Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods

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The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-in-the-Woods (SP; Official Catholic Directory #3360) came to the United States in 1840 from Ruillé-sur-Loir, France at the request of Simon Bruté, the first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, Indiana. They were asked to establish a novitiate for the formation of new members and open an academy for young women.

The French community of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé had been founded in 1806 by Jacques-François Dujarié, in response to the dire needs of the people of the countryside as a result of the French Revolution and its aftermath. By the 1830s the little community was flourishing and generously responded to the needs of the American frontier. After a long and arduous journey, Mother Theodore guÉrin and her five companions arrived in the midst of the Indiana forest on Oct. 22, 1840.

Four prospective candidates awaited them in the farmhouse, home to the Thralls' family. This frame building, which they would purchase from the Thralls family within the next month, was to serve for 13 years as the first Providence convent. In November 1840, Bishop Celestine de la Hailandière formally opened the novitiate with the reception of three of the original American postulants. In July 1841, St. Mary's Female Institute admitted its first students in the fine brick academy that Hailandère had built.

In the beginning, the community operated under the French Rule of 1835. Modifications to the original rule were made in 1843 and again in 1863. Finally in 1894 Leo XIII gav definitive approval to the Constitutions and established the American congregation as a papal institute.

After the death of Mother Theodore in May 1856, the Congregation continued to grow. Because education was the crying need of the frontier, the sisters were unable to pursue their traditional commitment to healthcare. At the time of the Civil War, however, some sisters were temporarily withdrawn from the schools to assist in the military hospitals in Indianapolis and Vincennes. For a brief time, they administered the St. John's Home for Invalids in Indianapolis, a facility founded to care for wonded veterans.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the increased influx of immigrants drawn to the large industrial cities of the Midwest reemphasized the need for parochial schools. The Congregation expanded to Michigan, Chicago, and beyond. In November 1920, six Sisters of Providence, under the leadership of Sr. Marie Gratia Luking, opened the first American missionary school for girls on mainland China. In 1929, Sr. Marie Gratia founded an auxiliary congregation of young Chinese women, the Providence Catechist Society. For the next 30 years, the Providence Catechist Sisters remained under the guidance of the Sisters of Providence, but in 1962 they achieved canonical status as an autonomous congregation.

In the United States the Sisters of Providence continued to grow, staffing elementary and secondary schools in New Hampshire, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, California, and Washington, D.C. They also maintained St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and Immaculata Junior College in Washington, D.C., as well as Providence College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in Taiwan. Of these institutions of higher learning, only St. Mary-of-the-Woods continues in existence in the 21st century.

At the beginning of the third Christian millennium, the Sisters of Providence are engaged in various ministries throughout the U. S. and Taiwan, serving as educators, pastoral associates, healthcare givers, hospital chaplains, and home visitors to the aged and infirm. On Oct. 25, 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Theodore Guerin.

Bibliography: m. b. brown, The History of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary of the Woods, Vol. 1 18061856 (New York 1949). e. logan, The History of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary of the Woods, Vol II 18561890 (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana 1978). m. r. madden, The Path Marked Out: history of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Vol. III 18901926 (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana 1991). a. c. wolf, Against all Odds: Sisters of Providence Mission to the Chinese, 19201990 (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana 1990).

[m. r. madden]