Blessed Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, Founder, Educator, and Innovator
Today, May 9th, we commemorate Blessed Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger (1797 – 1879), founder of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Blessed Mary Theresa was born Caroline Gerhardinger during difficult times to a working class family in Bavaria. Encouraged by her parish priest to become a teacher, she believed strongly that a child’s need for love, safety and food were as important as formal education. “Let us never forget the love of Jesus for children, whom he took upon his lap and blessed,” she said.
At the age of fifteen, she was already a certified teacher at a school for girls near Regensburg. She was a very gifted educator whose enthusiastic and encouraging acceptance of the children soon made her a beloved teacher.
Caroline eventially recognized God’s call to found a religious community which would remedy the social needs of the time through education. On November 16, 1835, Caroline professed her religious vows and took the name, Mary Theresa of Jesus. Her love for God, nourished and strengthened by her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, enkindled the burning desire of her life: to know God and to do God’s will. God’s cause was the only concern of her heart. Blessed Theresa anchored her community in poverty and dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Mother Mary Theresa’s life work, helping women and children grow to their greatest potential, was a founding principle of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She brought the order and the mission of educating girls to America, following the wave of German immigration. Within a year, they established a presence in seven cities.
Mother Mary Theresa died in 1879. At that time, her congregation numbered more than 2500. They met the needs of their time by educating girls in elementary schools, orphanages, industrial schools and day nurseries and pioneered in the development of the Kindergarten. For girls working in factories, they provided homes and night schools where they could receive a basic education.
While most religious orders of her time were governed by men, she was convinced that a woman could better understand, direct and motivate her sisters. The Constitution of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, approved by Pope Pius IX in 1865, allowed Mother Theresa and her successors, rather than local bishops, to govern the congregation.
Mary Theresa of Jesus was beatified in 1985, and is now known as Blessed Theresa.
“Longing for the oneness of all in God, grounded the congregation in Eucharist, anchored it in poverty, and dedicated it to Mary. A woman of faith, ever seeking God’s will, she struggled for unity in our international community and responded to urgent needs, preferring the poor and educating with a world vision. In these gifts of the Spirit to our foundress, Mother Theresa, we recognize the evolving charism of our congregation.”
Prologue, You Are Sent, 17-18.
“For us education means enabling persons to reach the fullness of their potential as individuals created in God’s image.” We pray today for all those who are deprived of education due to poverty, oppression, or other factors. We pray for liberation through education, for spiritual growth that comes from freedom, and for grateful hearts for all we have received.”