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American Nun Canonized by the Vatican

  • Andrew Yeager

The 19th century frontier of western Indiana - then a rough outpost on the edge of America's central wilderness - might seem an unlikely place for Roman Catholic nuns to have conducted their work. But it is exactly where French-born nun Mother Theodore Guerin founded her religious order and women's school, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, all the while clashing with church leadership. This week (Sunday, October 15th), at a Vatican ceremony in Rome, Pope Benedict the 16th canonized Guerin along with three others. She became the first American saint in six years and just the eighth in history.

Many Catholics find inspiration in this nun's life. For Craig and Julie Smythe, there is little doubt the two-hour trip from their suburban Indianapolis home to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, was worth it. They stand near a stream of churchgoers in this bright sanctuary lined with pink marble columns. The crowd files past a wooden tomb, said to contain the remains of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. Craig Smythe says the family prays to Guerin everyday. Three years ago, a medical scan showed spots on his daughter's liver and lungs. But subsequent images have revealed the tumors are gone. "The doctors tell us they're mystified by this," he says, adding confidently, "Of course, we're not. We know exactly who is responsible for taking those away."

The nun's own frail health almost kept her from leaving France. But Sister Rosemary Nudd, a professor at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, says the French bishop wanted Guerin to lead a group to serve French Catholics settling in the frontier of western Indiana. "She was asked to come by her superiors and was told that the mission would be abandoned if she did not come," she explains. "Therefore, she accepted it, as we heard, she accepted the providence of God, that if God asks something of you, God will then give you the strength to do it."

The difficult 3-month journey, across the Atlantic Ocean and a third of the way across the American continent, included a fire in the ship at sea, a stagecoach that continually overturned, and a steamboat ride down the Ohio River in which the nuns changed out of their habits in fear of anti-Catholic harassment. Nudd says these details are known because Guerin wrote extensive journals of the group's travels.

When Guerin arrived in the woods near Terre Haute in October of 1840, she got to work. She founded the religious order Sisters of Providence, housed in a simple log-cabin chapel, and a year later opened Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, billed today as the oldest Roman Catholic college for women in the United States.

But the strong-willed Guerin clashed with the local bishop. At issue, Sister Rosemary Nudd says, was one thing: control. Nudd says the bishop wanted control of the congregation and the deed to the land. Guerin opposed him. She faced threats of excommunication and was banished from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, not returning until after the bishop resigned.

Nudd calls it a miracle that the pious French nuns under Guerin's leadership stood up to the bishop. She says their strength is inspirational to those who find themselves in conflict within communities of faith today. "As we say, to be faithful, to keep the faith. And to realize that everyone has flaws. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has a contribution to make."

Whatever people take away from Guerin's life, her memorabilia is popular at the visitor center gift shop. Debbie Victor is at the cash register and trying to move people through the line as quickly as possible. "We're selling prayer cards, novena booklets, prayer booklets, Mother Theodore statues, buttons, medals, everything related to Mother Theodore is flying out of here." Victor says she feels good knowing she's helping others take away a bit of Guerin to remember the day by.

Now that Guerin is Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, interest in her life will likely spread beyond the Sisters of Providence and this wooded corner of Indiana.

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