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Model of a virtuous life
Nun who bucked bishop to become the first U.S. saint in 6 years
Sister Rita Ann Rothele reaches out to the casket bearing the remains of Mother Theodore Guerin on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2006, at Church of the Immaculate Conception near Terre Haute, Ind. The remains were removed from under the church's floor and placed to the left of the altar. At left is a reliquary made from a tree trunk holding three hand bones of Mother Theodore. Helping Rothele is Sister Connie Kramer. In July, Pope Benedict XVI announced he would canonize Guerin and three others during an Oct. 15 ceremony in Vatican City. - photo by ASSOCIATED PRESS/file
    TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — An Indiana nun once banished from her congregation by a bishop will be proclaimed a saint on Sunday, providing a model of virtuous life to America’s Roman Catholics — even if they find themselves at odds with church leaders.
    Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Blessed Mother Theodore Guerin as the first new U.S. saint in six years, a span marked in this country by the scandal over the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
    The pontiff also will canonize a Mexican bishop and two Italians who founded religious orders.
    The celebration of a new saint offers a respite from the lawsuits and settlements that have dominated much of the discussion of the U.S. church in recent years, and Guerin’s life story can inspire those struggling in their own faith, said members of the religious order she founded, the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods.
    ‘‘The bishop here in Vincennes was impossible to work with, yet she always kept her faith. She held on to it,’’ said Sister Marcia Speth, one of the order’s leaders. ‘‘In that way, she witnesses to us how to be today in an imperfect, flawed, sinful church.’’
    Guerin led a group of six French nuns who arrived in Indiana on Oct. 22, 1840, to establish a community in the woods outside Terre Haute. She and Vincennes Bishop Celestin de la Hailandiere struggled over control of the fledgling order, and he dismissed Guerin from her vows, threatened her with excommunication and banished her for a time from St. Mary-of-the-Woods. She did not return until after his resignation in 1847.
    In that way, she is like many saints who found themselves bucking church authorities while alive, only to be acclaimed as saints after their deaths, said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and the author of the 2001 book ‘‘Lives of the Saints.’’
    ‘‘So many leading figures who had tussles with their bishop or other high-ranking ecclesiastical officials were later rehabilitated. History remembers them, but not the officials who gave them a difficult time,’’ McBrien said. ‘‘I dare say that Mother Guerin, as a soon-to-be-canonized saint, will achieve an elevated status that will forever elude the bishop who dismissed her.’’
    When Guerin and fellow sisters stepped off the stagecoach at St. Mary-of-the Woods, only a simple church in a dense forest awaited them. They boarded with a local family until acquiring a small cabin that was so cold their bread froze. They faced anti-Catholic prejudice in frontier western Indiana.
    Guerin raised money and built an academy for girls billed as the oldest Roman Catholic college for women in the U.S. It’s known today as St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. The sisters also founded schools across Indiana. Today the order has 465 sisters, with 10 women currently in formation to become nuns.
    Guerin, who died in 1856 at the age of 57, remains a role model for women at the college today, said Samantha Dumm, a 19-year-old sophomore from Morgantown, Ind., who is traveling with other students to the Vatican for Sunday’s canonization.
    ‘‘She wants us to be strong women, stand up for ourselves and make our own way in life,’’ Dumm said.
    Guerin will become the eighth U.S. saint and the first one canonized since Sister Katherine Drexel in October 2000.
    A little more than a year after Drexel’s canonization, the scandal over the sex abuse by Catholic priests erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston and spread across the country. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements have been paid out, and bishops’ popularity has waned, despite reform measures.
    Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, who promoted Guerin’s cause for sainthood for the order, said she hopes the canonization will refocus the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike on holiness.
    ‘‘I think every time it happens, it is an impetus for the rest of us,’’ Tighe said. ‘‘God did not create just some people to be special. We are all on earth on a faith journey to heaven.’’
    Benedict also will canonize Italian nun Rosa Venerini (1656-1728) and two 20th century clergymen: Italian priest Filippo Smaldone, founder of the Salesian order of nuns; and Mexican Bishop Rafael Guizar Valencia. Guizar was a great uncle of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ order of priests whom the Vatican restricted from public ministry this year amid allegations he had sexually abused seminarians.
    Guerin’s path toward sainthood began in 1909 and accelerated earlier this year with the approval of the necessary second miracle attributed to her intercession. Phil McCord, an engineer who manages the campus of Guerin’s order, had faced a corneal transplant but regained his vision in 2000 after praying for her help.
    ‘‘I tell everyone it’s on that long list of things I don’t understand,’’ said McCord, the son of a lay Baptist minister. But he believes in miracles after having spent 20 years in the health care industry before moving to St.-Mary-of-the-Woods nine years ago. ‘‘You don’t work in health care without seeing things you can’t explain.’’
    To make Guerin’s remains more accessible, the order moved them on Oct. 3, her feast day, to a casket at the front of the Church of the Immaculate Conception after they had been entombed in its floor. One day last week, 84-year-old St. Mary-of-the-Woods graduate Martha Love and her husband, James, of nearby Brazil, Ind., came to the church and touched her casket.
    ‘‘She must have had a hard life,’’ Martha Love said. ‘‘She worked so hard to get to this place.’’
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