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The Fire of 1842

As we approach the Feast Day of Mother Theodore Guérin on October 3rd, it is good to look back and see just how difficult life was for the Sisters who had arrived at Saint Mary of the Woods in 1840.

In October of 1842, the Sisters of Providence were looking forward to only their second Fall in Indiana. In her epic work, Sister Mary Borromeo Brown relays the story:

On Saturday, October 1, everyone worked all day gathering in the last of the winter age for the stock. Next day, Sunday, October 2, was retreat Sunday, feast of the Holy Angels and the Holy Rosary, and Mother Theodore’s birthday, her forty-fourth. The lovely October haze lay upon the forest; soft warmth of autumn, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods the loveliest season of the year, was in the air. The weather was however ominously warm and dry. The religious quiet of retreat reigned in the little convent, and Mother Theodore had gone at once to her room after dinner. She was sitting there quietly conversing with a novice who had come for a spiritual conference. Suddenly the unwonted sound of hurrying feet broke upon 4r ears, and the dreadful cry, “Fire! Fire,!” from the lips of a postulant running towards them. The Community with one impulse rushed to the doors, and there on the little eminence since known as Saint Anne’s, the farmhouse was ablaze. In an instant everyone ran to get buckets and had vessels to carry water. The flames already consumed part of the roof, and sparks were falling everywhere carried by the wind. Seeing that the house was doomed, the Sisters began to try to save the contents of the adjacent barn, but firebrands from the burning house fell upon the straw scattered about on the ground at the barn door, and set fire to the barn. The Sisters who had gone inside barely had time to escape before the barn was a fiery furnace.

In less than three minutes the two buildings containing our wagons, plows, and all the farm implements constituted an immense oven from which a bright and circling flame rose to a prodigious height and threw to a great distance a shower of sparks. Carried by a brisk, though not high wind, the sparks kindled fires all around making the first one still more terrible. The green trees beginning to turn caught fire as well as those which were dry.

The workers now saw that all they could hope to do was to prevent the fire from becoming a general conflagration and save the fences, the little stable, and the convent, which were all in imminent danger on account of the wind. If it had risen even only a little, the poor wooden convent could not have been saved. Their first thought was to cover the boards of the roof with wet sheets, but they had no water, neither well nor spring. They had thus far got what was absolutely indispensable from a small natural stream which ran down the ravine but which was barely sufficient for the needs of the house. Prayer and confidence in God were thus their only resource. Mother Theodore left for a moment the group of Sisters and workmen still toiling round the fire to go for a brief instant to kneel before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel, beseeching Him to save this house which belonged to Him and in which He deigned to dwell. Then filled with new strength and courage she returned to the workers.

The fire was burning with inconceivable fury. Everything was on fire. Nothing could be seen but fire, and sparks fell upon us, particularly from the trees. The men were there, working at top speed. We had them cut down those trees which, though the most beautiful were the most dangerous because of their height. They took their axes and hewed away with all their might in this species of purgatory. Some half consumed pieces of wood fell around them, and immediately fire broke out in the clothes of one, in the hair of another, and in the hat of a third. Almost all of us have burns, but by a special Providence, no one has been seriously hurt. My hand is burned, but that is a small matter.”

At four o’clock the wind died down, and the fire no longer raised and spread by. it, burned less fiercely. The weary and heart-broken Sisters could pause a moment. Then too they realized the seriousness of their loss. Mother Theodore’s countenance told the painful thoughts that filled her mind. Breathless and overheated from the violent exertion to put out the fire, she gave up only when every effort was proved to be useless. Their sole alternative now was to look on at the destruction of their only means of subsistence. The half burnt logs, the posts and beams finally collapsed into a smouldering heap and blazed more quietly. Then Mother Theodore sent for the wine they had received from Soulaines, which they had been guarding so carefully for the Holy Mass. Making a refreshing beverage from it with sugar and water, she had it passed to the men, workmen and neighbors, who had toiled unremittingly for hours to prevent the spreading of the fire. They continued to watch all night near the ruined buildings, for the wheat, “our dear wheat, all threshed.” continued to burn for many hours, and the flames were seen for miles away in every direction against the sky.

The danger was not over for a rising wind would have carried the sparks out over the woods starting a forest fire, or in the other direction toward the convent which, constructed as it was entirely of wood, could not have been saved. Fortunately the air had become perfectly still. Not a leaf on the trees was stirring. Before noon next day, Mother Theodore could write: “Our dear Lord has preserved us, and at this moment, eleven o’clock in the morning, everything leads us to hope that the worst is over.” 1

This was indeed a major setback to the work that the Sisters had undertaken. The “world” was informed of the disaster in a few weeks time. The Catholic Advocate, the Catholic newspaper of the Diocese of Bardstown (later Louisville) ran the following article, written on October 9th and publised on October 22, 1842.


  1. Brown, Mary Borromeo. 1949. The history of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. New York: Benziger Bros. pp.219-220 []

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