Caroline Gerhardinger was born in Stadtamhof (a suburb of Regensburg), Germany, in 1797. As a girl, Caroline was educated by the Canonesses of Notre Dame, a religious community founded by Saint Peter Fourier and Blessed Alix Le Clerc. In 1809, the school was suppressed and the sisters dispersed as part of Napoleon’s anti-clerical campaign. And so, at only 15 years of age, Caroline began teaching other girls. She demonstrated great gifts and came to the attention of Father Georg Whitman, who took Caroline under his wing. Under Father Whitman’s direction, she completed her education and, again, served in the school from 1816 to 1833. This priest, who would eventually become bishop of Regensburg, shared with Caroline his dream of sending out teaching sisters, two by two, into the rural schools of Bavaria. While his untimely death in 1833 left Caroline with no money or support, the group women who had already gathered around her courageously continued on.
In 1834, Caroline was granted an audience with King Ludwig I during which she was granted permission to establish a convent. The following year, she took religious vows and the religious name Maria Teresa of Jesus. Her new community, the Poor School Sisters of Notre Dame, began to grow quickly, and within ten years there were 52 communities of sisters serving throughout Bavaria, offering an education to girls who might otherwise have received none.
In 1847, Mother Maria Teresa accepted the invitation of Saint John Neumann, the bishop of Philadelphia, to establish communities of School Sisters of Notre Dame in Pittsburg and Philadelphia, as well as an orphanage in Baltimore. These new communities were originally intended to serve the needs of Czech immigrants, but their work and influence quickly spread throughout the United States. The following years also saw the creation of new communities in Germany, Hungary, and England. Finally, in 1854, after overcoming countless difficulties, the Holy See approved the new religious community and confirmed Mother Maria Teresa as superior for life.
One recent account of her life observes that, “Her character was said to be rigid, and this may well have been an advantage in surmounting the varied obstacles which faced a Congregation with an insecure future.” Despite her strictness, she was esteemed by the parents of her students, as well as by civic and Church leaders. Beyond her considerable administrative and teaching abilities, she was also a woman of prayer who was nourished by her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and her dedication to Mary. Her sisters were to live and act like Mary, offering their lives in complete dedication to God, carrying Christ into the world. In a letter to her sisters, she wrote: “Our perfection consists, in my estimation, in the love of God… Let us give to God our whole heart; after all, it belongs to him! Let us love him above all else!”
Maria Teresa of Jesus Gerhardinger died on May 9, 1879. Her final words were, “My death will be a consolation for my whole life.” She was beatified by Saint John Paul II in 1985. At the time of her death, there were more than three thousand sisters serving in more than three hundred communities around the world. The Church celebrates the commemoration of Blessed Maria Teresa on May 9.
In his homily for the beatification, Saint John Paul II observed that, “the secret of the great fruitfulness of Mother [Maria] Teresa’s deeds and work in education was, in addition to her professional excellence, most of all the strength of her spiritual life: an unshakeable trust in God and a glowing love for Christ and the poor.” The life and witness of this blessed woman are a powerful reminder that regardless of our avocation or profession, each of us also has a unique vocation—a call to live out our faith in a particular way, for the glory of God and the good of those around us. As an educator, Blessed Maria Teresa touched the lives of children and families. But, for her, the work of forming young minds was inseparable from that of forming hearts and souls in the love of Christ. So, the challenge for each of us is to reflect on our own professional and family commitments and to recognize how God is inviting each of us to proclaim God’s love in each facet of our lives.
O God, who raised up blessed Maria Teresa of Jesus in your Church to show others the way of salvation, grant us, by her example so to follow Christ the master, that we may come with our neighbor into your presence. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)