Saints for Our Times: Religious women taught, served the poor

By Mary Lou Gibson


There were some radical new ideas in education being introduced in the early years of the 19th century by two remarkable women – Karolina (Caroline) Gerhardinger of Bavaria and Magdalena Gabriela di Canossa of Verona, Italy. The religious congregations they founded broke new ground in how teachers were trained, how education was made more available to the rural poor and how women governed their own congregations.

Karolina was born in Regensburg, Bavaria in 1797 and was educated by the Canonesses of Our Lady. She went on to become a teacher at their school. This experience led her to form a congregation of teachers to educate the poor, especially the rural poor. She wrote a Rule for this new congregation based on that of the Canonesses of Our Lady and made her religious profession taking the name of Mary-Teresa. Because of her devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, she later came to be known as Mary-Teresa of Jesus.

Mother Teresa became superior and established a mother house in Munich in 1837. Paul Burns writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that as the congregation grew, it took the name of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Within 10 years, there were more than 50 houses in Bavaria.

Burns writes that the Congregation’s purpose was to provide sisters to work in pairs in rural schools. Sarah Gallick writes in "The Big Book of Women Saints" that the sisters lived in groups of two or three. Mother Teresa created a unifying central government designed to maintain a common spirit among the religious women. The new bishop did not appreciate these innovations and threatened to excommunicate her, but she persevered. When the congregation’s constitution was approved by Pope Pius IX in 1865, it allowed Mother Teresa and her successors, rather than local bishops, to govern the congregation.

In 1847 Mother Teresa took three sisters to Pennsylvania answering a call from German emigrants. However, the local bishop did not welcome them, so the group traveled to Baltimore where they staffed schools founded by Father John Nepomucene Neumann. Later the sisters extended their mission to health and social care to serve Czech immigrant communities.

The Congregation provided homes and night school for basic education for girls working in factories. They also started the first kindergartens and the first technical high schools in Bavaria. The Holy See approved the Congregation in 1854. It was also called the Poor School Sisters of Notre Dame at the time.

By the time of her death in 1879, Mother Teresa had spent 46 years of her life in religious service. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1985 and her memorial day is variously listed as May 8 or 10. Today, the School Sisters of Notre Dame are organized in seven provinces in the U.S. They are involved in teaching, health care and social services, and work as prison chaplains and spiritual directors. There are sisters working in South and Central America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Magdalena of Canossa was born in 1774 into a wealthy family in Verona, Italy. Her father was the Marquis Ottavio of Canossa and her mother, Maria Teresa, was a lady in waiting to the court in Vienna. Her family status suddenly changed when her father died when she was five. After a period of mourning, her mother remarried and left Magdalena and her three siblings in the care of their uncle Jerome. Editor Michael Walsh writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that the children suffered much from the harshness of a French governess during this time.

As a young teenager, Magdalena thought of becoming a Carmelite nun and briefly entered the convent, but left after a short time to come back to the family estate, which she began to manage at age 19. Yet she nourished a dream of dedicating herself to charity and did what she could to help poor girls in Verona.

Matthew Bunson writes in "John Paul II’s Book of Saints" that by 1803, Magdalena was free of the affairs of the estate and began her apostolate of providing an education for every young boy or girl. Encouraged by her spiritual director, she began working in hospitals, giving alms, instructing people in the catechism and visiting the sick and destitute. Her relatives were horrified, but she only did more charity even lodging two poor girls in her own home and opening a refuge and school in the poorest part of the city.

She opened her first school in 1808 with classes for girls in practical subjects as well as numbers and literacy. As her teaching and religious life unfolded, she organized her group into the Daughters of Charity in 1819. The members were dedicated to establishing schools, training teachers for rural areas and supporting women patients in the hospital. Magdalena also opened high schools and colleges and made special provision for deaf and dumb students.

She received papal approval for her congregation in 1828. Today, they are known as the Canossian Daughters of Charity. In 1831 she founded the Institute of the Sons of Charity and later a Third Order for lay people.

Magdalena developed great powers of recollection and prayer in her spiritual life. There were reports of her enveloped in ecstasy on several occasions and once she was seen to be lifted from the ground. She tried to describe her mystical experiences in her Memoirs. Burns noted that she had a special devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows and that she saw Mary as "mother of charity" and constantly put that image before her Sisters. She also saw the crucified Christ in the poor, the sick and the suffering.

Towards the end of her life she suffered from a painful back ailment and could only sleep sitting up. She died on April 10, 1835, in Verona. She was declared Blessed in 1941 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Her feast day is sometimes kept on April 10, the day of her death, but more often is listed as May 8.

Today, the Canossian Daughters of Charity number more than 4,000 sisters working in 21 countries. The men’s Institute has 200 priests and lay brothers in Italy, Brazil and the Philippines.

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