Saints for Our Times: St. Théodore left France for the Indiana frontier

This sculpture of St. Théodore Guérin sits on the grounds of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana. (Photo courtesy Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods)

By Mary Lou Gibson
Columnist

Most young women have only a vague idea of what they want to do with their life. But some are like Anne-Thérèse Guérin who knew at a young age that she wanted to be a nun. She announced this to her parish priest in Etables, France, after she received her first Holy Communion in 1808 at the age of 10.
However, it would be several years before she could realize her vocation. When she was 15, her father, Laurent, was killed by bandits as he traveled home, and Anne-Thérèse had to care for her mother and young sister. Finally, when she was almost 25, she entered the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir, taking the name Sister Théodore.
Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that when Sister Théodore was in the novitiate, she suffered from an illness that severely damaged her digestive system and left her physically frail for life. Nevertheless, she taught at various schools for the next several years and also studied medicine and cared for the sick poor. 
In 1839, a request came to the Sisters from Bishop Simon Bruté of the Diocese of Vincennes in the state of Indiana. He asked for a small band of sisters to come to the Indiana territory to start a school and a convent. Sister Théodore was asked to lead this missionary band. She demurred at first because she could not imagine that she was suitable either mentally or physically for such a mission, but eventually she accepted. 
When she and five sisters landed in New York in the fall of 1840, they were expecting to be met by Bishop Bruté, but he was not there. Sarah Gallick writes tin “The Big Book of Women Saints” that the sisters eventually got help from strangers and the local clergy and traveled to Indiana via train, steamboat and wagons. 
Sister Théodore and her sisters soon built a log chapel in the forest near Terre Haute and a year later, they opened Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Academy for young girls. The sisters began learning English and struggled to adapt to a new culture.
Those first few years in Indiana were difficult. The sisters faced poverty, fires, prejudice against Catholics from local Protestants and especially against Catholic women religious. Mother Théodore always advised, “Put yourself gently into the hands of Providence.”
In 1843, Mother Théodore negotiated independence from her French congregation and formed the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods. She had to return to France for about a year to oversee this process. 
While she was gone, Bishop Célestine Guynemer de la Hailandiére began to implement some decisions that affected the community. According to John Fink (St. Anthony Messenger Magazine, November 2006), Bishop Hailandiére admitted novices to vows, closed the school at St. Francisville, and opened a new establishment –– all without input from the community and contrary to their Rule. 
The matter reached a crisis in 1847, when he declared that Mother Théodore was no longer the superior. There were others in the diocese who were also having difficulties with the bishop. Help finally came from the Vatican when Bishop Hailandiére submitted his resignation and it was accepted.
The new bishop, John Stephen Bazin, brought peace and harmony to the diocese and gave Mother Théodore a valid deed to the property at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Fink writes that Mother Théodore was then able to devote all her energies to building and nurturing her congregation and establishing schools. By 1855, the community had 60 sisters teaching 1,200 children and operating two orphanages.
Mother Théodore’s final illness began in Holy Week of March 1856 and she died on May 14. She is buried in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1998, and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Her feast day is Oct. 3.
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College presently enrolls about 1,700 students and the college became fully co-educational in 2015.