Le Mans is an ancient town. After the local Celtic tribe was conquered by Julius Caesar, it became a Roman stronghold. Later invasions by Normans and Vikings continually caused the city to change hands. King Henry II of England – the founder of the royal House of Plantagenet – was born here. It was one of the last cities to be liberated by American troops during World War II. Today, about 150,000 people call it home, including a significant college population. And the city and its immediate environs are the home of two religious congregations which have formed a significant part of the Catholic history and faith in far-away Indiana – the Congregation of Holy Cross and the Sisters of Providence. Today, we explored the roots of these two communities.
Fr. John De Riso, CSC, is the Rector of the Shrine of Blessed Basil Moreau and Pastor of the mother-church of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. John has been hosting us during our stay in Le Mans, and today he gave us a detailed tour of the shrine and church and explained the history of the foundation of the community. Blessed Moreau was a priest of the Diocese of Le Mans who brought together a community of priests to serve in the Holy Cross neighborhood of Le Mans. They were formed in 1835 and later joined with a group of religious brothers who had been founded by another local priest, Fr. Jacques Dujarie, to become the Congregation of Holy Cross. Leter, a community of religious sisters was also formed as part of the Holy Cross family. In Indiana, we best know this community because of the work of an early collaborator of Blessed Moreau, Fr. Edward Sorin, who was sent to the United States in 1841 and went on to found the University of Notre Dame. In addition to the University, the three branches of the Holy Cross family – the priests, brothers, and sisters – have all had a significant presence in Indiana. My high school alma mater, Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, was staffed for many years by the Holy Cross Brothers and in recent years has reaffiliated with Holy Cross.
As part of our tour, we were able to pray at the tomb of Blessed Moreau and also visit the original Holy Cross novitiate, which now houses a community of Holy Cross Marianist Sisters and a small museum about the founder.
This afternoon, we met up with Sister Martine Meuwissen, SP, the Superior General of the Sisters of Providence of Ruille-sur-Loire. In an interesting confluence of history, the Sisters of Providence were founded by Fr. Jacques Dujarie – the same priest who had founded the community of brothers that later joined Blessed Moreau’s priests to become the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. Dujarie was the parish priest in Ruille-sur-Loire, a small village about an hour’s drive from Le Mans. He saw a need to engage in ministry to the many poor and elderly people in this rural area in the years following the French Revolution, so he brought together a group of women to do this work in 1806. This group became the Sisters of Providence. Thirty-four years later, in 1840 (just a year before Fr. Sorin made his journey), a group of Sisters of Providence was sent to Indiana to open an academy. The group was led by Sister St. Theodore Guerin, who established the community at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana.
Sister Martine took us to the original home of the congregation – called Little Providence – with a small chapel where Mother Theodore prayed. We then visited the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence, from which Mother Theodore was sent to Indiana, and the parish church in the village where she made her solemn vows. The chapel of the Motherhouse also holds the tomb of Fr. Dujarie and some extraordinary stained glass windows – some of the most beautiful and vibrant that any of us have ever seen, rivaling (in our minds) even the famed windows of Chartres Cathedral! The Sisters of Providence were gracious hosts, and we truly feel that we understand Mother Theodore – our Hoosier Saint – better now by visiting her French spiritual home.
This evening, we joined Fr. John for Mass with some local college students – he assists with the university’s campus ministry program – followed by a lovely dinner and games with the college community. Among the students I spoke with is a young man who is a Melkite Christian from Aleppo, Syria, who has been forced to move to France because of the great violence in his home country. Perhaps more on his story another time.
It has truly been a remarkable day for the three of us – each of whom have personal connections to both the Congregation of Holy Cross and the Sisters of Providence. Later, I hope to reflect more on what we can learn from these visits about our understanding of the Church in Indiana beyond the mere historical connections. But, for now, it’s time for rest before an early morning Mass at the tomb of Blessed Basil Moreau.