February 12, 2021

Learn from Mother Theodore when it comes to facing challenges

A display at the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in St. Mary-of-the-Woods cites one of her quotes that not only applies to educators, but also to anyone dealing with a difficult relationship. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A display at the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in St. Mary-of-the-Woods cites one of her quotes that not only applies to educators, but also to anyone dealing with a difficult relationship. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Call it the “new normal” or call it “unprecedented.” Either way, whether due to the COVID-19 pandemic or social and political change, life in the last few years has brought new challenges to most—if not all—Catholics in central and southern Indiana.

Fortunately, there is a source to turn to for wise guidance in facing such challenges. A local source. A holy source.

Her name is Mother Theodore Guérin—now St. Theodora—founder of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute.

If anyone can relate to challenges, it is Mother Theodore.

And if there is a profound example in how to face struggles, even contemporary ones, it is St. Theodora.

Such was the topic of a virtual session called “Facing Challenges with St. Mother Theodore Guérin” on Feb. 4. It was led by several Sisters of Providence and Providence Associates.

“We have so much to learn from her in her ability to go beyond her hurt and anger,” said Providence Sister Jan Craven during her presentation.

‘Mother Theodore stood almost alone’

“I think it’s important to understand she had a lot of suffering before she came” to Indiana in 1840 at the age of 42 to start a mission to educate pioneer children, Sister Jan noted.

As a young girl, Anne-Therese Guérin experienced the loss of two brothers and her father.

She became Sister St. Theodore after taking vows with the Sisters of Providence in Ruille, France. There, she “formed a close bond and significant friendship” with the general superior, Mother Mary LeCoeur, said Providence Sister Denise Wilkinson during the session.

But a misunderstanding led to Mother Mary withdrawing her friendship from Sister St. Theodore.

“At times” the rupture in their friendship “almost crushed” the young woman, said Sister Denise, reading from a history of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. “And its duration made it more poignant, as Mother Mary’s opinion changed after several years. All during her early trials in America, Mother Theodore stood almost alone.”

There were many such “early trials” in Indiana for the saint-to-be. Citing a volume on the local congregation’s history, Sister Jan spoke of Mother Theodore’s anxiety “about the future of the community for all kinds of reasons. She was distressed at the prejudice she felt from the people, she felt isolated from France and Mother Mary, [who] wouldn’t answer her letters for months.”

And then there was the “displeasure of the bishop,” said Sister Jan. His disagreements with, lack of support of and disrespect for Mother Theodore were so great that at one point he locked her in a room for the day and excommunicated her from the congregation she founded.

Despite the treatment she’d been shown, when the bishop released her from the room, “she kissed his ring and bowed and showed him great respect, even though she disagreed with him,” said Sister Jan.

There were non-relationship challenges St. Theodora faced as well. Providence Associate Helen Flavin spoke of a devastating fire that destroyed the community in October 1842.

“The small community was just beginning to feel they had a chance to succeed,” she said. “They had pupils, and they had a good harvest” stored in their barns for the upcoming winter.

A fire set by an arsonist destroyed everything, said Flavin—“the barn, the harvest, all the farming implements.”

By this point, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was a separated congregation from the one in Ruille. Mother Theodore had to seek funds to restore the community on her own.

So many challenges—yet the future saint did more than persevere.

“Mother Theodore’s life illustrates the peace and joy of walking with God, who says, ‘I will hold you by the hand and watch over you,’ ” said Flavin, quoting Isaiah 42:6.

“Mother Theodore can inform our lives. She walked with Divine Providence. She showed in life that, though it seems we’re walking in the dark, we are moving forward, fully participating in God’s plan for our lives.”

Flavin noted that life’s challenges offer an opportunity to “turn away, or to keep walking and trusting in God. Mother Theodore shared the peace and joy she found in trusting in Providence.

“Remember what Mother Theodore said: ‘We are not called upon to do all the good that is possible, but only to that which we can do.’ ”

As the daughter of immigrants, Providence Sister Jessica Vitente related to the “courage and confidence” it took for the saint to move to a foreign country with a different culture and language.

Noting the “social justice issues that have resurfaced and reopened wounds,” Sister Jessica said she finds in Mother Theodore “inspiration in how she always got back up.”

She cited several quotes from St. Theodora from which she draws inspiration:

“Have confidence in 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.”

“If you lean with all your weight upon Providence, you will find yourself well-supported.”

“You will see many things in new light if you give the Holy Spirit free access to your mind and your heart.”

Sister Denise finds wisdom to handle difficult relationships from Mother Theodore’s quotes regarding education: “A teacher accomplishes more by an act of kindness than by an act of harshness” and “Love the children first, and then teach them.”

“Those were her key to winning hearts and minds,” she said, whether of students and parents or of other relationships.

Sister Gill Quigley, a member of the congregation of Sisters of Providence in Ruille, joined the discussion from London, where it was midnight when the Zoom session began.

She noted the connection between “the struggles that happened many years ago, and then the struggles that we have in the world today.”

Whether then or now, she said, perseverance can be found by “trusting in Providence, leaning right into Providence.”

Michele Ashby, a member of St. John Paul II Parish in Sellersburg, was also one of more than 40 participants who joined the Zoom session. She found comfort in how St. Theodora persevered in overcoming “huge obstacles to do God’s will.

“[That] reassures me that God provides the way and the assistance when we continue to trust in God’s plan for us.”

(To learn more about St. Theodora, go to cutt.ly/HoosierSaintStory. For more of her quotes, go to cutt.ly/HoosierSaintQuotes.)

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