Saint Theodora/Mother Theodore was born on October 2, 1798 in Etables, Brittany France. Her parents, Isabelle Lefevre and Laurent Guérin, gave her the name Anne-Thérèse. She was the second of four children, however her two brothers, one older and one younger, died in childhood. Her father also died when she was not quite fifteen years old, which resulted in her mother’s breakdown leaving Anne-Thérèse to care for her mother and sister.
Anne-Thérèse wanted to become a religious sister, commonly referred to as a nun, from a very young age. Her dream intensified through her teen and young adult years. At the age of twenty five, when her mother and sister were able to care for themselves, Anne-Thérèse entered the community of the Sisters of Providence in Ruillé-sur-Loir, France. Her superior, Mother Mary Lecor, gave her the name Sister Saint Theodore. Years later Bishop de la Hailandière awarded her the title of Mother when she became superior of the American community.
Saint Theodora’s first assignment was at the parish in Preuilly-sur-Claise. She was not there long when she contracted a serious illness. Miraculously she recovered but her intestines were so severely damaged from the medication that she no longer could eat solid food for the rest of her life.
In 1826 the young religious sister was transferred to the Saint Aubin parish in Rennes where she was appointed superior. The school had a large student body that previously was difficult to control. Saint Theodora soon turned them around with her patience and love.
She was transferred in 1834 to a small parish school at Soulaines. With the decreased responsibilities she found time to study with a local physician acquiring skills she later needed and used in America.
In 1839 Bishop de la Hailandière approached her community and requested volunteers to accompany him back to his growing diocese in Indiana in the United States of America. Saint Theodora did not offer to participate in the mission, however her superior requested that she do so. Mother Mary Lecor said she believed only Saint Theodora was qualified to lead a group of sisters across the ocean. After much prayer, Saint Theodora agreed to go.
The journey to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana consisted of a 102 grueling travel days across France, the Atlantic Ocean, and the American wilderness in their heavy black habits. Saint Theodora and five other sisters journeyed on boats, ships, stage coaches, and wagons through turbulent waters, high winds, storms, and muddy unpaved roads. When they arrived at their destination on October 22, 1840 they found dense woods with a small cabin used as the rectory and church and a home owned by the Thralls family in which they were to live.
Less than one year later the sisters purchased the home from the Thralls and opened their first school. As student enrollment and women interested in joining the religious community continued to increase, the school for the higher education of women blossomed, and elementary schools were built across Indiana and Illinois in addition to orphanages, and a free pharmacy.
The challenges were great. But in spite of separation from family, friends, and her native France; financial and emotional abandonment by her former superior and community in France; a language barrier which soon was overcome; drastic fluctuations of weather conditions; devastating fires; cholera epidemics; financial instability; the erratic behavior of her bishop; and Saint Theodora’s personal illness which kept her bed ridden for weeks at a time, great success was attained by her and the sisters.
And this success continues with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women in the United States, and the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence, the Woods Day Care/Pre School, Providence Center Home of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Providence, White Violet Center of Eco-Justice, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Saint Anne Shell Chapel, Lourdes grotto, organic gardens and orchards and an alpaca ranch as well as the Saint Mother Theodore Guérin shrine.
Saint Theodora’s legacy has physically, emotionally, and spiritually fed more than 150 years of students, teachers, employees, and visitors and continues to this day. Perhaps you may experience it yourself with a visit to those 1200 peaceful acres or a simple prayer to this courageous, faith-filled, and inspiring woman.