This year, New Orleans-area members of the Society of St. Teresa of Jesus – more commonly known as the Teresian Sisters – have a triple reason to celebrate.
In addition to the papal designation of this year as “The Year of Consecrated Life,” 2015 marks the centennial of the Teresian Sisters’ arrival to the Archdiocese of New Orleans as teachers at St. Louis Cathedral School. And on March 28, Teresians throughout the world will observe the 500th birthday of St. Teresa of Avila, their Spanish-born patroness and a Doctor of the Church.
A Mass honoring the Teresian Sisters’ 100 years of ministry in the local church is set for March 22 at 11 a.m. at St. Louis Cathedral. Archbishop Gregory Aymond will be the main celebrant.
‘All for Jesus!’
“The goal of Teresian education is to enable each student to think like Jesus, to speak like Jesus, to act like Jesus and to love like Jesus,” said Teresian Sister Marina Aranzabal, provincial vicar of the society’s American province, headquartered in Covington since 1987.
“The wonderful welcome that we have received from the archdiocese – that’s what makes us happy to be here,” said Sister Marina, who came to New Orleans in 1968 as a newly professed sister to teach religion and music for eight years at St. Matthew the Apostle in River Ridge. “Immediately people opened their homes and welcomed us. That hospitality is so beautiful. New Orleans is special because of the welcome of the people. You don’t find that everywhere. Once (our sisters) come to New Orleans, they don’t want to leave.”
Currently numbering 1,300 sisters who minister in 23 countries in North and South America, Europe and Africa, the society was established in Spain in 1876 to make Jesus known and loved throughout the world. Co-founders St. Henry de Osso, a diocesan priest, and a seminal congregation of eight women embraced a charism of prayer, teaching and sacrifice under the motto “All for Jesus,” convinced that the life of prayer and total surrender to God modeled by St. Teresa of Avila would ignite a worldwide conversion.
Teresian Sisters began serving in the United States in 1910, moving northward in response to the persecution of religious orders in Mexico. Their service to the local church formally began on Sept. 13, 1915, when the sisters assumed the operation of St. Louis Cathedral Elementary School, at Dauphine and St. Ann streets, at the request of cathedral pastor Father Francois Racine. The school, originally founded by the Mesdames of the Sacred Heart, maintained a Teresian presence for 83 years – through 1998.
Attended to every need
Frank France, a 1939 Cathedral School graduate who went on to found Kehoe-France Academy, said he eagerly walked from his home on Orleans and Bourbon streets to receive the excellent academic instruction and spiritual formation from the Teresian sisters. His principal and seventh grade teacher was Mother Maria Mejia, a Loyola graduate and native of Mexico.
“They were all addressed as ‘mother’ in those days,” France said. “They were tremendous character builders, wonderful role models, dedicated completely to their faith and their children,” said France, noting he was well prepared for the rigors of high school math and English and grew “in respect and discipline” under the sisters’ kind but firm teaching methods.
“They did what they called ‘recess teaching’ for the children who needed extra help,” France explained. “If they weren’t satisfied with how they were doing, they would schedule them after school for an hour or so. They would repeat this until the children were in the median of the class.”
France said many school families still were reeling from the Great Depression, but the Teresian Sisters and Oblate priests “picked up the slack by providing encouragement and motivation” through their Catholic faith and the weekly Friday Masses.
“They also watched out for (whole) families,” France said. “They had an instinctive way of looking for the families who were in real poverty. They would make sure those students had lunch, and unbeknownst to the students, they made sure those families had food at home. It was unbelievable Christian living!”
Love for families
In response to the explosive growth of the local church in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Teresian Sisters from Mexico, Cuba and Spain were recruited to staff St. Lawrence the Martyr School in Metairie and St. Matthew the Apostle. Teresians later served in teaching and administrative posts at three other elementary schools: St. Mary Magdalen in Metairie, Our Lady of Lourdes in Slidell and Annunciation in Bogalusa; and two high schools: Pope John Paul II and St. Scholastica Academy.
Wanda Dufour Cullen, a member of St. Matthew the Apostle’s first graduating class of 1964, said she has maintained lifelong friendships with many Teresian sisters through prayer and annual elementary school reunions. When Cullen’s eight children were growing up in the early 1980s – including five children who were adopted from Central America – the sisters welcomed her large brood to their San Antonio convent for at least five summer vacations. One of the sisters, Angelus Sendin, is godmother to one of the Cullen children.
“They sort of took (my children) in as their children,” Cullen said. “They housed us, they took us to Sea World. They didn’t charge us anything. They fed us, and housed us while we were there. They just love to interact with families, both kids and adults.”
In gratitude, Cullen, who operates a performing arts school, gives proceeds from her annual Christmas concert to the Teresian missions in Uvalde and La Pryor, Texas, an impoverished area in which the sisters operate a tutoring center, dispense food and clothing and conduct religion classes, parenting classes and home visits.
“Their way of thinking is, you can’t learn about Jesus when you’re hungry. When you’re hungry, you’re hungry; when you’re cold, you’re cold,” Cullen said. “So you take care of a person’s physical needs first, and when you do that, you’re Jesus to them. It’s just a beautiful way to live.”
National hub is in Covington
Besides their work in school ministry, the local Teresian community has served the Hispanic community, Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish in New Orleans, Sacred Heart Parish in Lacombe, the archdiocesan Vocation Office, St. Joseph Seminary College and Notre Dame Seminary.
Today’s American Province of Teresians, one of 17 provinces and one delegation, consists of women religious working in the archdioceses of San Antonio, Miami and New Orleans. Eleven Teresians, hailing from Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Vietnam and the United States, currently reside in the Archdiocese of New Orleans on opposite sides of Lake Pontchartain.
The Blessed Mercedes Prat Convent, on Mirabeau Avenue in Gentilly, is home to four sisters – Maria Luisa Aldape, Cecilia Castillo, Maryann Hoang and Gloria Murillo – whose ministerial outreach includes St. Mary’s Academy, the Archdiocesan Spirituality Center and Blessed Seelos Parish.
The Provincial House Community in Covington is the Teresians’ northshore hub. In addition to being the residence of Sister Marina and the provincial head, Sister Gina Geraci, it is home to Sisters Dolores Espinoza, Martha Gonzalez, Isabel Ordoño, Dolores Rodriguez and Enedina Rodriguez.
On the northshore, the sisters are involved in provincial administration, a prison ministry focusing on incarcerated women and operate the 34-acre Teresian Spirituality Center, a pine-tree shaded site of day, weekend and extended retreats. An outdoor Stations of the Cross provides a serene setting for prayer.
“We host confirmation retreats, groups of CCD teachers who come for a day of prayer,” Sister Marina said. “We’ll have people who come from the city, just for a day, to breathe a little fresh air.”
In addition to the March 22 Mass, Masses marking 100 years of local Teresian presence will be celebrated May 3 at 9:30 a.m. at Mary Queen of Peace Church; and Nov. 8 at 12:30 p.m. at St. Mary Magdalen Church. Other celebrations are being planned with alumni of St. Lawrence the Martyr and St. Matthew the Apostle schools.
On March 28, the Teresian Sisters will join the universal church in celebrating the 500th birthday of St. Teresa of Avila by hosting a family celebration at their provincial house in Covington. The sisters also are sponsoring two pilgrimages to Avila: one led by Sister Isabel Ordoño from April 28-May 7; the other led by Sister Marina Aranzabal from June 8-18.