New shrine honors ‘a woman for all time’

When Mother Théodore Guerin and her five companion Sisters of Providence from France landed on United States soil in 1840, she likely had no idea what fruits God had planned for their excursion. Her assignment was to establish a motherhouse and novitiate in the under-developed countryside of Indiana to educate the children of the pioneer families and to care for the sick and the poor. They did much more than that.

The small group of nuns would quickly grow, and their mission would encompass St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and orphanages throughout Indiana and Eastern Illinois. By the time of Mother Théodore’s death in 1856, the Sisters of Providence included 67 professed members, nine novices and seven postulants. Their work included 11 schools and two orphanages.

What Mother Théodore also didn’t know was that, on Oct. 25, 2014, a shrine built on the very land on which she first began her work in the United States would have its grand opening. It would be the second such shrine, a version of the original updated in order to welcome the thousands of visitors who go on pilgrimage to the shrine each year. Entombed in the shrine for all to honor are Mother Théodore’s mortal remains.

‘Finally home’

On Oct. 22, Auxiliary Bishop Christopher Coyne from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis visited St. Mary-of-the-Woods and blessed the shrine after presiding over vespers that afternoon. On Oct. 25, a grand opening of the shrine was scheduled to be held, and the event was to include walking tours of the new shrine, bus tours of the grounds and more.

“The dedication will be very important, because after nearly 175 years, Mother Théodore is finally home,” said Jena Thralls-Robertson, the shrine’s marketing manager. “The Woods has been waiting on this day for a long time. This is the final piece of her canonization that took place in 2006. And the shrine itself is all about Mother Théodore’s life. It’s not just a statue or a stone monument; it has so many pieces of her life within it ... and anyone who visits will not only enjoy a sacred and healing experience, but they will learn a very valuable piece of history as well.”

Thralls-Robertson is a descendant of the Thralls family, which welcomed Mother Théodore and the other sisters when they first came to Indiana. The Thralls shared their home with the sisters and later turned it over to them for their first convent and novitiate.

Power of the shrine

The old shrine and the encounter with Mother Théodore, who is designated by the Vatican as St. Théodora, already has had a profound effect on visitors, and it’s expected that the new shrine will have an even greater one.

Sister Jan Craven, the shrine’s director, tells the story of a recent pilgrimage from Troy, Michigan. There were 55 members of the group, and they all stopped to pray before Mother Théodore’s remains in the shrine chapel. Afterward, she noticed one of the men was in tears. “I have been to many shrines, many churches and to many tombs of saints, but I have never been so affected by the deep spiritual power I felt when I put my hand on her tomb,” he told Sister Jan. He left promising he would return and would get to know Mother Théodore better.

To understand the magnetism of the shrine, one must look at the magnetism of the woman behind it. Because of her many qualities, Mother Théodore appeals to a wide variety of people. According to Sister Jan, teachers admire her for her excellence as an educator; business people admire her astuteness in business; health care workers admire her for her knowledge of the healing power of herbal medicines; spiritual directors admire her deep trust in God and providence spirituality; administrators admire her leadership qualities; and writers admire her literary skill as demonstrated in her letters and journals, which have since been published.

“I have always called her a Renaissance woman,” Sister Jan said. “She appeals to most all personalities because of various gifts that she gave to this community and to the ordinary person. She is a woman for all times, for all seasons, for all people. We are blessed to call her our beloved foundress, and I am honored to be part of sharing her story with the world.”

Letter from Mother

The shrine is a very important place for Kyle Meadors, 29, who is a providence associate — one of the lay cooperators of the Sisters of Providence order. Unlike other people who travel to the shrine to encounter Mother Théodore, the saint came to Meadors.

In June 2006, Meadors’ father committed suicide; he was the one to find his father’s body, which threw him into the depths of darkness. Shortly after, someone had enrolled Meadors’ father in the Blessed Sacrament Association of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, and Meadors received an enrollment card and a Mother Théodore holy card in the mail. Considering he had never heard of this American saint, he wrote to the sisters for more information. He received a long letter in return from Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, who was the postulator for the cause of Mother Théodore’s canonization.

The packet contained the text of a letter Mother Théodore had written in 1843 to the Sisters of Providence working in Jasper, Indiana, and it spoke to Meadors. It said, “Have confidence in the Providence that so far has never failed us. The way is not yet clear. Grope along slowly. Do not press matters; be patient, be trustful ... and rest assured, if you lean with all your weight on the Providence, you will find yourselves well supported.”

“These words were exactly what I needed to hear as I struggled with my father’s suicide,” Meadors said. “Providence gave them to Mother Théodore — she was inspired to write them to her sisters — and then her words came to me. I’ve often said that I was in total darkness after my father’s death, and then I noticed a small light that kept coming closer and closer until I realized it was Mother Théodore carrying a lamp. Her example, her story, gave me strength.”

Meadors has since experienced the guidance and intercession of Mother Théodore many times. His primary attraction to Mother Théodore, which led to his attachment to the shrine and his enrollment as a providence associate, was her humanness. “She was a down-to-earth woman,” he said. “She was practical and caring. Her writings are full of interesting details, even examples of her humor. I don’t think it’s possible for a person to read her ‘Journals and Letters’ without being touched in some way. It’s been said that Mother Théodore is a woman for all time. Those words, in my opinion, couldn’t be any more true.”

Blessing to many

For 51 years, Sister Denise Wilkinson has followed the spirituality of Mother Théodore. In 2006, she became the order’s general superior and has since been called on to give reflections and public presentations, and talk with novices about her foundress’ charism. The more she reads Mother Théodore’s words, and the more she sees the effect her story has on others, the more she is certain that Mother Théodore’s loving presence is in the community she founded and in the shrine where she rests. She knows the shrine will be a great blessing to many.

“The feel of the shrine is that of taking a journey with Mother Théodore,” she said. “It’s not a huge space, and the path through the shrine is curved and intimate.”

What personally attracts Sister Denise most is being in Mother Théodore’s chapel, near her casket. “I love sitting quietly and simply talking with her. It’s comforting and reassuring.”

Like countless others, Sister Denise has witnessed directly Mother Théodore’s intercession. “I’ve been changed, inspired, calmed down, been given courage a million times in this ministry after I’ve talked to — prayed to — [and] spent time with her,” she said. “No big miracles, but so many daily ones.”

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.