The north-central United States has a unique distinction. Within the states of Wisconsin and Indiana the impact of incredible, yet unheralded, Catholic phenomena have occurred. Located in Champion, Wisconsin (not far from Green Bay), is the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. This is where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Adele Brise in 1859. It is the site of the only Church-approved Marian apparition in the United States. It is also the site of the Miracle of the Peshtigo Firestorm of 1871, the most deadly forest fire in U.S. History.
Southeast of Wisconsin is the state of Indiana. On the west-central edge of the state is a town called (I love this name) Saint Mary of the Woods. This is where a woman by the name of Anne-Therese Guerin, born in Brittany, France, in 1798, would venture in the year 1840. She would arrive as Sister St. Theodore and unknowingly begin her journey to sainthood.
Laurent and Isabelle Guerin had four children. Two passed early in life, leaving Anne-Therese and her sister, Marie Jeanne. The girls were growing up right after the French Revolution and many schools were still closed as French Catholicism began its recovery from the horrors of the previous 10 years. As a result, the girls’ mom taught her daughters the faith at home.
She did well because Anne was permitted to receive her First Holy Communion at the age of 10, two years earlier than the norm. This was the first time Anne would tell anyone, in this case her priest, that she wanted to one day be a religious.
Life’s journey always has its detours and unexpected bumps along the way. Sometimes there are obstructions that can require great faith to overcome. The death of Laurent Guerin, the victim of bandits who robbed and killed him, devastated his family. His wife, Isabelle, fell into a deep depression and it literally incapacitated her. Anne-Therese was 15. She immediately latched onto the responsibility of looking after her mom and younger sister. This also included maintaining the home and the garden.
Feeling the call to religious life exploding within her, Anne-Therese asked her mom if she could pursue her dream of joining a religious order. Her mom, still in a state of depression over her husband’s untimely death five years earlier, refused. Anne-Therese, now a grown woman, could not deny her mom. In deference to her, she remained at home.
The young woman prayed and prayed and finally, her mom, seeing how much this meant to her daughter and the sadness it was causing her, gave in to her wishes. Shortly thereafter, Anne-Therese left home for her new life. She was 25 years old.
Anne-Therese entered the Sisters of Providence of Ruillesur-Loir and was given the name of Sister St. Theodore. She took her first vows in 1825 and final vows in 1831. She then began teaching at a school in central France and quickly came down with smallpox. The disease almost killed her. It did permanently damage her digestive system and for the rest of her life all she could eat was food that was plain and bland.
In the meantime, across the Atlantic in the woodlands of a place called America, a new diocese had opened. Many people of French, German and Irish descent were moving into the area. The new bishop of the Vincennes Diocese in Indiana sent an emissary to France seeking nuns from an order that might come and help with the growing Catholic population. Sister St. Theodore could not have imagined that all of this would soon impact her life.
As is the way in God’s world, the superior general of the order recommended that Sister St. Theodore be given the assignment to go to Indiana. And so it was that in July of 1840, Sister St. Theodore and five companions left France for America. They arrived in Saint Mary of the Woods, Indiana, on October 22, 1840. A new order was formed and it was called the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Sister St. Theodore became the sister superior of the order and from that point on was known as Mother Theodore Guerin.
With very little money Mother Theodore Guerin and her handful of followers opened St. Mary’s Academy for Young Ladies, which quickly became Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. From 1841 to 1852 this was the only Catholic boarding school for girls in Indiana. Mother Theodore also established schools in Jasper, St.Peter’s, Vincennes, Madison, Terre Haute and Fort Wayne. By 1855 she had established schools also in three other cities and started two orphanages in Vincennes and free-pharmacies in Vincennes and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Mother Theodore took ill and passed away at the age of 57. When she died the Sisters of Providence had grown from the original six sisters and four postulants to 67 professed members, nine novices and seven postulants. As of 2010, there are nearly 400 sisters in the order, 300 living and ministering from the motherhouse in Saint Mary of the Woods, and the others spread across 19 states, with some in Taiwan and China.
Miracles were attributed to Mother Theodore’s intercession and her cause for canonization was opened in 1909. In October 1998, Pope St.John Paul II beatified Mother Theodore and on October 15, 2006, she was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
Truly an amazing life journey for the teenager from France who stayed at home taking care of her mom and sister until she was 25 and ultimately traveled an unexpected road to sainthood.
St. Theodore Guerin, please pray for all of us.