The US Bishops continue their Fortnight for Freedom. We continue here with worthy women.
Anne-Thérèse Guérin was only thirteen years younger than yesterday’s featured worthy woman, but also French. After caring for her widowed mother and younger siblings, she entered religious life in her mid-twenties. Sister St Théodore was an award-winning teacher who also visited the poor and the ill. A new call presented itself to her when the first bishop of Vincennes (in Indiana) sent a recruiter to his homeland.
Impressed with the abilities of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton and her Sisters of Charity in his early years of ministry in Maryland, Bishop Bruté was enthusiastic for the possibilities of committed women religious in pioneer America. The Sisters of Providence were approached, and their superior general suggested Sister St Théodore lead a small band of women religious to Indiana. After some initial reluctance, she reflected later that a line from her congregation’s rule inspired her to respond to the call: “The Congregation being obliged to work with zeal for the sanctification of souls, the sisters will be disposed to go to whatsoever part of the world obedience calls them.” And that part was in the forests of the American Midwest.
Bishop Bruté died before the women arrived in the States. The replacement bishop seemed to have a different approach from the collaborative nature of his predecessor. Bishop de la Hailandière got along well with Mother Guérin at first. She praised his “compassionate” heart. When she returned from a fundraising voyage to France, however, she found that her new bishop had, in her absence, admitted novices to the community, opened and closed schools, and called for a community election to replace her. Further, he accused her of stolen money.
The sisters of St Mary of the Woods, however, unanimously reelected their leader.
Mother Guérin was conciliatory, and offered to resign outright. From a letter to the bishop:
My conscience is my witness that I have done all that I could to avoid this misfortune, for I love Indiana with my whole soul. To do good there, to see our Congregation solidly established there before I die, was my whole ambition; the good god her permitted that you did not wish it; may his will be done.
It was not enough for the bishop. In a subsequent meeting, he locked her in his house, until she consented to his rewriting the rules of the sisters. When her sisters came in search of her, he declared Mother Guérin released from her vows, and exiled her from Vincennes. When the community made plans to follow their superior to another diocese, Bishop de la Hailandière threatened to excommunicate all of them.
Before the conflict escalated further, a rather curious thing happened. A pro forma letter of resignation to the new pope, Pius IX, was accepted, and Bishop de la Hailandière (though the same age as Mother Guérin) found himself heading back to France for retirement. Upheaval between the Sisters of Providence of St Mary of the Woods and their diocese vanished, and Mother Guérin’s community thrived in the state of Indiana. This worthy woman was declared a saint in 2006.
More histories are written about saints than their persecutors. Even so, Bishop de la Hailandière comes across as somewhat unbalanced. The insistence of a bishop to rewrite the rules of a Catholic women’s community remains with us, if the reasons and motivations behind it are somewhat cloaked and not quite so clumsy.
Mother Guérin’s legacy is more than being the target of a bishop’s power struggle. Though we can appreciate her tart assessment of the hierarchy: “I have the greatest aversion to this kind of administration. It seems to me it would keep our sisters in a species of slavery.” We can also appreciate the 5200 daughters who have called St Mary of the Woods their motherhouse. And the works by which they have served the Church and their Indiana neighbors. Worthy women, all.