11 June 2009

Divine Intervention: The Sisters of Providence and Me

So I am just sitting here minding my own business. I am already packed for Samford and since I leave for Jamboree as soon as I return home from Birmingham, I decided to get everything ready for Burbank as well.

If you are a regular reader, you might remember my mentioning awhile back that I was born in Burbank, California - specifically at St. Joseph's Hospital. I want to be prepared in case I decide to visit the building of my birth so did a search for St. Joe's. I found the website for St. Joseph's and the first thing that popped out at me was that it had been founded by The Sisters of Providence. It was one of those "Twiglight Zone" moments. Goosebumps, theme song music, the works. Let me explain.

James Sheern is my 4th great grandfather. He was born in Ireland about 1792. After arriving in the United States around 1815, James found himself in Nelson County, Kentucky living among a large community of Catholics that had migrated from Maryland. By 1840, James Sheern migrated from Kentucky with the Catholic community to Vigo County, Indiana and settled in what was called the "Catholic Northern Arm Colony."

In October of 1840 another group of Catholics arrived in Vigo County. This group was quite a bit smaller. From the Sisters of Providence convent in France, six sisters under the leadership of Mother Theodore Guérin arrived in Sugar Creek Township to begin their mission - to teach, to introduce religious instruction and to assist the sick in the Dicoese of Vincennes.

The first home of the Sisters of Providence 1840

Immediately after the sister's arrival, all the Catholic families in the area came together to help them build a proper church and school. Sugar Creek Township in 1840 was a densely wooded land with several creeks that ran into the Wabash. Land was cleared, foot bridges were built and a proper church was erected.

St. Mary of the Woods , 1845

There were about 30 Catholic families in the area. These include the names : ALVEY, DERMODY, CURLEY, HOLLAND, MAHONEY, SHEERN, BROWN, WARD, SHEA, THRALLS, RICE, REED, LESEURE, DELAHAYE, REGAN.

By the 1870's a small village comprised of these families had been created.

"St. Mary’s is a village of 100 inhabitants adjacent to the community of the Sisters of Providence. Its site was never divided into town lots. It contains two stores, a cabinet, carpenter, blacksmith and cooper shop, and a fine brick church which was built in 1867 and cost $13,000. In religion the villagers are Catholic, who have been induced to locate here because of the growth and prosperity of the Academic Institute, so successfully conducted by the Sisters of Providence. The village has grown to its present size within the past thirty-five years without any effort to build up a town."

The villagers and the sisters worked side by side for years and prospered on both sides. The Sisters of Providence even owned a coal mine - St. Mary's Mine - adjacent to their land in Sugar Creek Township which provided employment for many of the parishioners.

Branches of my SHEERN family live in St. Mary of the Woods Village to this day. It remains a very small village and close-knit community.

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at St. Mary of the Woods College

In 1846, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College was granted the first charter for the higher education of women in the state of Indiana. SMWC conferred its first bachelor of arts degree in 1899. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is the nation's oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women and one of the oldest institutions of higher education for women in the United States.

Saint Mother Theodore

A biography about Saint Mother Theodore called "The Eighth American Saint" tells the story of a woman with an unwavering faith in God as she faced great hardships including a grueling passage from France, harsh winters, primitive living conditions, anti-Catholicism—and a tense relationship with her direct authority in the Church, the Bishop of Vincennes.

As Mother Theodore, she lived a holy life and practiced the heroic virtues of faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance - the makings of a saint - until her death 14 May 1856.

Two miracles are necessary for canonization. In 1908, Sister Mary Theodosia Mug, who had suffered from a number of crippling ailments including cancer, allegedly recovered overnight after praying at Mother Theodore’s tomb. Phil McCord, the director of facilities maintenance at Sisters of Providence, received the second miracle in 2000. McCord’s right eye was healed after praying to Mother Theodore.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, the foundress of St. Mary of the Woods, was canonized at the Vatican on October 15, 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI .

The Sisters of Providence have been a part of my life long before I was even born. Now I understand why I have so many "Get Out of Hell Free" cards.


Theodosia, Sister Mary. "Sisters of Providence." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

Sketches of St. Mary of the Woods courtesy of Wabash Valley Visions & Voices: A Digital Memory Project

Borremo, Sister Mary. "History of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods : Volume 1 1806-1856." New York: Benziger Bros., 1949

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Sista! I wondered how you got all of those cards...