Monday, June 15, 2015

The Woman behind the Pauline Mission

Being rejected as a candidate in one's local religious community would not seem the most auspicious beginning for a life of consecration, but for Teresa Merlo of tiny Castagnito, Italy, it proved to be pivotal.

Teresa's sewing machine, a gift from her
parents upon her completion of an
advanced needlework program in Turin.
She had already been told with almost merciless clarity that her health was too uncertain for any congregation of sisters to take a chance on her. So in 1915, the twenty-year-old, having benefited from a specialized course in needlework (and owning a sewing machine that was the envy of her village), started a sewing school for girls of the area.

One of the projects she was working on was a vestment for her brother Costanzo, a student in the diocesan seminary in Alba. A priest on the faculty there had been sharing his grand vision for a “new evangelization” that would take advantage of the “new media” that were becoming more and more widespread and accessible. Father James Alberione thought this an ideal mission field for women, but being a full-time seminary professor and spiritual director didn't afford him many opportunities for recruiting young women for this work. Besides, the women most likely to understand his dream had probably already joined one of the local communities of sisters and would not be free for the kind of adventure Alberione wanted to propose: a worldwide family of religious (priests, brothers and sisters) working alongside the laity to penetrate and transform society with the leaven of the Gospel.
Teresa (above, age 21)
became Maestra Thecla.
Costanzo Merlo found a way to speak privately with the young priest. “I have a sister...”

The meeting of Blessed James Alberione with Teresa Merlo (100 years ago today) has gone down in Pauline history as a turning point. We have Teresa's own account of it, narrated decades later when she was known to all as “Prima Maestra”—this being the Daughters of St Paul version of “Mother General”, using the title “Teacher” (Maestra) to point to the Divine Master (Maestro) as the real authority and center of the community:
When I met the Theologian [Alberione] for the first time, he told me about a new Institute for women who would live as Sisters ... and my enthusiasm was immediately enkindled. He spoke with my mother who had accompanied me, and it was decided to let me stay for fifteen days. The fifteen days have not yet ended...
From that June day onward, Teresa took Blessed James Alberione as her spiritual director. (It was he who would later give her the name "Thecla" after a prominent woman disciple of St Paul.) Sister Anna Maria Parenzan, Maestra Thecla's successor as superior General of the Daughters of St Paul was to write:
Maestra Thecla was literally captivated by the Founder’s insistent invitation to attain union with the Master, to reach the highest degree of prayer–the point of "it is no longer I who live but Jesus who lives in me".
Her spiritual notes allow us to glimpse significant features of her journey of conformity to Christ: 'To live in union with God as St. Paul did: "My life is Christ."To do everything for him, with him and in him' (June 1963)...."To remain united to the Divine Master. To learn internal and external silence from the Holy Family. To live in intimacy with the Divine Master: mind, will, heart, works, senses, hands, feet, eyes, hearing–everything for him and with him" (Jan. 1963). Maestra Thecla’s longing for unity with Jesus led her to experience his same feelings and compassion and to yearn that the Gospel might reach everyone "with the most rapid and fruitful means," that is, through all the languages and forms of communication.
As for the precarious health that had so frightened the local sisters, Teresa led the Daughters of St Paul with a motherly hand for 50 years, living through the trials of World War II and undertaking strenuous international travels to vist her sisters the world over.
There were moments when everything seemed so dark that we understood nothing. For my part, I was never afraid, despite all the talk and the crosses to bear.
51 years after the death of the woman they acknowledge as co-foundress, the Daughters of St Paul mark this centenary year with gratitude, with amazement, and with the prayer that we may perceive in our own century the vision Teresa Merlo received from Blessed James: that we become apostles, agents of a new evangelization, when it is Jesus, the Divine Master, who lives in every dimension of our being, so that it is “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

For more about the Centenary of the Daughters of St Paul, including an online magazine complete with interviews and videos, visit

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