The Love of Jesus Sees into the Future: Mother Theresa and Me

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On a large spiral staircase made of slate, between the third and fourth floors, sits a larger-than-life painting of a nun. She stares straight ahead into the eyes of the viewer. Two school girls stand at either side of her, looking up in apparent admiration.

When I first saw this painting at the Institute of Notre Dame, I had no idea who she was. She was just a two-dimensional woman I passed on my way on my way to religion class. A meek freshman coming from public school, I had only recently met a Sister. And I certainly hadn't seen a painting of one quite so large before.

Turns out I was walking not so far from where this nun herself walked. Somewhere, underneath of the building next door, where the original school sat, was evidence of her footsteps.

Her name was Mother Theresa Gerhardinger. And those were probably some tired footsteps.

She was then in her fifties, the hair under her wimple and veil probably fading into gray. Her life journey hadn't been an easy one and perhaps her body already reflected that. During her childhood, the Napoleonic Wars had unfolded before her. Her beloved Catholicism faded away from Bavarian society - monasteries, convents and even schools (including her own) closed, property and possessions stolen from churches. She saw people formerly friends begin to hate each other. This led her, with the help of a friend priest, found the School Sisters of Notre Dame some years later. It wasn't an easy task - her friend priest died, the local people resisted her and she didn't have any money. But somehow, by the grace of God, she did it. And now she had gone along to bring the Sisters to the United States, leaving behind comfortable Germany and stepping into a new culture, a new language and a new need. After some other failed projects, the Institute of Notre Dame was founded as a boarding school for German immigrant girls.

Mother Theresa didn't stay for long, leaving for the German motherhouse soon after. It's more likely that a majority of those footsteps around the original school were her Sisters, bustling around to teach all different grades, to wake up the girls and feed them, to be there for emotional and spiritual comfort.

Although Mother Theresa physically may have left the school, her legacy never did. In those first years and years to come, American vocations from the school would pour into her new community. But then, more recently, as with most Catholic schools in the United States, the number of vocations from the school, either to the SSNDs or any other religious community, dwindled away to almost nothing. But yet, decade after decade, Mother Theresa was still there all the same, smiling over those girls who grew from timid freshmen to seniors ready to go out and change the world. She watched them come and go, and then watched as their daughters, and then granddaughters and even great granddaughters walked those same steps. I was one of them.

Students and alumnae agree that there is some sort of spirit in that school. God knows there's enough ghost stories set in the 160 year old building, but it's something deeper than that. It's a spirit of love and understanding motivated by deep faith in Jesus Christ. A spirit that I believe stems from the spirit of Mother Theresa Gerhardinger. Something occurred to me in high school, something I now attribute to the spirit of the school and her - a religious awakening, a metanoia, I don't know what to call it - but one day, in junior year, the idea popped in my head "maybe I'll become a nun". The thought terrified me. But every day, walking those slate steps to and from classes, I passed a painted nun with a tender face that told me "Look, this is what your life could be..." I mostly tried to ignore it, but other times it led me to deep interior reflection.

Now, I know that Mother Theresa was there, watching over and praying for me during those discernment years in high school. In her day, she was one passionate about religious vocations, often quoting the parable about the workers in the vineyard in her letters. Although I never knew much more about her in high school than a few of her words and brief biographical facts, she taught me that, if you have a burning desire in your heart, even if it means much sacrifice, even if that means giving up marriage, being misunderstood, or traveling to a different country, you can change the world.

She essentially said this same message to her Sisters before she left for the United States, telling them "Dear Sisters, why do we submit to religious obedience and not let our own will prevail? Why do we renounce property and love of earthly goods and voluntarily live poverty? Why do we remain celibate and separated from the world? Why should we unceasingly try to sanctify ourselves? Is it not that, being free from the cares of this life, we can better meet the needs of the dear children as spiritual mothers who meet our Savior in them?" 

A few weeks ago, I returned to the Institute of Notre Dame, my old high school, and talked to juniors about immigration and also about my own calling. I had an absolutely wonderful time and it took me back to my own days in high school. I once again passed by that painting of Mother Theresa Gerhardinger and reflected on everything she meant to me. And although she may be a bit disappointed I didn't join the School Sisters of Notre Dame and went to the Daughters of Charity instead, I really don't think she minds. She told her Sisters, also before her trip to the United States, "the reign of God will be extended when many virtuous, devout, obedient, and diligent young women go forth from our schools and to their families. This is our daily prayer" And I pray that I may be one of those young women from her schools that extends the reign of God.

And just as Mother Theresa Gerhardinger has done for more than a century, from her permanent place in heaven and from the wall on the slate stairs, she continues to watch over and pray for all those girls that pass through the halls of the Institute of Notre Dame....and I like to think perhaps most especially those girls silently discerning religious life in their hearts as I was. And it is by her prayers and spirit that, 133 years after her death, she continues to change the world.

(This next Saturday, Blessed Mother Theresa Gerhardinger will celebrate 27 years of being beatified in the Catholic Church. Let us pray for her canonization!)

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