When St. Theodora Guérin (1798-1856) was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, the pontiff almost understatedly summed up her life and holiness when he said, “With great trust in divine providence, (she) overcame many challenges and persevered in the work that the Lord had called her to do.” Indeed, Guérin’s life was full of challenges, and the way she responded to them shows how she lived as a saint.
Anne-Thérèse Guérin was born in France’s Brittany region in 1798. Early on, she decided to dedicate her life to God, telling the priest who administered her first Communion that she planned to be a nun. While her father’s naval work often kept him from the family home, her mother’s influence was strong and loving. After her father’s murder, Guérin returned her grief-stricken mother’s love as she cared for her mother and her sister. She lived a simple holiness knowing, “we are not called upon to do all the good possible, but only that which we can do.”
Entering the convent in 1823 at nearly 25 years old, Guérin became a Sister of Providence to educate and care for the poor. She was given a fitting new name, Sister St. Theodore, which is Greek for “gift of God.” At the age of 42, Guérin’s reliance on God’s providence soon became even more important when she accepted an assignment to the Indiana frontier.
Bishop Celestin de la Hailandiere of Vincennes, Indiana, asked the superior of Guérin’s order to send sisters as teaching missionaries to his Hoosier diocese. Guérin’s superior knew of only one sister who could lead the mission, and the humble Guérin was troubled to learn she was chosen for the task. After all, she long suffered from the effects of a disease-curing medication that rendered her tolerant of only an extremely limited diet. She accepted the mission only after a great deal of prayer with a heart dependent on God’s will, fearing that if she didn’t go, no one would.
In 1840, travelling with five other sisters, Guérin arrived in Indiana. After a meeting with the bishop, they arrived in Terre Haute, Indiana, first coming to a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. “We found waiting for us in a poor log cabin our God, our ALL,” Guérin said. First lodging in the home of a pioneer family, the sisters got right to work building the infrastructure making it possible to open their school within a year — a school that still exists today as Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Filled with missionary zeal, Guérin would establish nearly a dozen schools and two orphanages throughout Indiana.
Guérin experienced almost every imaginable hardship on the Indiana frontier: anti-Catholicism, anti-feminism, misunderstandings, fire, hunger and illness. The woman of perseverance accepted it all in providence, “Does it matter what becomes of us, provided God’s will be accomplished?”
One of Guérin’s most notable challenges in Indiana was the difficulties she encountered with Bishop de la Hailandiere. Unable to work well with the sisters, the bishop sought more and more control of them. Guérin was eventually forced to return to France for advice from her superior, and it was decided that she should establish a new order back in Indiana. In her absence, the bishop made matters worse. On her return, the bishop even locked Guérin in a room hoping to obtain her resignation. The bishop created further problems for Guérin and the wider community until he resigned in 1847. In those years of pain and suffering, Guérin experienced her share in the cross. Ever reliant on God’s providence, she proved strong in leadership and holiness, and urged her sisters, “Put yourself gently into the hands of providence.”
St. Theodora Guérin died at age 57 in 1856 at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the order she founded. She knew what it was to live as a saint, and teaches us about our call to the same: “What have we to do in order to be saints? Nothing extraordinary; nothing more than what we do every day. Only do it for his love.”
Her feast day is Oct. 3
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic.