1 – At Home in Tyrol
Mother Theresia, Margareta Messner, was born on July 9, 1868 in Antholz, South Tyrol, present day Italy. Her life hung on a delicate thread; she seemed at first to be stillborn.
Consequently, the infant Margareta was baptized three times on the day of her birth: first by the doctor, then by the midwife and lastly officially by the parish curate, Rupert Huter. All her life Mother Theresia herself regarded it as a great grace that she was born again of water and the Holy Spirit in the first moments of her life.
At the age of three or four she would often say, “One day I will go far, far away.” When her mother asked, “Where will you go?” she replied, “I don’t know, mother. But I will be going far, far away.” When the weather was fine Margareta liked to spend Sunday in the solitude of the mountains. When her mother asked her what she did all alone out there, she replied, “I pray, mother.” She took a crucifix with her and blessed the world with the blest crucifix.
2 – Missionary Calling
In her inmost being Margareta was drawn to go away, far, far away as she had already said as a child. In 1886 the Redemptorists held a parish mission in Antholz. That gave direction to Margareta’s life and she described her joy and excitement during the mission in her personal letter to the Founder of Steyl when she wrote to request admission.
In her decision to become a missionary sister she was led and strengthened by God in a special manner. She wrote of interior converse with the Lord as if that was a natural thing. The inner voice, which she recognized as the voice of Jesus, told her unmistakably that it was his will that she become a missionary sister. In her letter of January 19, 1890, she names the motive for her decision: The missions or, as she puts it, love for the poor, abandoned people and to win souls for the Lord. On January 10, 1891 Margareta said farewell to her mother and sister. Parting words that she spoke to them show, that she felt the burden of the sacrifice, but that she had to follow the inner voice: “If it were all the same what one does in life, I would rather remain here. But an inner voice keeps saying to me: I must go there, I must follow the Lord”.
3 – The First Years in Steyl
In Steyl began a new phase in Margareta’s life, especially learning to adjust to the new world. “Everything was new, the people, the language, the region, the customs. During the conversations I understood almost nothing”, she wrote later in her memoirs. Coming from Tyrol the pronunciation of literary German was foreign to her, as were some types of work. She had never seen sandwiches, vegetables or herring. She was not used to eating meat. The dishes of her home region were almost unknown in Steyl. “Still, I soon adjusted because I was quite determined to stay in the convent,” she wrote forty years later. “Even so, in the evening in my cell I was often overcome by homesickness. I wept bitter tears but finally went to sleep. Then I asked the Lord to give me souls instead and, in that way, it never became too bad.” The wish to win “souls” was the true motivation for her missionary vocation and gave her the strength to overcome all the difficulties.
From April 17, 1891 on, Arnold Janssen gave three talks on the spiritual life each week for the postulants. With special fervor he took up the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and the Holy Spirit, as well as the missionary vocation. Margareta opened heart and mind to the teachings of the Founder and his classes were like oases, helping her to overcome many a difficulty. Arnold Janssen called on his listeners to answer questions and, in that way, he came to know the religious abilities of each. When all the others gave up, Margareta still found an answer, modestly but clearly and with certainty. It showed that she was intelligent and very gifted, as well as experienced in the spiritual life, although she was not aware of that herself. Like all the others she waited with longing for the day when they would be admitted to the novitiate.
4 – Novitiate
Acceptance into the novitiate was celebrated on January 17, 1892, a joyful event for all the participants. On that day Margareta Messner received the name Sr. Theresia, as she will be called throughout the following. Sr. Theresia knew that the true goal of the novitiate is the formation of the inner person, especially a deeper introduction to the following of Christ, his humility and lowliness. She had plenty of opportunity for that. She often felt misunderstood and marginalized in the various kinds of work. For much of the work that arose she had no former practice and, therefore, no aptitude. It was all a source of quiet distress for Sr. Theresia. She thought she was unfit for the overseas missions because those abilities were taken for granted in the sisters who were to be sent.
As always, Sr. Theresia took refuge in prayer during this difficult time. She trusted that it was God’s will for her and resolved to allow her to be used in whatever way the Lord pleased. She made use of such opportunities to overcome her self-will and pride. She was also convinced that if it were God’s will, she would be sent to the missions in spite of her supposed lack of ability. She wanted to regard all difficulties and suffering, as well as all the regulations of the superiors as the will of God for her. The Founder had his own method of testing the spiritual progress of the novices. Apart from the instruction, he invited each sister for a personal talk every six weeks to speak about her vocation and religious life with him. During that talk the Founder stated that the majority of people from Tyrol were good-for-nothings. In that he wounded her most sensitive spot, her great love for her homeland, testing how much she could take without contradicting. She accepted the humiliation without saying anything. It is quite clear to Arnold Janssen, however: she has passed the test. On May 12, 1894 she was allowed to take the first vows as one of the first twelve Servants of the Holy Spirit, vows for seven years.
5 – First Novice Directress
After her profession Sr. Theresia was still occupied for some time with darning the stockings of the sisters and especially the socks of the residents of the Mission House which numbered several hundred. Soon after they had taken the vows, the Founder called the sisters to the reception to speak about their future task or possible mission appointment. Tensed and expectant Sr. Theresia went to the reception room. She was hoping for an appointment to the missions. Once again, however, she had nothing but deep disappointment and humiliation. After a few initial questions, Arnold Janssen asked about her work. She explained that she was darning the socks and stockings. The Founder said nothing about a mission appointment. Instead he said, “Then carry on darning the socks and stockings. And now I will give you my blessing.” With that, the conversation was finished.
In November that same year the Founder once again called Sr. Theresia to the reception room and informed her in business-like words, “Sr. Theresia, I have been thinking you could probably take care of the novices.” That was the appointment of the first, regular novice directress of the Congregation. Sr. Theresia was 26 years old, was about 8 months in vows and three to four years in the convent. The situation shows Arnold Janssen’s previous attitude in a new light. The task required experience in the spiritual life, knowledge of human nature and above all personal striving for perfection. In the newly-founded Congregation there was still no sister with more years in vows who had such experience. Consequently, the Founder had wanted to find out whether Sr. Theresia, in spite of her youthful age, was suitable for that big responsibility.
As directress of the novitiate, Sr. Theresia strove to form those entrusted to her care in the spirit in which she herself lived. Jesus was her model and teacher and she prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance. From year to year she gained greater experience in the task of spiritual accompaniment. She taught the novices simplicity, humility and obedience, in all of which she was their example. Sr. Theresia was to be found in all kinds of work: washing dishes, peeling potatoes, cleaning – and she chose the hardest tasks for herself. For the sick and suffering she was a good mother, caring lovingly that they should lack nothing. Training and forming the novices as missionary sisters, Servants of the Holy Spirit, and wrestling with her own progress were mutually beneficial. As novice directress Sr. Theresia accompanied a total of 19 groups of novices of whom 226 sisters took first vows in the Congregation.
On September 8, 1901, the first nine sisters of the young Congregation, including Mother Josepha and Sr. Theresia, took their perpetual vows. Sr. Theresia was well aware of the significance of that day for herself and for the entire Congregation. For the Founder, too, the day was extremely significant. This first perpetual profession concluded the founding of the Congregation, as it were, because all phases, from entrance to final commitment were now complete.
After the death of Mother Josepha, Sr. Theresia, as assistant, until then, took over the responsibility. She took care of all that had to be arranged and also the temporary leadership of the Congregation. Not long after Arnold Janssen appointed Sr. Theresia Messner as the new superior and Sr. Raphaele Bruns as her assistant.
6 – First Superior General of the Congregation
This appointment determined the life of Mother Theresia, as we will call her from now on, for many years. She was well aware that she was taking on a great task that would become a heavy cross. The new superior was appointed for three years. At the age of 35, she became the first superior general of the Mission Congregation of the Servants of the Holy Spirit still appointed by the Founder Arnold Janssen.
When Mother Theresia took office in 1903, the Congregation numbered 205 professed sisters, 65 novices and 44 postulants, making a total of 314. In 1922, at the time of the Second General Chapter, the Congregation had 106 postulants, 222 novices and 1,280 professed sisters, making a total of 1,608.
Due to the rapidly increasing number of sisters, the former “Notre Dame Convent” soon proved too small. With the wisdom of foresight, the Founder had a large new building constructed for the sisters in the “Steyl Sand Hills”; it was completed in 1904. The move to the new convent and the back-and-forth meant many trips up and downstairs which was almost too much for Mother Theresia’s strength, especially because of her weakened physical condition.
7 – In the School of the Cross
At almost every phase of her religious life, Mother Theresia was plagued by diverse illnesses, suffering and handicaps. During the three-day journey from Tyrol to Venlo, followed by the walk with her heavy basket along the icy road to Steyl, she contracted a cold from which she never really recovered. That cold was the beginning of many illnesses: bronchitis, glandular diseases and tuberculosis of the ankle.
Due to the numerous trips back and forth before and during the move from Notre Dame to the new Mother House, the condition became considerably worse. The pain often brought tears to her eyes. To make the long, necessary trips to the new Mother House she needed a cane or crutches. There was no passenger lift as yet in the four floors Sacred Heart Convent. She managed the stairs by pulling herself up using the handrail. In the end she was only able to sit in a wheelchair and give her instructions from there.
The condition of her foot grew increasingly worse. The doctor thought of amputating the leg. Seeing the shock that caused the patient, he endeavored first to save the foot in some other way. Finally, on May 14, 1906, Mother Theresia went to Bochum again. By then she was prepared to allow her foot to be amputated. Immediately the following day, May 15, 1906, the foot was amputated. She was given prosthesis of hard wood, an artificial limb to fasten on. It was fastened to the thigh with a leather belt and the cobbler in Steyl made a shoe to fit it. Matters did not remain there, however. Two more prostheses had to be made which proves that they did not fit well and that she had huge problems with them. It was to be her companion for the rest of her life, a piece of the Lord’s cross.
The illness and the drastic amputation had an effect on Mother Theresia’s physical condition. Her full physical strength and freshness never quite returned. The suffering had strengthened and matured the inner person, however. She went through a deep, interior transformation. The suffering and pain made her milder, kinder and more motherly towards her spiritual daughters.
The First General Chapter of the Congregation elected Mother Theresia as superior general for 12 years, as stipulated in the Constitutions.
8 – On the Way to Independence
In the last years of his life Arnold Janssen realized that it was necessary to place the leadership of the sisters into their own hands. Later, the Bishop informed Mother Theresia and her councilors through the general of the Society of the Divine Word that, if at a future time they wished to become a mission congregation of pontifical right, it was advisable to dissolve the hitherto dependence on the SVD. The response to the Bishop’s inquiry was: The general administration of the SVD leaves the sisters’ congregation free. They may decide for themselves in which direction they wish to develop.
The financial separation was a more difficult question. In the past twenty years the SVD had taken care of all financial matters. That had removed the burden of financial worry from the sisters. On the other hand the priests and brothers worked selflessly on the construction of the new Sacred Heart Convent. The brothers, for instance, had worked 14½ hours a day during the construction work. Without them the huge Sacred Heart Convent would not have been built. There was selfless work on both sides: the sisters worked for the Mission House and its purposes and the priests and brothers for the sisters. The extent of the sisters’ work for the SVD had constantly increased. It had begun on a small scale and continually developed.
When Mother Theresia and her council gained full insight into the Congregation’s weak financial system, they were greatly shocked. In August 1910 Mother Theresia wrote a seven-page, handwritten report to Fr. Superior General Nicholas Blum in response to the itemization of the property and financial system drawn up by the SVD general administration. Mother Theresia wrote that, should the sum remain as high as stated in the report, it would never be possible to pay the interest. On the contrary, the sum would increase from year to year. Then she asked humbly that he not be offended by her frankness. Throughout 1910 a practicable solution to the financial separation was worked out. By December 31, everything was sufficiently settled so that the new administration took effect on January 1st, 1911.
Mother Theresia wished to establish European novitiates, as far as possible, to prepare and train missionary sisters. She founded communiteis, novitiates and established Provinces in the Netherland, China, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Mozambique. During the years when Mother Theresia was superior general, 121 houses were established, both in Europe and overseas.
9 – Visitations
The first visitation was to North America where sisters had been active since 1901. With her characteristic courage and enterprising spirit she took six postulants along with her. They were to have their novitiate in the American provincial house in order to learn the language and culture more quickly and so be better prepared to take up their missionary activity. Mother Theresia payed special attention to the foundations in the Southern States, where the sisters developed a beneficial mission among the descendants of the former slaves. The written communication between Mother Theresia and Sr. Leonarda dating from 1914-1916 shows how important it was to Mother Theresia to have the word “Mission” or “Missionary Sisters” in the name of the new provincial house in Techny. Mission, after all, is the essential element in our vocation and it had to be expressed visibly for everyone.
Mother Theresia’s East Asian travels lasted 14 months. Given the travelling facilities of the time and Mother Theresia’s handicap with the prosthesis, the sisters were concerned for her health. Already in the beginning a cancerous growth made its presence felt. Personally she paid no attention to it. She was aware that her office demanded her total commitment.
On 24 of May they arrived at Nagasaki, Japan. The Catholic community in Akita was still quite small. Mother Theresia remained in Japan for eight weeks.
In China they had to take first a train. There was no waiting room and in the train there was hardly anywhere to sit. All the travelers pushed into the compartments with loads of baggage and they were soon packed full. Mother Theresia and Sr. Epiphania climbed into a cattle or goods wagon and pulled their suitcases close to the large opening. Finally, the train departed. The trip went quite well but in spite of that the two sisters were more than happy when they arrived in Yenchowfu. They were carried to convent in a closed sedan chair.
The children waved their banners and warmly welcomed the “old, old, venerable grandmother” (she was just 43 years old). To be considered old was a great honor. Mother Theresia was overjoyed to be with her sisters in China. On September 3 Mother Theresia and Sr. Epiphania were in Taikia where Fr. Vilsterman SVD showed them round the mission station. The most precious part was the cemetery where they visited the graves of the deceased Fr. Joseph Freinademetz and the murdered priests Nies and Henle.
On September 10 they began the preparations for the journey to Puoly, which would be a three day trip. It was no mean task to stow eight blankets, three crates, numerous bags and boxes and the cases in the wagon and still to arrange a comfortable seat for Mother Theresia. Several times they had to cross a river. The wagons, three donkeys, Fr. Weig, Mother Theresia and Sr. Epiphania joined a few other people on the small ferry and it soon crossed to the other bank.
The return journey to Yenchowfu went in a similar way. The sisters were glad that Mother Theresia had coped well with the strenuous. The visitation had taken three months. Soon the travels continued, this time to the Philippines.
During all the travelling which was especially difficult for Mother Theresia because of her handicap and the cancer that had become noticeable at the beginning of the journey, there was never a word of complaint to be heard from her. Today, perhaps, we can no longer imagine what travelling meant in those days: boarding and leaving overcrowded trains, long train journeys, naturally in third class, transportation in rickshaws or sedan chairs on bumpy roads, overnight stays in different convents with other congregations. When she reached her own sisters she always appeared in good spirits and was totally there for them. No one realized how she really felt.
In the Philippines Mother Theresia had to undergo an operation, which was carried out successfully on November 13. The wound healed rapidly and well. The doctor was pleased with the result and allowed Mother Theresia to travel to Tayum, in the Province of Abra at the beginning of December.
The voyage from the Philippines to New Guinea went very well. On February 5 they arrived at Friedrich-Wilhelmshafen, New Guinea. Their joy was all the greater because they had been afraid that Mother Theresia might not be able to come to that tropical country. That same evening the journey continued to Alexishafen with the mission boat “Gabriel”. The ship soon began to rock and Mother Theresia did not feel well. Finally, they reached Alexishafen and Mother Theresia and Sr. Epiphania were happy to have reached their final mission goal.
The mission stations at the time were all located along the coast, since the interior was not still developed. So Mother Theresia had often to take the mission ship “Gabriel”, the difficulties of climbing up and down the staircases, pulling into a small boat and being carried by several men; naturally were not exactly gentle. These men did not know that she had an artificial leg and then, since the operation, a stiff arm as well.
Since travelling with the “Gabriel” was really too strenuous for Mother Theresia, she decided to change the original travelling plan and not go to Indonesia. Sr. Epiphania informed the sisters in Hong Kong, Singapore and Colombo that Mother Theresia would probably begin her homeward journey around the middle of May.
Mother Theresia’s and Sr. Epiphania’s return journey passed without special incident. After arriving in Genua, they continued by train. That same day they arrived in Vienna. It was June 26, 1914. On June 28 the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. In consequence the First World War broke out in the beginning of August 2014. We can only praise and marvel at the Divine Providence that so wonderfully accompanied Mother Theresia and her companion throughout the long travels and brought them back home just before those terrible events.
10 – Travelling during the First World War
Soon after war broke out, the Knights of Malta asked in Steyl how many sisters could be made available for nursing in the field hospitals. For a start twenty-five trained nurses were promised, as well as sisters who were willing to care for the wounded. A course for nursing the war-wounded was set up in the Mother House, giving instruction in theory as well as practice. Between 25 -30 sisters took the course. This first course was followed by several more. In St. Joseph’s Hospital in Haan there were about 60-70 wounded men, also the SVD Mission Houses of St. Wendel, Saar and St. Rupert, Austria were turned into field hospitals. Sisters were also requested for a typhus unit in Hungary and Moravia. The novitiate in Stockerau was turned into a reserve hospital, where 50-60 wounded men were admitted.
Mother Theresia visited all the field hospitals in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, where her sisters were working. They even celebrated first and final profession in the field hospitals in the presence of Mother Theresia. The sisters employed in nursing during the First World War were about 300. Half of those sisters were novices, the rest mainly young professed sisters.
In spite of her great exhaustion, after that round of visits she had to undergo a difficult and dangerous operation. She made up her mind to it because it was the only way to regain her health. According to the doctor, without that operation she would have died of heart failure within two to three months as a consequence of total anemia and an internal growth.
11 – Mother Theresia in Latin America
In her final years as superior general Mother Theresia made still a visitation to Brasil and Argentina. In Brasil she visited the communities in Rio de Janeiro, the Provincial house in Juiz de Fora and the communities in Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo. She travelled south to Ponta Grossa, where years later was erected the provincial house of Brazil South. After a train journey of 23½ hours, she was exhausted when she reached the sisters. Some days later a coachman came for the next trip, a four-day horse drawn carriage trip to Guarapuava. The sisters supplied provisions and blankets for the Brazilian winter. The journey went through hilly meadow countryside, uphill and down dale. She visited still San José via Curitiba, Porto Uniao and Uniao da Victoria. The return journey to the provincial house took two and a half days of travelling.
From Brasil Mother Theresia left for Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her first destiny was the Provincial house in the urban district of Floresta. Next she she travelled by train to Crespo. The novitiate of the sisters was next to the school and Mother Theresia was delighted to be among novices, postulants and candidates after such a long time. November 12, 1920 marked the 25th anniversary of the arrival of the first missionary sisters from Steyl in Valle Maria, the first SSpS foundation in Argentina. Mother Theresia travelled to Valle Maria on November 11 and with her arrival began the celebrations. She went to Diamante, followed by the visitation in the provincial house in Floresta, Buenos Aires, the different Colonies, Posadas and Cordoba.
This visitation of Mother Theresia in Latin America had taken 16 months and the joy at her return home to Steyl was great. Now it was the imminent General Chapter that still required a great deal of preparation.
12 – Missionary even in Old Age
The horrors of war had scarcely died away when the General Chapter was due. The General Chapter opened on April 28, 1922. The election of the superior general and her council took place on May 1st. As superior general they elected Mother Columba, Sabine Caspers, until then provincial superior of Austria. Sr. Theresia, Margareta Messner, former superior general, was the second councilor. The twelve years as general councilor passed rapidly. When the Generalate was moved to Rome in 1937 Mother Theresia’s life became lonelier. She sensed that God was drawing her ever more intensely to himself. After the departure of the general administration she was offered a room in St. Anna, the department for the elderly sisters.
The most important missionary task now for Mother Theresia was prayer. Every morning she rose at around 4:30 a.m. Her first thought was “I am a missionary sister.” Each week from Thursday to Friday, when there was adoration in the convent church, sisters could see in the half dark in a corner of the church a figure who wished to remain in the dark. She knelt with outstretched arms before the Eucharistic Lord. It was a silent sermon to see her kneeling so motionless in her corner. Her entire life was missionary through and through; she was there before God for the salvation of the world.
Looking at Mother Theresia’s spiritual development we detect a new ascent precisely in the years of seclusion that appear outwardly so insignificant. There was a new presence of grace and enrichment, a newer, more graced communication with God in prayer. God worked in her soul to liberate her from the lacks that were still present. The interior change and transformation through the grace of the Holy Spirit radiated from her like a light.
Without a doubt we can say about Mother Theresia: She was there for the others. The word that the biblical scholar Heinz Schürmann used to characterize the life of Jesus also suits Mother Theresia: “Pro-Existence” – “a life for others”.
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