For Daughters of St. Paul around the world, February is affectionately known as “Mother Thecla Month.” Our co-foundress, Venerable Mother Thecla Merlo was born on February 20, 1894, and died on February 5, 1964. This year marks the 55th anniversary of her death.
Born in northern Italy, the young Teresa Merlo was already an active leader in her parish, despite frail health that had prevented her from joining the Cottolengo Sisters. At the age of 21, she met a young priest, Father James Alberione, who invited her to join him in the “adventure” of a new congregation of women religious who would evangelize with the media. Seven years later, Teresa and eight other young women privately professed their perpetual vows as Daughters of Saint Paul. Teresa received the name “Thecla,” and was also appointed as the first Superior of the little group. She remained Mother General of the Daughters of St. Paul for the rest of her life. She formed the sisters, pioneered the new mission of evangelization with the media at a time when media production was reserved to men, established new foundations around the world, and traveled extensively to visit, encourage, and form the sisters.
Mother Thecla’s death has a special meaning for us sisters because three years before she died, she offered her life for all Daughters of St. Paul, that we would become saints.
I remember when I first learned this. I was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school visiting the Daughters of St. Paul Motherhouse in Boston. Near the entrance to the chapel was a large, backlit, black-and-white photograph of Mother Thecla kneeling in prayer. The text on the bottom of the photograph read: “I wish you all to become saints. For this I have offered my life.”
I didn’t know her full story at the time, but I was deeply impressed by that photograph and those words. I remember thinking that Mother Thecla must have been a woman of deep prayer, passion, love, and trust to want to offer her life for the holiness and sanctity of all the Daughters of St. Paul. I remember thinking that the Daughters of St. Paul were lucky—no, not lucky but rather profoundly blessed, profoundly graced—to have someone love them so much that she offered her life for their holiness. And I remember thinking, I want that. I want to know Mother Thecla. I want her to offer her life for me. And I want to offer my life, too.
Mother Thecla always asked herself, after each experience, trip, assignment, or initiative: What have I learned? She taught us to ask, too: What have I learned? So, when we look at the offering of her life, we can ask that same question: What have we learned? Personally, I learned three things:
1) Holiness is real and it is valuable. It is worth pursuing for ourselves and it is the most precious thing we can desire for others.
2) Holiness does not consist primarily in doing, but rather in offering, abandoning, surrendering.
3) The discovery of my vocation consisted partially in receiving the answer to the question: What would I offer my whole life for?
You can read more about Mother Thecla and her heroic offering here. And maybe you can think about what you have learned from her!