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Blessed Theresa:
SSND foundress and gifted teacher

“United and content with little, we go out into the whole world, into the tiniest villages, into the poorest dwellings, wherever the Lord calls us, to bring poor children the good news of God’s reign.” (Letters of Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, No. 144)

A child's painting of Blessed Theresa and children of the world.

Blessed Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger wrote these prophetic words in 1839, when the congregation she founded, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, numbered 14 professed sisters and nine novices living in three houses in one diocese in Bavaria, now a state in Germany. When Blessed Theresa died on May 9, 1879, approximately 2,400 sisters were living and working in several countries of Europe and North America. More than 600 members of the congregation had preceded her in death.

Blessed Theresa’s inspirational leadership, innovation, collaboration and gifted educational spirit moved the congregation into the future. When she was 15, Caroline (her baptismal name), passed the royal teacher’s examination. She then taught for over two decades at the school for girls in Stadtamhof, her hometown in Bavaria. Visitors often came to see the model school that developed. Girls who were poor or forsaken were given special preference and girls who had finished elementary schooling were taught the skills necessary to support themselves.

Caroline was a gifted teacher and Bishop George Michael Wittmann shared with her the conviction that the Christian education of girls was essential if conditions were to improve and better times were to come. She also learned from Bishop Wittmann how to combine a life of prayer with the very active life of a teacher and she gradually recognized her own call to religious life.

After painful setbacks and disappointments, Caroline and two companions were finally able to begin living as a religious community in the small town of Neunburg vorm Wald, Bavaria, on October 24, 1833. It was the beginning of a new congregation of women religious dedicated to the education of girls and young women, called the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Caroline was appointed the first superior.

On November 16, 1835, Caroline professed her religious vows and was given the name Mary Theresa of Jesus. From the very beginning, young women asked to join her and were deeply influenced by Blessed Theresa’s life of prayer and giving of herself. The young women learned from her how to live as women religious and how to become effective teachers or to provide essential services within the community. Word about the new congregation spread, and Blessed Theresa was soon asked to send communities of two or three sisters to teach girls in smaller communities. The establishment of each new mission in Bavaria, or the first mission in other geographical areas, required permissions from the church and civil authorities, extensive correspondence and even inspection of the local circumstances before sisters could be sent. Blessed Theresa often accompanied the first sisters to a new mission and continued to support them through correspondence and periodic visits when possible.

A drawing of Blessed Theresa during a time she was reviewing plans for a Motherhouse to be built.

The original convent in Neunburg vorm Wald soon became too small and the congregation’s headquarters, known as a motherhouse, were transferred to the former Poor Clare Convent in the center of Munich. When the renovation plans drawn up by the royal architect did not correspond to Blessed Theresa’s concept of a motherhouse with space for a large number of sisters, novices, candidates and boarding pupils, she spent an entire night drawing her own blueprints. As a result, she was appointed by the royal government to supervise the major renovation project that was carried out in accordance with her blueprint. Louis I, King of Bavaria, stated earlier, “This woman knows what she wants, and what she wants is well thought out.

Two months later, two sisters were teaching at St. Mary’s and three sisters, including Blessed Theresa, were teaching in three different schools in Baltimore. The congregation had obtained a foothold in North America. Young women soon asked to join the sisters and Blessed Theresa was requested to send sisters to several more schools in distant cities.

Not long after the motherhouse was established in Munich, bishops and missionaries from North America came and asked Blessed Theresa to send sisters to teach the children of German immigrants who had settled there. After a long and arduous journey, Blessed Theresa, four sisters and a novice, arrived in New York on July 30, 1847, only to be advised to return to Europe on the next ship. Conditions at their destination, St. Marys in the primitive forests of Pennsylvania, were not what they had been led to believe. Undaunted, Blessed Theresa wrote in a long letter to Munich, “It will be much easier for us to start at St. Marys, and then God can call us to the larger places and cities. Since God showed us the way with Neunburg and Munich, I think we should begin here in the same way—very small, poor, and hidden—but with complete confidence in God.” (Letters of Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, No. 726)

Before Blessed Theresa returned to Europe in July 1848, she had traveled nearly 2,600 miles with Sister (also known as Mother) Caroline Friess and Saint John Neumann, in order to visit prospective missions. They went as far west as Milwaukee, but Blessed Theresa wrote, “Milwaukee is not for us at this time.” (Letters of Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, No. 734) Two years later, however, she sent Mother Caroline, two sisters and a candidate to open a new motherhouse in Milwaukee. Under Mother Caroline’s leadership, the congregation grew and flourished in North America.

Despite the great distance, cultural differences, unreliable communications and repeated advice to the contrary, Mother Caroline and the sisters in North America remained united with Blessed Theresa and the sisters in Europe. The congregation’s rule provided for centralized government with one sister chosen as general superior, which enabled the collaboration and support that were essential for unity in the congregation. This form of government was a relatively new concept for congregations of women religious, and not all bishops were in agreement that women could or should be governed by a woman. This caused years of delay, uncertainty and struggle for Blessed Theresa until the Holy See, finally, approved the rule in 1865. As she had written many times, “All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; but then, their roots are the sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.” (Letters of Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, No. 2277)

Blessed Theresa insisted that her sisters follow up-to-date methods in education and they quickly became pioneers in the development of the educational system in German-speaking lands and of parish schools in America. Her final years, however, were marked by the effects of war in Europe and America, as well as by increasing government opposition to the congregation in Europe. Sisters were expelled from their convents in what is now Poland and southwestern Germany. Blessed Theresa succeeded in finding a home and ministry for all these sisters, often far from their homelands. When it appeared that hundreds of sisters in Bavaria would experience the same fate, Blessed Theresa responded to each new government demand with such wisdom and skill that the School Sisters of Notre Dame were able to continue living and teaching as a flourishing and united religious congregation in Bavaria for many more years.

In the midst of her very dedicated and active life, Blessed Theresa also fostered a life of prayer and contemplation. Her yearning for union with God was finally fulfilled on May 9, 1879, when she died in Munich at the age of 82. Today her sisters, scattered throughout the world, call her Blessed and strive to continue her legacy of unity, a willingness to respond to God’s call in daily life, and the generous giving of self to those in need.

You can read more about Blessed Theresa on Sturdy Roots: An Educational Resource for Studying the Heritage and Spirit of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

 
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