This coming Sunday, February 5th, we Daughters of St. Paul recall in a special way, Mother Thecla Merlo, our beloved Co-Foundress and first Mother General.
Without Mother Thecla we would not be what we are today. There is a song that we sing for anniversaries and even for funerals. The words are, “You are ever a part of our lives. All the good that you do will live on in our hearts.” The good that Mother Thecla accomplished lives on in us her daughters and through all our friends, clergy and lay people, who collaborate with us. I consider myself to have been blessed to have met and spoken with Mother Thecla.
On February 5th 1964, God called Mother Thecla Merlo to be in his company forever. Though she had spent the last year of her life in a silence imposed by a stroke, her eyes reflected her awareness and intense life of prayer
I remember the day we learned of Mother Thecla’s death. It was a grey February day when Mother Paula—who had planted the Daughters of St. Paul in US soil—called each of our local communities to personally communicate to us the news of Mother Thecla’s passing into eternity.
That day was filled with a bittersweet sorrow, knowing that I would never see Mother Thecla again on this earth. Though I knew that she had stepped into eternity and into the arms of Jesus the Divine Master, I remember realizing that even though the congregation had other sisters from the days of the foundation, no one could really replace the woman that we called our Mother Thecla.
The First Time I Met Mother Thecla
When I was a Junior in high school, Mother Thecla visited my hometown Youngstown, Ohio. My high school Latin teacher, Ursuline Sister Carmelita, had met Mother Thecla several times in Italy. “She is a holy woman,” Sister Carmelita assured me. My sister Frances and I were excited to be able to meet her. I had been discerning a vocation to the religious life and one of the congregations I had been considering was the Daughters of St. Paul. I was invited downtown to the local community of the Daughters of St. Paul to meet Mother Thecla. My sister Frances accompanied me and later wrote these words about her:
“The three of us conversed for a few minutes. Mother Thecla was a very aesthetic looking nun. She had very bright and lively dark brown eyes. She appeared quite thin, almost frail, yet carried herself with an upright posture. She was not severe in expression. She looked very holy to me. Nevertheless, she exhibited a joyful and kind sense of humor.”
Fran tells the story of how I tried out my Italian on Mother Thecla. I had been learning some Italian from the sisters at the bookstore and wanted to speak a few words in the language Mother Thecla spoke. She discreetly chuckled at what must have sounded to her as my own brand of Italian, and gently explained to me the correct pronunciation. The kindness of Mother Thecla, as well as the evident depth of her spirituality, attracted me even more to the Daughters of St. Paul and I entered the congregation in 1960.
Soon after my profession of vows, I was part of a team of six young Daughters of St. Paul on assignment in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Two-by-two we visited the people throughout the island, offering them the Word of God. With leather bags filled with books and magazines, we met with descendants of Cape Verdean men who had sailed on whaling ships, as well as knocked at the doors of the summer homes of wealthy folks as well as homes of the poor. It was a great learning experience for me and my companions.
Mother Thecla: Frail Yet Full of Fire
One morning we received a phone call from our Superiors asking us to return home because Mother Thecla was coming to the US and was stopping in Boston. There was a lot of excitement among us on the ferry ride to Woods Hole and on the bus ride home. A few days after we were home in our community in Jamaica Plain, Mother Thecla arrived. We all noticed how fragile she looked. She had a number of health issues, and Mother Paula arranged that she recuperate in Boston for almost a month. Praying with Mother Thecla, enjoying the way she made recreation so much fun for all of us, and even just knowing she was around raised our spirits and encouraged us on the Pauline way of holiness.
Despite her poor health, I remember that Mother Thecla gave all of us professed Daughters of St. Paul a conference on being committed Paulines. If I had had the impression that Mother Thecla was weak, that idea evaporated instantly as I listened to her speak. I can remember that conference as if it were yesterday. When she spoke, Mother Thecla was on fire. Although physically frail, her eyes glowed with enthusiasm for God, for mission, for community and for sanctification. As her words flowed, I felt I understood this Mother. She had grasped the concept of Pauline mission and spirituality so well that prayer and action, study and apostolic activity, dedication to evangelization and to the interior life all radiated from her person. What impressed me most was her ardent love for Christ and her desire to bring as many people as possible to know him through our mission. What the Bible says of David when Samuel anointed him I believe was true also of Mother Thecla. “The Spirit rushed upon” her. Her passion for God and souls was contagious.
Mother Thecla's Forever Yes
Mother Thecla came from Castagnito, a tiny village in the foothills of the Alps. God had picked this frail young women and formed her to be a leader of a new congregation in the Church. On June 15, 1915, the young Teresa met the young priest James Alberione in the sacristy of San Damiano Church in Alba. This priest who had already founded the Society of St. Paul for priests and brothers had a vision for what women could do in the Church. He invited Teresa to be brave and to leave her family so as to begin to work with the “Good Press” to spread the message of the gospel. When I think of this I am amazed at Mother Thecla’s willingness to follow the invitation of Alberione. At that time Europe was at war, the economy bleak, and some people in the town of Alba thought that the young priest Alberione was more of a troublemaker than a saint. On top of that, Teresa’s health was quite precarious, so much so that a local religious order had advised her that she was too weak to withstand the rigors of religious life. Nonetheless, the young Teresa left her meeting with Alberione on that June day with a new fire in her heart. When she met her mother she explained what Alberione was asking of her. “What did you tell him?” Mrs. Merlo asked her daughter. Teresa simply replied: “I said yes.” Teresa never took back her yes.
Soon she joined a small group of like-minded young women whom Father Alberione had already gathered together. The priest saw in Teresa Merlo the humble yet firm disciple who could lead the feminine Paulines to embrace their mission of using the Good Press and all the future social media to spread the gospel. When the little band of women made their first vows as Sisters in 1919, Father Alberione chose Teresa, to be their Mother General. She led the way in accepting and serenely bearing all the hardship, labor and intense prayer that went into beginning something new in the Church.
These young women with scant education were to be what Alberione called “Maestre,” that is, teachers who imitated the Divine Teacher making his Truth known, partaking in his Life of grace, and always following his Way. Fr. Alberione named this first leader of the Daughters of St. Paul “Thecla” after what tradition tells us was Paul’s first woman disciple and collaborator. Mother Thecla was to transmit to the young women who entered the Daughters of St. Paul the Pauline Spirit, the charism of mission and spirituality of this community gathered under the patronage of the great Apostle St. Paul.
As the first Mother General of the Daughters of St. Paul, Mother Thecla was a pioneer, not only leading her sisters in the field of communications, which at first was constituted mainly by the press and later radio and film. She also went before her sisters, guiding them in spirituality and prayer. I wonder how many times she had to overcome her own fears as she began new areas of apostolic mission and Pauline life.
The Kindness of Mother Thecla
Mother Thecla was a strong woman, yet she was also known for her kindness. After the devastation of World War II, many young Italian brides could not afford a nice wedding dress. I have been told that Mother Thecla provided for many a bride’s special day. During Vatican II she supplied clothing for Bishops from poor countries. Father Anselm Viano, one of the first Pauline Fathers to come to the US, told us that the Founder gave him the ticket for the journey to New York. For all other needs he was to go to Mother Thecla. “She provided for us just as a mother would have,” Father Anselm testified.
One other memory of Mother Thecla stands out in my mind. When I lived in Rome in the 1990s, I had planned a prayer experience for the community based on a Conference Mother Thecla had given on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The archivist at the General Motherhouse in Rome had reluctantly loaned me a cassette containing that exact Conference, and I had created a PowerPoint presentation to accompany her words. After a short prayer and reading from the letters of St. Paul I realized that the PowerPoint presentation wasn’t going to work. I shot up a quick prayer to Mother Thecla, pressed the power button on the cassette machine and the voice of Mother Thecla filled the room where we were praying. It was Wednesday of Holy Week, and the voice of Mother Thecla seemed to speak directly to us as if she were right there. There were senior sisters in the room who had known Mother Thecla, living side by side with her for many years. I could see from their expressions the joy they felt at hearing the voice of their first Mother General uplifting them once more as she encouraged us all to live the sacred days of the Paschal Triduum with greater love and serenity.
“Thank you, Mother Thecla,” I whispered to her. That night Mother Thecla had reminded us that she carries us all in her heart. Even from heaven she cares for us, and for all who turn to her for help.
Blessed James Alberione encouraged all of the Daughters of St. Paul to seek to mirror Mother Thecla. I believe he would also extend this invitation to you. As Lent begins perhaps you might want to imitate Mother Thecla in her continuous union with God, the serene way she faced life’s events, her docility to God’s will, and her desire for and contemplation of the virtues of faith, hope and charity in her life.
Turning to Mother Thecla
Just as people came to Mother Thecla for assistance in their needs on this earth, those who have turned to her in prayer for help have not been disappointed. I invite you to join us as we pray to obtain graces through her intercession.
Most Holy Trinity, we thank you for the singular gifts of light, grace and virtue which you granted to Mother Thecla Merlo, and we thank you for having chosen and constituted her to be the wise mother and sure guide of the Daughters of St. Paul.
Through her intercession, grant that we may live of her great loves: Jesus Master in the Holy Eucharist, the Church, the Gospel and souls—souls sought and served through evangelization with the instruments of social communication to the point of total sacrifice.
O Lord, if it be in the design of your divine wisdom, carry out even on this earth, for this very devoted Daughter of St. Paul, your divine promise: “If anyone serves me, my Father will honor him.”
Exalt this faithful servant to the joy of the Church and the good of many souls and grant us, through her intercession, the favor we ask of you. Amen. Glory be to the Father…. Hail Mary….
I invite you to learn more about Mother Thecla by reading her life story, Thecla, A Prophetic Voice in Media Evangelization by Domenico Agasso.
I promise that I will pray for you every day. During this month when we remember Mother Thecla (her birthday is on February 20), I will be asking her intercession for you and your special intentions.
Prayerfully yours in Jesus, our Way, Truth and Life,
Sister Mary Peter Martin, fsp