Teresa Merlo had a heart the whole world could fit in.
Born February 20, 1894, into a farming family in Castagnito d’Alba, Italy, Teresa (as she was called then) was the second of four children. She was a loving, capable child, but never quite as healthy as other kids her age. Worried about her health, her parents decided to get her a tutor rather than send her to school with her brothers. From her parents and her tutor, Miss Chiarla, Teresa learned her school subjects, essential life skills, and commitment to the spiritual life. It became clear to those around her that little Teresa loved God genuinely.
Teresa dreamed of becoming a religious sister, but was unable to join a local order because of her poor health. And so she decided to pursue a trade. She trained to become a seamstress and opened a sewing school for girls out of her home. But she wasn’t content to simply teach her girls to stitch cloth—these girls weren’t just students to be taught and dismissed, but beloved daughters of God, whose souls thirsted for the love of their Beloved. While they sewed, Teresa taught them about God and prayer. The girls left her classes confident both with their needles and in their Lord.
Already twenty-one, Teresa confided in her seminarian brother that she still dreamed of being a religious sister. He in turn confided her situation to the young spiritual director at his seminary, Fr. James Alberione. Fr. Alberione offered to meet with Teresa. Their meeting was brief: he told her she could join the group of young women he was assembling for the mission of “the good press,” but that for now they would be sewing clothes for the soldiers until they could begin their apostolate. Was she willing? Teresa’s yes was given that very day. She bid goodbye to her beloved students and left her home to join the small group of young women in this strange new mission that had yet to be fully developed, trusting Fr. Alberione and trusting God.
It soon became apparent to Fr. Alberione that Teresa had a gift of loving deeply. She felt keenly the joys and sorrows of those she had never met; she yearned for souls to encounter him who loved them best. When the young women finally made their first religious vows under Fr. Alberione, he appointed Teresa the first superior of her peers. From that day on, it became clear that she would lead with that love overflowing from her heart.
Now called Thecla, she went with her sisters to learn the apostolate of the press by taking over a diocesan newspaper in Susa. Mother Thecla and her sisters operated the printing machines—traditionally men’s work—to the fascination of the local people. The locals, noticing the sisters worked under a statue of St. Paul, began to affectionately refer to them as “The Daughters of St. Paul.” The name stuck. Mother Thecla was a Daughter of St. Paul, with a heart every bit as large as his.
As the Daughters of St. Paul began to expand, Mother Thecla helped Fr. Alberione steer the ship. She offered wise and gentle counsel, and accepted his decisions with trust and obedience. She also helped him in the foundation of many other Pauline institutes. It wasn’t uncommon for members of the other institutes to come to her for help first (even before Fr. Alberione!), confident in her quiet wisdom and gentle love.
As the years passed, it was clear that Christ was expanding the already-generous heart of Mother Thecla. With Daughters of St. Paul now missioned across the world, Mother Thecla traveled to visit sisters and meet local people on every continent. In her travels she demonstrated a remarkable ability to see, with the eyes of the heart, the true feelings, yearnings, and needs of those of other cultures and languages. She was deeply inspired by those she encountered. “We must feel the needs of souls,” she said upon her return. “When we have something to suffer, let us offer it for souls, even for those we do not know and who are scattered in all the nations of the world. So many souls! So many!”
Her years serving God in her community were not easy ones. The community was in constant flux as Fr. Alberione continued to expand the Pauline family, World War II ravaged Italy, and she continued to battle with poor health. But through it all, her trust, generosity, and courage kept the Daughters of St. Paul steady, and brought her closer to the heart of Jesus Master. She wrote with loving confidence, “You are within me and outside of me…”
It was in 1963 that Mother Thecla began to show signs of an illness unlike the rest. It soon became clear it was terminal. In her remaining months, she was an example of courage, humility, and trust to those around her. “I can’t remember things anymore,” she wrote. “I can’t remember names. I find it hard to breathe, but I accept everything for your sake, out of love and in a spirit of atonement.”
Mother Thecla passed away February 5, 1964, with Fr. Alberione at her side. “You will have other superior generals,” he said to the Daughters of St. Paul, “but not another mother.”
Mother Thecla was proclaimed “Venerable” January 22, 1991, by Pope John Paul II.