Thursday, October 12, 2006

Indiana Nun Up For Sainthood

There are nuns and there are nuns. And then there's the Blessed Mother Theodore Guerin. She brought Catholic education to Indiana, endured an overbearing bishop and is believed responsible for at least two "miracles" after her death.

Talk about living life to the fullest, and then some. Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Mother Theodore, along with three others, Sunday in St. Peter's Square in Rome, making her America's eighth Catholic saint. Achieving sainthood is the highest tribute the Catholic Church can bestow.

More broadly, the recognition will affirm what many in Indiana's Catholic community have known for years: This woman lived an exceptional life.

"With almost no resources, Mother Theodore - through just extraordinary vision, wisdom and willpower - set out to make people's lives better," says Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Her course from obscurity to sainthood makes for a compelling tale - part The Sound of Music and part Dances With Wolves, with a dash of The Sixth Sense thrown in.

Born in France in 1798, she left for America in 1840, having survived smallpox, the murder of her father and the deaths of her brothers, including one who died after sleeping too close to the hearth, according to church officials and her letters and journals.

Traveling by steamboat, canal and eventually stagecoach, she arrived at Indiana's wooded and uninhabited western frontier with no money or English skills.

Undeterred, she started several Catholic schools around Indiana. She also founded a new congregation, the Sisters of Providence, and a girls' academy. The school, a few miles west of Terre Haute, Ind., has since become Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the USA's oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women.

Not everyone recognized her saintliness in her lifetime: The local bishop viewed her as insubordinate, according to her journal and letters. The Vatican later dismissed him.

Typical nun benevolence and intrepidness, some might say. Yet what was said to have happened decades after Mother Theodore's death in 1856 sets her apart.

In 1908, Sister Mary Theodosia Mug was ailing from a crippled arm and breast cancer when she prayed over Mother Theodore's crypt under the Sisters of Providence church. Just hours later, her symptoms subsided; she lived an additional 35 years and died a natural death.

Nearly a century later, in 2001, Sisters of Providence employee Phil McCord prayed in the congregation's church after it appeared he was headed for a cornea transplant. The non-Catholic says he offered a mention of Mother Theodore in the hopes that she would put a good word in to "the big guy" for him. Because of McCord's prayers or for some other reason, the swelling in his eye quickly lessened, as well as his need for a transplant.

In the end, he had some scar tissue around his eye removed and now has 20/20 vision. His physicians have been unable to explain the healing.

"I'm not a theologian. I don't understand all of the implications of what happened to me or how they determine it to be a miracle," McCord said this year. "I just leave it to those who are more learned in that area. All I know is that it's my story. I'm sticking to it."

In recent years, the Sisters of Providence, led by Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, have tried to get Mother Theodore's accomplishments recognized. Their work bore fruit in 1997, when the Vatican - after reviewing old documents, journals and other evidence -determined that Sister Mary Mug's experience was a miracle. The late Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Theodore in 1998, a step on the road to sainthood.

McCord's healing, meanwhile, was formally declared a miracle in April this year. (Among other things, it takes two authenticated "miracles" to become a saint.)
Word finally came in July: The Vatican announced that Pope Benedict would canonize Mother Theodore along with three others: Mexican bishop Rafael Guizar Valencia, Italian priest Filippo Smaldone and Rosa Venerini, an Italian nun.

Nearly 700 people from Indiana will fly to the ceremony, including two students from an Indianapolis-area high school that bears the new saint's name. They will serve as altar boys.

"She truly saw herself as carrying out the mission of Christ on Earth," Otolski says. "When you look at what she did, her work is still going strong today."

By Theodore Kim and Robert King - The Indianapolis Star

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