarian who
lived with the Guérin family for several
She became a devout young girl and
her spiritual development was so sufficient
that she was permitted to receive
her First Communion when she was
10—two years earlier than normal in
When Anne-Thérèse was 15, her
father was murdered. This was more
than Isabelle could take. The intensity
of her grief incapacitated her so much
that her eldest daughter had to
assume the responsibility of
caring for herself and for
Marie-Jeanne. In time, Anne-Thérèse worked as a seamstress
to support the family.
When she was 20, Anne-Thérèse asked her mother for
permission to join a religious order.
Isabelle refused. She could not lose her
daughter, too! It was another five years
before Isabelle recovered from her grief
enough to give her daughter permission
to follow her vocation.
Anne-Thérèse chose the Sisters of
Providence, a new order in France
founded by Father Jacques-Francois
Dujarié. The French Revolution was
over, but few priests remained in France
and the people were suffering from the
effects of the revolution. His religious
order would be devoted to teaching
and working among the poor.
Anne-Thérèse entered the Sisters of
Providence novitiate at Ruille on August
18, 1823, professed her first vows on
September 8, 1825, and her perpetual
vows on September 5, 1831.
Rough Roads Ahead
In 1825, while Anne-Thérèse was still a
novice, Mother Mary Lecor, the order’s
superior, sent her to teach at Preuilly-sur-Claise. While she was there, she
contracted a serious illness. In curing
the sickness, the doctors damaged her
digestive system to such an extent that
afterward she could eat only a simple,
After she professed first vows, Sister
Theodore was named superior of the sisters’
establishment in the parish of St.
Aubin in a town called Rennes. She was
there for eight years during which she
honed her skills at teaching young girls.
In 1834, Sister Theodore was transferred
to Soulanis in the Diocese of
Angers, where she was again superior of
In 1838, Father Hailandière arrived in
Rennes in search of a congregation of
women willing to establish a mission in
Indiana. Father Hailandière was a native
of Rennes who had been persuaded by
Bishop Simon Gabriel Bruté of Vincennes,
Indiana, to become his vicar
general in 1835.
The Diocese of Vincennes included
the state of Indiana and the eastern
part of Illinois—330 miles long and
just as wide—with about 50,000
Catholics amid a population of about
When Bishop Bruté was looking for
priests, Father Hailandière was one of 20
who answered the call. He returned to
France in search of sisters in 1838.
Bishop Bruté died in 1839 and Father
Hailandière was consecrated bishop of
Vincennes in Paris on August 18 of that
year. When Bishop Hailandière spoke of
the need for sisters in the United States,
Mother Mary agreed to ask for volunteers
to go to Indiana. Although Mother
Theodore seemed to be the logical person
to lead the group, she did not volunteer.
But Mother Mary encouraged
her to think about it.
Mother Theodore had never had any
dreams of being a missionary. She
feared that her fragile health might
hinder the mission, and she didn’t feel
capable of leading it.
After long hours of prayer and reflection,
Mother Theodore agreed to go.
She had, after all, taken a vow of obedience,
and the rule of the congregation
stated that “sisters will be disposed to
go to whatsoever part of the world obedience
After the sisters’ miserable trip to the
forests of Indiana, Mother Theodore
began the task of instructing her postulants.
On Christmas night in 1840,
though, she became critically ill, suffering
from fever, severe headaches and
periods of unconsciousness. The illness
continued for almost two months.
After she recovered to some extent,
Mother Theodore began to plan her
academy for girls that would eventually
become Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
By July of 1841, 10 young women were studying there. The following
March the sisters
opened a school in Jasper, Indiana,
and in October 1842 two
sisters were sent to St. Francisville,
During the years that followed, the
sisters faced numerous trials. They suffered
from hunger, sometimes going
without food for days. They experienced
the heat, humidity and mosquitoes
of Indiana summers and the heavy
snows of winters. They planted crops
and raised hogs and other animals
on their farm. Once they
suffered a fire that destroyed
their barn and harvest.
The sisters were also short
of money, and Bishop Hailandière
refused to support
them. He suggested that
Mother Theodore go back to
France to raise money for the
community. In 1843, she
returned to France and was
gone for 11 months. She was
successful in raising money
and in solidifying the relationship
between the sisters
in the United States and those
Mother Theodore’s return
trip to Indiana was nearly as
difficult as her first journey there. Her
ship again experienced bad weather
and she was ill when she reached
New Orleans. Her health continued to
Battles With a Bishop
Mother Theodore’s greatest problem
from 1843 to 1847, however, concerned
her relationship with Bishop Hailandière.
Even before she left for France,
it was clear that the bishop believed
he possessed total control over the Sisters
of Providence, despite what the
community’s Rule stated. Mother
Theodore often had to oppose his decisions
as they affected her community.
While she was in France, Bishop
Hailandière took over the community.
He admitted novices
to vows, closed the school at
St. Francisville, received three
nuns from another community,
opened a new establishment
and called for the
election of a new superior—all without input from the sisters and
contrary to the community’s Rule. He
hoped that the sisters would elect a
different superior, but they reelected
After her return, Mother Theodore’s
meetings with Bishop Hailandière grew
more and more contentious, often lasting
for hours. Sometimes the bishop
berated her for her leadership of the
community and other times he insisted
that he did not want to be involved in
The diocese still owned the property
at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. At times
the bishop would promise to give it to
the sisters and other times he would
refuse to do so. He insisted on an “Act
of Reparation” from the sisters because
he believed they had spoken out against
him to his superiors.
The matter reached a crisis in 1847.
Bishop Hailandière declared that
Mother Theodore was no longer the
superior. Furthermore, she was no
longer a Sister of Providence. He
released her from her vows and
demanded that she leave his diocese.
Help From High Places
It was at this point that the Vatican
came to the rescue of Mother Theodore,
who wasn’t the only one having difficulties
with Bishop Hailandière. So were
many of the diocesan and religious
order priests. Holy Cross Father Edward
Sorin, for example, also had been
recruited from France. After a year of
living in Vincennes, he wrote to his
superior in France that he was determined
to put as much distance
as possible between
Bishop Hailandière and himself.
He located land at an
unmanned old Indian mission
near South Bend and
there established the University
of Notre Dame.
Amid the turmoil in the
diocese, Bishop Hailandière
submitted his resignation to
the Vatican. The Vatican accepted
his resignation in 1847
and appointed John Stephen
Bazin the bishop of Vincennes.
returned to France, where he
lived another 35 years before
his death in 1882.
Bishop Bazin was consecrated
bishop of the diocese on October
24, and one of his first acts was to
deliver a valid deed to the property at
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to Mother
Bishop Bazin was able to restore
peace and harmony to the Diocese of
Vincennes. But he died only six months
after his consecration. Seven months
later, Jacques M. Maurice Landes d’Aussac
de Saint-Palais was named bishop of
Vincennes and he, too, supported the
sisters without interfering in their work.
After discovering the pitiful condition
of the building used as the motherhouse,
he promised financial
assistance so the sisters could erect a
new building. A three-story brick structure with a basement was built, and
the sisters occupied it in 1853.
Mother Theodore was finally able to
devote all her energies to building and
nurturing her congregation and establishing
schools. She made annual visits
by steamship and stagecoach to all
the community’s foundations, which
included parish schools in 10 cities in
Indiana and one in Illinois.
In 1855, the community that began
with six sisters 15 years earlier had
increased to 60. The sisters were teaching
1,200 children and operating two
orphanages. Between visits to each
house, she kept up a large correspondence
with the sisters there.
But Mother Theodore’s health continued
to worsen. She died during the
early morning hours of May 14, 1856,
at the age of 57.
Now Ministries in 20 States
Since 1840, 5,239 women have entered
the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence
of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Today there are 465 sisters.
The sisters still sponsor Saint Mary-of-
the-Woods College, the country’s
oldest Catholic liberal arts college for
women. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College
boasts an enrollment of approximately
1,700 students in campus-based,
undergraduate distance-learning and
graduate programs, according to its
Web site, www.smwc.edu.
The Sisters of Providence also have
touched tens of thousands of lives
through their various ministries in 20
states, the District of Columbia, Taiwan
A statue of Mother Theodore is currently
being sculpted. When it is completed,
it will be placed in the garden
outside the Basilica of the National
Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
in Washington, D.C.
St. Theodora: The Legacy of a Miracle Worker
MOTHER THEODORE GUÉRIN, recently
canonized as St. Theodora, became the
United States’ eighth
saint on October 15.
The others are: Jesuit
Fathers Isaac Jogues and René Goupil (the
six other North American Martyrs died in
Canada), Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann,
Rose Philippine Duchesne, Frances
Xavier Cabrini and Katharine Drexel.
Mother Theodore was declared blessed
on October 25, 1998, after Pope John
Paul II accepted the healing of Providence
Sister Mary Theodosia Mug—through
the intercession of Mother Theodore—as a miracle. In April of this year, Pope
Benedict XVI accepted the healing of
Philip McCord as the second miracle
required before canonization.
Sister Theodosia Mug’s healing occurred
in 1908. When she was 46, she was diagnosed
with breast cancer and had a mastectomy that damaged
nerves and muscles on her left side, leaving her arm
rigid. The cancer then spread to her abdomen. She could no
longer kneel, had to eat standing and walked with difficulty.
One night Sister Theodosia prayed at the vault where
Mother Theodore’s remains reposed.
When she awoke the next morning, her
left arm was well again and the large
abdominal tumor had disappeared. No
trace of malignancy was ever again found.
Sister Theodosia died in 1943 at age 82.
Philip McCord, a Protestant, has been
director of facilities management for the
Sisters of Providence since 1997. In 2001,
an eye specialist recommended that he
have cornea transplant surgery on his
right eye since he could not see out of it.
While considering whether or not to have
the surgery, he said a prayer to Mother
The following day, McCord realized
that the heaviness he had felt around his
eye had disappeared. The next time he
had his eye examined, the specialist told him that he no
longer needed the cornea transplant surgery. Today McCord
has 20/20 vision in both eyes.
Medical and theological commissions
of the Holy See’s Congregation for the
Causes of Saints determined that there
was no natural explanation for either
healing and that they happened after
the two prayed to Mother Theodore.
This opened the way for the congregation
to recommend Mother Theodore’s
Last July, in an announcement to an
assembly of sisters at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Sister Margaret O’Hara, the congregation’s
general superior, stressed
the universality of Mother Theodore’s
“This is a momentous time in our Congregation’s
history, but it also is a time
that is to be shared with people throughout
Indiana, throughout the United States and throughout
the world,” she said.
“This is the highest honor the Catholic Church can
bestow on a person, but it is not just for Catholics. The canonization
is something people of all faiths can share by
recognizing the way Mother Theodore
lived her life.”
At the gathering, Philip McCord
expressed hope that his healing will help
spread the word of America’s newest saint.
“I hope people will take a look at this
healing and use it as a reason to look at
Mother Theodore’s life, what she accomplished
and what she continues to accomplish,
and to look at what the sisters stand
for and what they do,” he said.
Sister Ann Margaret, present at the
assembly, praised the saint for a legacy
that lives today. “Mother Theodore was
available to and caring about all people
regardless of their faith or their beliefs. By
serving others, she was serving the Jesus
to whom she had given her life.”
Author and journalist John F. Fink is editor emeritus
of The Criterion, the newspaper of the Archdiocese
of Indianapolis. One of his books, American Saints
(Alba House), includes a chapter about St. Mother