She was weakened physically by smallpox, but it couldn’t keep her strong spirit from accomplishing great things. Meet French-born American Saint Theodora Guerin, the founding force behind Catholic education in Indiana.
Born Anne-Therese Guerin on Oct. 2, 1798, she was one of four children of Isabelle Lefevre Guerin and Laurent Guerin, a Navy officer. Sadly, only she and her sister survived until adulthood.
Anne-Therese knew at a young age that she wished to enter religious life. When she made her first communion at age 10, she confided her desire to do so to the priest who officiated. However, her vocation was to be delayed by family tragedy.
When she was 15, her father was murdered by bandits, and Anne-Therese’s mother fell into a deep depression. Anne-Therese then had to care for her mother and sister. At age 20, she told her mother that she wished to enter religious life, but her mother was too despondent. Five years later, realizing her daughter’s deep desire to serve God, Isabelle gave Anne-Therese permission to leave and join a religious community.
She joined the Sisters of Providence of Ruille-su-Loir, and was given the name Sister St. Theodore. Early in her career, she worked in education in Rennes, and soon became a superior. She was recognized for her exemplary work in education by the Academy of Angers. She also ministered to needs of the sick and poor.
Mother St. Theodore was stricken with smallpox, but survived. However, the disease caused permanent damage to her physical health.
In 1840, the bishop in Indiana sent a request to France for a religious order to come to the state to teach and care for the sick. Mother St. Theodore’s superior recommended her for the assignment, so, she and five companions left France and travelled by boat, steamboat and covered wagon to the wilderness of Indiana.
In October of 1840, they arrived in the town of St. Mary of the Woods, a remote village in Vigo County near Terre Haute. The sisters and several postulants who had been waiting there to join the order at first lived with a local family on a farm. Soon they became a new religious order: The Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, with Mother St. Theodore as it’s superior.
In less than a year, they established St. Mary’s Academy for Young Women, the forerunner to St. Mary of the Woods College, the oldest Catholic women’s liberal arts college in the United States. Over the next several years, Mother St. Theodore and the sisters founded a dozen more schools and two orphanages, laying the foundation for Catholic education in Indiana. She later purchased a farm to serve as the new motherhouse for her sisters, and at the time of her death, was planning to build a new chapel.
Despite her zeal, her health was always frail and she became ill in 1856 and died on May 14, 1856 at age 57 at St. Mary of the Woods convent.
After her death, the following appeared in her obituary in The Catholic Telegraph and Advocate of Cincinnati, Ohio:
“This woman, distinguished by her eminent virtues, governed the community of which she was the superior from its commencement, to the time of her death, a period of nearly sixteen years. Being a perfect religious herself, and endowed with mental qualities of a high order, she was peculiarly fitted to fill the duties which Providence assigned her.
“Not only her Sisters are bereaved by her death, but all those who knew her excellence and the amount of good she did, join in lamenting that she should have been removed from the sphere of her usefulness. To judge from the celestial expression of her countenance as she lay in death, there is every reason to believe that she has already taken her abode among the Saints in Heaven, enjoying the munificence of God, who rewards His servants ‘according to their works.”
Mother St. Theodore was buried at the motherhouse under a Celtic cross monument with the inscription: “I sleep, but my heart watches over this house which I built.”
IN 1907, her remains were exhumed and found to be partially intact by a bishop who had previously been a physician; this led to the efforts for her canonization. She was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 15, 2006, who used the designation “Saint Theodora.”
In 2007 the Society of Indiana Pioneers named her a Hoosier Pioneer; on 6 November 2010, the group named her a Pioneer Founder of Indiana.
She is the patron saint of the diocese of Lafayette, Indiana.
She has two feast days: May 14 in the world-wide church, and Oct. 3 for her order and in Indiana.
Mother St. Theodore kept prolific journals documenting her travels and accomplishments. Find them here:
Read more about her at the Sisters of Providence website: https://spsmw.org/about/saint-mother-theodore-guerin/her-story/