By Mark Bennett
VATICAN CITY — Thousands of people traveled from around the world to worship and celebrate Sunday morning in St. Peter’s Square.
They cheered when Pope Benedict XVI read a passage that, as a successor to Peter and Paul, allowed him to declare Blessed Mother Theodore Guerin a saint of the Catholic church. The two clocks atop the corners of the St. Peter’s Basilica rooftop reached 10:30, and in between them stood ornate stone statues of Jesus Christ and his 12 disciples.
The spectacular scenery came in stark contrast to the harsh surroundings Saint Theodore Guerin endured as a pioneer of her faith in the Wabash Valley more than 150 years ago.
Pope Benedict recognized that as he canonized Guerin.
“With great trust in divine providence, Mother Theodore overcame many challenges and persevered in the work that the Lord had called her to do,” the pontiff said Sunday morning.
Guerin was born in France and committed her life to the church there, but she came to Indiana in 1840 after a request for teachers by the bishop of Vincennes. She lived through a tense working relationship with that same bishop. Guerin, though, faced greater hardships through her surroundings in the wilderness of western Vigo County, where she founded the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. She and five sisters arrived there after an arduous journey from Europe to find their home base was a primitive log farmhouse. Winters were harsh. And poverty and diseases lingered in a community largely unfamiliar to the Catholic faith.
Yet Guerin succeeded in creating a community of women that grew from six to more than 450 worldwide. In addition to the efforts of the Sisters of Providence to help the sick, disabled and poor, Guerin also launched an academy that became St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.
Now, 158 years after she came to Indiana, Guerin, who died in 1858, has become one of just eight Catholic saints from the United States. Pope Benedict granted her that status on Sunday, along with three others — Rafael Guizar Valencia, Mexico’s first saint; Filippo Smaldone, an Italian who created schools for the deaf; and Italian nun Rosa Venerini, who opened that country’s first public school for girls.
Guerin’s place among them, as well as thousands of Catholic saints dating back to Peter, left more than 500 people who trekked from the Wabash Valley and Indiana to Rome for Sunday’s ceremony feeling inspired.
“All of these people gave themselves totally up to God,” said Sister Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence. “And that’s why we raise up saints.”
Wilkinson and others connected to the Sisters of Providence, the college and the Wabash Valley participated in the canonization service. Wilkinson presented offertory gifts to Pope Benedict, along with Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, the vice postulator for the cause of Guerin’s canonization, and Phil McCord, the director of facilities at the Sisters of Providence.
It was the healing of McCord’s degenerating eyesight in 2000 that helped lead to Guerin’s sainthood. It was recognized by the church as the second of two necessary miracles attributed to Guerin through prayers seeking her intercession with God. The first came in 1908, when Sister Theodosia Mug experienced a healing from cancer.
But on Sunday as she walked out of the Vatican City walls, Tighe offered a reminder that Guerin’s sainthood goes beyond those two intercessions after her death.
“Miracles are interesting, but that’s not the most important part,” Tighe said. “The most important part of today’s service was the way she lived her life.”
Remnants of that life were among the gifts presented to Pope Benedict on Sunday. He accepted stone from Etables, France, where Guerin was born in 1798 to a family touched by tragic deaths, as well as her rosary, a worn white cross she kept, a letter from her journal, and an educational medallion given to the sister by the French government for her educational work, as well as handbones from her remains.
That white cross is a familiar part of the portrait of Guerin that is well recognized in the Wabash Valley. On Sunday, that same depiction of her loomed large on a tapestry hanging on the facade of the Basilica, along with those of the other three newest saints. They fluttered in bright morning sunshine, unexpected after a gloomy weather forecast.
A choir comprised of Sisters of Providence, graduates and students from St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and lay people from the Wabash Valley sang during the two-hour and 20-minute service. Sister Nancy Reynolds read from the Book of Hebrews. Sisters Paula Damiano and Donna Marie Fu read about Guerin’s life. And three past general superiors of the order — Sisters Ann Margaret O’Hara, Nancy Nolan and Diane Ris — also made a presentation.
Seeing that trio together was a moving moment for Rosie Maynard, who worked under all three women at the Sisters of Providence.
Maynard also felt overwhelmed by the size of the crowd of pilgrims. She and her husband, Troy, hurried to get front row seats Sunday. Shortly afterward, she looked behind her for the first time and gasped.
“We turned around and it was like, ‘Oh my. We’re in St. Peter’s Square,’” Maynard said.
The aura touched the sisters too. Wilkinson’s encounter with the pope, dressed in a green robe, was profound.
“It is rather daunting to walk up to the pope,” she said as the crowd filed out. “He has such a warm smile.”
When asked what Pope Benedict said to her, Wilkinson smiled. “He said, ‘Ah, Mother Theodore. God bless. God bless your work.’”
Mark Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (812) 231-4377.