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Saint Mother Théodore Guérin

Saint Mother Théodore Guérin is a statue by American artist Teresa Clark, and it is located on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Catholic University neighborhood. The statue serves as a memorial to Théodore Guérin and was a gift from the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, an apostolic congregation of Catholic women which she founded in Indiana in 1840. It was this public artwork that was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

Born Anne-Thérèse Guérin in France in 1798, she knew from an early age that she wanted to devote her life to the church. When she was ten years old, she was allowed to take her First Communion, which was two years earlier than the custom of the time. And it was on that day that confided to the priest that she wished to enter a religious community. But at the age of 15, tragedy struck her family when her father was killed. Having already lost two children, the grief of losing her husband was too much for her mother to bear, and she fell into a deep and incapacitating depression. So Anne-Thérèse took on the responsibility of caring for her mother and sister and the family’s home. It wasn’t until years later, when Anne-Thérèse was 25 years old, that her mother recognized the depth of her daughter’s devotion, that she permitted her to leave to join a religious order.

Anne-Thérèse entered the young congregation of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir, where she was given the religious name Sister St. Théodore. She was first sent to teach at Preuilly-sur-Claise in central France. During her career in France, Sister St. Théodore also taught at St. Aubin parish school in Rennes and taught and visited the sick and poor in Soulaines in the Diocese of Angers. In 1939 Sister St. Théodore would be asked to travel to the United States to assist the Diocese of Vincennes, Indiana, by providing assistance and religious instruction to the great influx of Catholic immigrants of French, Irish and German descent. Although she was at first unsure of her abilities to complete such a mission, after considerable discernment Sister Théodore agreed.

Despite the humble resources available to them, in July 1841 Sister Théodore and the along with some other sisters opened St. Mary’s Academy for Young Ladies, which later became Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.  Over the next decade she also helped establish parish schools at Jasper, St. Peter’s, Vincennes, Madison, Fort Wayne and Terre Haute, all in Indiana, and at St. Francisville in Illinois. In 1853, she opened establishments in Evansville, Indiana and North Madison, Indiana; in 1854, at Lanesville, Indiana; and in 1855 at Columbus, Indiana, south of Indianapolis.  She also assisted in establishing two orphanages in Vincennes, and free pharmacies at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and in Vincennes.

Sister Théodore also proved to be a skilled businesswoman and leader as well as a beloved general superior.  By the time of Mother Théodore’s death in 1856, the Sisters of Providence congregation had grown from six sisters and four postulants to 67 professed members, nine novices and seven postulants.  Since that time more than 5,200 women have entered the Sisters of Providence.  Currently there are nearly 350 sisters in the institute, roughly 300 of whom live and minister from the motherhouse grounds in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.  Other sisters minister in 17 U.S. states and here in D.C., as well as in Asia.

Sister St. Théodore was canonized a saint on October 15, 2006, and continues to be a woman who inspires people more than a century and a half after her death.  She is a mentor for people today because she was an educator, a businesswoman, a pharmacist, a leader and, most of all, a strong, faith-filled woman.  She even inspired Teresa Clark, the artist who was commissioned to create the statue for the shrine.  Clark was a non-religious person, but was so was moved by the story of the Saint Mother that at the age of 50 she was baptized Catholic.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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