Saint of the Day – 6 July – Blessed Maria Theresa Ledóchowska SSPC (1863-1922) Religious Sister and Co-Founder of the Missionary Sisters of St Peter Claver (commonly known as the Claverian Sisters), dedicated to service in Africa, Missionary – she is called the “Mother of the African missions.” Born on 29 April 1863 in Loosdorf, Melk, Austria and died on 6 July 1922 in Rome, Italy of natural causes. Patronage – the Missionary Sisters of St Peter Claver.
Maria Theresa (presumably named after the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who joined the first partition of Poland in 1773) was the first of seven children of Antoni Ledóchowski 1823–1885 and his second wife Józefina (“Sefina”) née Salis-Zizers and was born on 29 April 1863, in Loosdorf, Austria, about 80 kilometres West of Vienna. This was “the most beautiful day of her mother’s life.” The story of her family and in particular, her remarkable Swiss-Austrian mother Sefina “Mother of Saints,” is told in a separate article on her parents, who put a lot of effort into educating and instilling in their children a strong sense of duty to God, the Catholic Church and their father’s country, Poland.
When she was just five years old, Maria Theresa could already read and write. Her mother saw her one day writing something furiously in her exercise book and on further investigation discovered this was a play, with family members in key roles. She was soon writing poetry. By eight, she could play the piano quite well and was writing notes on visits to art galleries and the World Fair in Vienna.
In 1873, when Maria Theresa was 10, her father lost a major investment in an Austrian bank which failed. He sold Loosdorf and the family moved a little closer to Vienna, to St Pölten, where the eldest girls could go to a “school run by English Ladies” or the Marienfried convent. These were the Loreto Sisters or the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dedicated to education, founded by an Englishwoman, Mary Ward, in 1609. Their education was very good. At the age of 12 Maria Theresa was editing the school magazine. She was a thoughtful, serious girl and she flourished, to the great pride of her parents. (Saint Maria Teresa of Calcutta was educated by the same order.)
In early 1876 Maria Theresa accompanied her family to Vienna to meet her uncle (son of Maria Rozalia, and her father’s first cousin) Cardinal Mieczysław Ledóchowski. The Cardinal was being greeted everywhere as a great hero for his defence of both the Catholic Church and Polish culture, against Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. For this, he had been imprisoned for two years, expelled from the German partition and promoted to Cardinal. He was now on his way back to Rome. The Cardinal made such an impression on the 12 year old girl that she got permission from her father to learn Polish, wrote to the Cardinal in Polish two years later and continued corresponding with him thereafter.
In 1879 the 16 year old Maria Theresa accompanied her father on a trip to Poland, which she recorded in a diary entitled Mein Polen (My Poland) and published under the pen name Alexander Halka. The warmth of their relatives convinced Antoni that they should consider moving to Poland. In Wilno, however, Maria Theresa was infected with typhus and barely recovered. The disease was killing quite a few children in Europe at the time. The same year her 12 year old sister Maria also caught it and died from it.
Maria Theresa and her siblings strongly supported the family’s move, partly financed by the Cardinal as described in the article on her parents, to Lipnica Murowana, in the Austrian partition of Poland, in 1883, when she was 20. She made use of this to improve her Polish but did not stay there long.
In early 1885, when Maria Theresa was not quite 22, she contracted smallpox. Shortly afterwards, her father Antoni, was infected too and he died during an asthma attack on 24 February 1885. The severity of the smallpox and the tragic death of her beloved father, on top of the typhus she had endured and which had killed her younger sister a few years earlier, were debilitating for Maria Theresa and left her underweight and disfigured. Fr Laurita says she looked at herself in the mirror and bravely accepted her fate with even some humour – and so began her decision to do something big for God. As part of her convalescence she went to the Gmunden health resort in Austria.
The eldest three children were now leaving home – the third eldest, the highly intelligent Wladimir, went to Kraków University to study law, changed to theology and entered the Tarnów seminary in October 1885 and the second eldest, Julia (the future Ursula – the future Saint Ursula Ledóchowska (1865-1939) https://anastpaul.com/2017/05/29/saint-of-the-day-29-may-st-ursula-ledochowska-mother-maria-ursula-of-jesus/ ), had decided to become a nun and entered the Ursuline Convent at Starowiślna in Kraków in 1886.
At the Gmunden health resort the eldest, Maria Theresa, had met Princess Alice, Archduchess of Tuscany and she now moved to Salzburg where on 1 December 1885 she became Lady-in-Waiting to the Princess. At the Princess’ Court, Maria Theresa planned to develop her skills and love for music, painting and literature. But several events then changed Maria Teresa’s life:-
● Two Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, an order founded in British India in 1877, visited the Court with stories of how they strive to alleviate hunger, poverty and disease.
● She heard about the visit of Cardinal Lavigerie to London, who urged the “Christian ladies of Europe” to use their talents to support the fight against slavery in Africa.
● She wrote a play, Zaida, about an African slave girl.
● Her uncle Cardinal Mieczysław Ledóchowski strongly encouraged her.
● She established contact with many missionaries in the poor world.
● She started writing articles entitled “Echo from Africa” in a German newspaper in which St Angela-Blatt, called for support for the Missionaries.
● In November 1889 she started publishing a separate monthly paper Echo from Africa dedicated to supporting the work of Missionaries and especially the fight against slavery.
1894: The Sodality of St Peter Claver
In 1891 Maria Theresa left the Court. A violent physical attack increased her determination to pursue her mission. At the age of 31, in 1894, with her uncle’s support, she secured the approval of PopeLeo XIII for the establishment of the St Petrus Claver-Sodalität, or Sodality of St Peter Claver for African Missions. St Peter is known as the “Apostle to the Slaves.” Tellingly, she named it after the Jesuit who tried to alleviate the suffering of African slaves transported to South America in the early seventeenth century, is estimated to have personally baptised around 300,000 people, and became the patron saint of slaves and seafarers.
Shortly after founding the Sodality, Maria Theresa was joined by her first recruit, Melania von Ernst, a subscriber to Echo from Africa. In 1895 the two were joined by Maria Jandl. More young women were inspired to join. In 1896 they were established in a country house they called Maria Sorg in Austria, which included a Chapel commemorating the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in 1683. Their publications included Echo from Africa, The Small African Library later called African Youth, Propaganda for the Missions later called Africa for Christ, the St Peter Claver Calendar and the Children’s Calendar, all raising funds and support for the missions.
On 8 September 1897 (the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, but also the anniversary of St Peter Claver’s death) she and her first companions professed their permanent religious vows as Missionary Sisters of St Peter Claver. They adopted the Jesuit Constitutions for their own use, to combine the elements of contemplation with an active life of service.
The Sodality then grew to what it is today – the Claverian Sisters, or the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St Peter Claver, dedicated to Missionary work, serving the Church, the needy and disadvantaged. They have communities in 23 countries, including Austria, Poland, the UK, Africa and the Americas and are active in 78 countries. Their website has a map of their global presence.
Maria Theresa and her sister Ursula together recorded their memories of their mother Józefina née Salis-Zizers and this was published by the Sodality in 1935, an extremely rare, if not unique, example of daughters publishing a book in honour of their mother.
She died of tuberculosis at the relatively young age of 59 on 6 July 1922. She was buried in a cemetery near St Peter’s and was moved to the General Motherhouse of the Congregation of Claverian Sisters on Via dell’Olmata 16, Rome, in 1935.
Two events in Italy in the 1930s were recognised as miracles. Guiditta De Rivo, from Velletri, was knocked over by a fast motorcycle and her three month old child died on the spot. She could not move afterwards due to several wounds and a broken pelvis. She dedicated herself to the care of Mother Maria Theresa Ledóchowska and shortly afterwards got up from her bed, asked for her clothes and left the hospital.
Vincenza Mazzeotti, from Flavetto di Rovito, suffered from severe inflammation of the left knee. On 4 July 1936 the doctor decided an operation was necessary. On 5th July she received a copy of Echo from Africa and started praying for the intervention of Maria Theresa. On 6 July, Maria Theresa’s day, when Vincenza was due to be operated on in hospital, she got up. Her leg was already cured.
The cause for her Beatification was opened about 1930. As part of the process, her remains were exhumed and transferred to the Chapel of the General Motherhouse in 1934. Pope Paul VI Beatified her on 19 October 1975. Her feast day is celebrated on 6 July.