Strong-willed sister and Sorin ally named a saint

Author: Kathleen Sprows Cummings ’95M.A., ’99Ph.D.

Somehow, the young Anne-Thérèse Guerin survived smallpox. She faced tragic family deaths: a father killed by bandits, a young brother killed by fire. And in her 40s, as mother superior of a small convent in Indiana, she survived a battle with a bishop who wanted to excommunicate her.

On October 15, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Mother Theodore Guerin, founder of the Sisters of Providence of Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods, located northwest of Terre Haute, Indiana. Guerin was born in France in 1798, joined the Sisters of Providence in 1823, and with some trepidation led a band of six sisters to the dense Indiana forest in 1840. Guerin is the eighth American to be recognized a saint, and the first from Indiana.

Her journal reveals the exact moment when this daughter of France turned into a true Hoosier: In 1844, returning from a fund-raising trip to Europe, Guerin wrote the following entry as she traveled up the Mississippi River: “The farther north we went, the lower became the temperature and the bleaker the landscape. . . . The severe change was sweet to me, for it meant I was nearing home. Finally, on the fifth day, with inexpressible joy I saw once more my Indiana. This land was no longer for me the land of exile; it was the portion of my inheritance, and I hope to dwell in it all the days of my life.”

On October 26, the Notre Dame community recognized Indiana’s first saint with a presentation by Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, S.P., the member of Guerin’s community charged with overseeing her cause. After the talk, Rev. Paul Doyle, CSC, presided at a Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in celebration of the canonization. Notre Dame has a proprietary interest in Mother Guerin: In her day, Notre Dame and Terre Haute were both in the Diocese of Vincennes, which included all of Indiana and one-third of Illinois. Guerin arrived in Vincennes two years before Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, founded Notre Dame, and the two French missionaries were correspondents and collaborators. Guerin even gave Sorin two oxen and a cart when he began his mission in the northern reaches of the diocese.

Guerin’s presence in Indiana was not always a boon to Sorin, as she indirectly complicated his plans to open a novitiate for the Sisters of the Holy Cross on campus. The bishop of Vincennes, Celestine de la Hailandière, refused him permission to do so on the grounds that the Sisters of Providence had already established one in the diocese. Sorin and the sisters were characteristically undaunted by this obstacle. They purchased land six miles north in Bertrand, Michigan, conveniently situated in the Diocese of Detroit, and moved Saint Mary’s Academy to its present location when the episcopal climate proved more amenable.

Guerin had her own problems with Hailandière, who insisted that he was entitled to complete control over the Sisters of Providence. The bishop’s repeated challenges to Guerin’s authority over community matters culminated in 1847, when he locked Guerin in his house until she acceded to his demands. A day later, he removed her as superior, released her from religious vows, and threatened her and any sisters who followed her with excommunication.

Guerin resolved to start over in the diocese of Detroit, where she was assured of a warm welcome. In what was surely providential timing, word arrived from Rome that Hailandière had been replaced as bishop of Vincennes. The Sisters of Providence stayed and thrived under the new bishop, and today their 465 members work in 10 states, the District of Columbia, China and Taiwan.

Guerin died in 1856 at age 57, and her cause for canonization was officially introduced in 1909, one year after the cure of a Sister of Providence from stomach cancer was attributed to her intercession. Pope John Paul II beatified Guerin in 1998. The second miracle—the healing of Phil McCord, the director of facilities management for Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, from an affliction in his right eye—was authenticated in 2006, paving the way for Guerin’s canonization.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin joins a number of other American Catholic women venerated for their “heroic virtue”: Frances Cabrini, an Italian immigrant who became the first American citizen to be canonized, in 1946; Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was canonized in 1975, the first American-born person so honored; and Katharine Drexel, who became the first U.S.-born saint in 2000 (Seton’s birth in 1774 meant that she had technically been born a British subject).

It is as prophetic leaders that the stories of these 19th-century sister-saints are the most compelling. They all struggled with clerical superiors who had no use for women who acted independently, and it was only their deep trust in God that allowed them to overcome many obstacles, the most formidable of which were often raised by the Church.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is a Notre Dame concurrent assistant professor of history and associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame.