She Still Leads Us
SHE STILL LEADS US: THE LIFE & LEGACY OF
MOTHER THERESA MARGARET OF THE SACRED HEARTS
(FOUNDRESS OF THE LAFAYETTE CARMEL)
Mother Theresa Margaret’s life story is closely entwined with the history of the Monastery. She was with it from the beginning and with it celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. She guided its growth into the depth of Carmel’s spirit and from within its cloistered walls reached out to embrace the needs of the world. Her daily experiences and the events of the Lafayette Carmel unfolded and grew together.
She was a “gracious friend, a spiritual guide and confidante, a deeply prayerful woman, strong in her faith and in her love for the Church” (Monsignor H. Larroque, JCD, VG). She knew “the Lord, my Rock, can do no wrong” and with Him and in communion with our Blessed Mother, whom she dearly loved and to whom she entrusted the growth and spirit of the Community, she confidently walked toward the goal God had set for her: a day-to-day journey in Faith.
TO BE SUCH
TO BE SUCH (quoting St. Teresa of Jesus) was Mother Theresa Margaret’s ideal, for herself, for her Carmel, and for each one of her daughters. All had to be genuine, real, whether it was the strong wrought-iron furnishings of the Chapel, the simple practical and attractive cloistered area of the Monastery, the nourishing home-grown organic food, or—and most importantly—the Carmelite spiritual life of the Sisters. She deeply studied, pondered and prayed over the writings of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross during the difficult “foundation days” of the Lafayette Community and the doctrine of these great Carmelite saints became an integral part of her later life and teaching. Mother Theresa Margaret was a “born teacher” . . .
Lucy Mary Hermes began life September 30, 1906 and became a child of God October 15th, feast of St. Teresa of Jesus. But even before birth, her mother consecrated her to Our Lady. She was the sixth of nine children gracing the home of Anthony Thomas Hermes and Teresa Lillie Drysee in Hallettsville, Texas. Her father was a rancher who, in addition to his cattle, also raised cotton to sell and crops for the family table. The income was moderate and they lived comfortably in a large two-story white frame house with red trim and red roof. All the children assisted with household chores. Picking cotton was not little Lucy’s favorite pastime. However, she did like to cook and started as soon as she was old enough to stir a pot. Work in the fields, household chores, visits to the Church and to the homes of aunts and uncles and the family rosary each evening before a delicate porcelain statue of Our Lady was the ordinary everyday life.
The Hermes children attended elementary school to the eighth grade (a country school with two or three classes in one room) and then were sent to boarding school for higher education. Mother Theresa Margaret described herself as a rather introspective, bashful but wholesome child who kept much to herself. She was a “high achiever.” She had to excel. She could not win the silver medal . . . she had to win the gold!
When it was Lucy’s turn for boarding school, her Mother became ill and Lucy had to stay home to cook, clean and care for her father, four brothers and the farm hands. By this time Agnes had married and Julie was now Sister Vincent de Paul of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word. After a few years of housekeeping, Lucy grew very bored with this rather monotonous occupation and prayed earnestly to Our Lady to know what to do next, trusting in God to guide her. Mrs. Hermes was again in good health and had resumed her usual duties. Lucy persuaded her father to enroll her in a nearby short summer-school program in order to become a certified teacher. Her enthusiasm was contagious and soon the principal of a two-teacher school offered her a job. The neophyte started September 29, 1924, and taught her first day of school as a seventeen-year old. She remained there for two years, then moved to a three-teacher school and again taught for two years.
During this time, she used to spend weekends assisting the housekeeper of Father Joseph Kopp, Pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Moulton, Texas, a very close friend of the family. He was a stern and sturdy character whom Mother described as the “smartest man she ever knew.” Father became her mentor. He encouraged her thirst for reading and she often borrowed his books or those of her teachers. Observing her closely during these weekends, he recognized Lucy’s gifts and suggested she stop teaching and attend college. She objected because she had no high school education. However, he encouraged her to take the entrance exam. She did, and was accepted at the University of Texas in Austin. Externally, she followed the normal campus life and participated in many activities. During her year as president of the Newman Club, the Southwest Province held its annual conference at the college in Lafayette, Louisiana (now called the University of Louisiana—UL). As president, she attended. When she and her companions drove through the Lafayette streets, little did she dream that one day she would be among the foundresses of a Carmelite monastery in that city!
After graduation in 1931, Lucy taught in Austin schools and was an official of the National Council of Catholic Women there. Then she applied for a Master’s program. While waiting for enrollment, she accepted a summer position as governess of two small children for a young family who herded sheep in Texas. There were no schools or neighbors within a ten mile radius of the ranch and the first week was very difficult for her. However, she grew to love the solitude, the rocks and rolling hills, the wide horizon, and would slip out to the hilltop in the early morning to enjoy the vista, watch the sunrise and to pray. However, she realized she was missing daily Mass and the rich spiritual life to which she was accustomed at the University.
While working at the ranch, a gentleman called and offered a teaching position in an Austin junior high school, with increased pay. Needing the money, she accepted it and moved back to that city. Returning to her practice of daily Mass at the Student Center, she was struck by the reverence of the new Chaplain, Father William Blakesly, C.S.P., and he noticed the evident deep, sincere faith of the young woman. One day he addressed her and asked if she ever considered going to a convent. Of course Lucy said yes and opened her heart to him. After quietly listening, he described the Carmelite life and she knew with certainty that was what she wanted.
At that time, the nearest Carmel was New Orleans. She applied and was accepted. Her entrance date was set for June 30, 1934.
Late in the evening of June 29th, Lucy boarded the train for Carmel and after traveling all night arrived in New Orleans the following morning. Sister Angela and Sister Avertan, two of the Monastery’s Extern Sisters, met her at the station. With a strong awareness now of herself as a chosen Bride of Christ, she was significantly attired in white. A white picture hat covered her long dark hair caught in a bun at the nape of her neck. Before leaving the station, she sent a telegram to Father Kopp: “I’m off to Carmel, smiling, and to stay.” (He used to tease her saying that she probably would be back soon . . .)
Her first view of the Monastery was that of an austere, imposing building surrounded by a twenty-two foot high brick wall in the famous French Quarter of the city. This was to be her future home—for life, she thought. She assisted at Mass with the Extern Sisters and had breakfast. Finally the moment arrived: “Reverend Mother is ready for you.” The key squeaked in the lock and the big heavy enclosure door creaked open. Lucy was told to kneel and kiss the Crucifix. Mother Theresa Margaret later related: “A few chills were running up and down my back as I walked down the long, silent corridor towards another door opening into the novitiate section. There my eyes fell upon an inscription: Our God dwells in your soul day and night, eager to give and receive love for love. . . . My goosebumps vanished, a warm peace invaded my heart and I felt compensated for all I had left behind: home, family, friends, wide Texas prairies—and my horses! To give and receive LOVE for love: that is the perfect satisfaction of the human heart; that is the fulfillment of its purpose of existence. . . . I could desire nothing more!”
Lucy’s Clothing in the Carmelite Habit was set for January 22, 1935. A full account is given in the March 1935 issue of the LITTLE FLOWER MAGAZINE, with a lengthy quote from the homily of Father Riach, C.S.P., also a university chaplain and friend. Included was his illusion to the snow which happened to be falling at the time of Mass. This is a very rare phenomenon in the sunny South where summer lasts almost all-year round. What a delicate gift from the Bridegroom to His bride. . . . Of course, her mind connected with St. Therese’s Clothing day when snow covered the ground. Lucy received the Habit and her religious name, Theresa Margaret of the Sacred Heart. (The Carmelite saint, Theresa Margaret of Florence, Italy, had been canonized the previous year.) The ceremony ended with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. It seems from the article in the magazine that her sister, Sister Vincent de Paul, was the only family member present. Before leaving home, her father told her: “I’m mighty proud of your vocation but wish you didn’t go so far away. I won’t get to see you again.” (He was present for her Veiling ceremony but died of a heart attack shortly after.)
As far as we know, the Novitiate year was uneventful and Sister Theresa Margaret prepared intensely for her consecration by vows. She made Profession of Simple Vows for three years in the Novitiate Oratory in the presence of all the Sisters. Although canonically she had to say “for three years” she declared that in her heart it was “until death.”
THE LAFAYETTE FOUNDATION—1936
After the Profession, there was a flurry of activity as the Community prepared for the Lafayette foundation. When Father Jules B. Jeanmard, a Chaplain to the Monastery, was named first Bishop of the new Diocese of Lafayette (1918) the nuns promised to follow him there. He extended his invitation several times but it was not until 1936 that they were able to fulfill his request. Mother Marie Dolores of the Passion (Heloise Caillouet, sister of the future Bishop Abel Caillouet and Monsignor Lucien Caillouet) was asked if she would lead the group. She consented only on the condition that Sister Theresa Margaret be among the foundresses.
Around May 8th, after tearful goodbyes, four cloistered Sisters (among them Sister Theresa Margaret) and one Extern Sister left New Orleans and traveled the two-hundred mile distance to Lafayette in cars provided by relatives and friends—almost a five-hour trip in those days! The Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament in Lafayette graciously provided hospitality for the group until the Monastery was ready. May 16th, feast of St. Simon Stock, was set as the opening day. Workmen, priest friends, and the nuns stayed up most of the night before to finish preparations. Although the smell of fresh paint contested with the fragrance of dozens of Easter lilies on the remodeled altar and the altar wine was lost in the moving (the chaplain ran to the nearby Cathedral to obtain some) Bishop Jeanmard began the first Mass on time. With this Eucharistic celebration, Carmel, under the Patronage of Mary, Mother of Grace, was officially inaugurated in the life of the Diocese. Thousands came to see this “new kind of Sisters” during several days of Open House and listened in amazement as their cloistered way of life and its purpose was explained. Finally the excitement subsided and the Foundresses were left alone to settle down in their miniature monastery, a charming Southern white frame building on the Old Spanish Trail. Two aged oaks covered with Spanish moss graced the entrance and added to the attractiveness of the setting. A fifteen foot concrete wall—in time overrun with English ivy—would later surround the three acres. For a period of time, Bishop Jeanmard himself served as Chaplain.
As usual with beginnings, there were many difficulties. Chief among them was the decline in health of three of the Sisters due to the hardships of small numbers and the irregularities of foundation life. Eventually these returned to the less stressful routine of their established community in New Orleans. That left Mother Marie Dolores to fulfill the complex administrative duties while Sister Theresa Margaret, still in formation herself, was entrusted with the religious and spiritual formation of young aspirants. And, as is usual with new foundations, these applicants came and went. . . . So often alone, with only the older nun as companion, this was a very difficult situation for her. She had only been in Carmel over a year and a half with very little time to assimilate Carmelite doctrine. Suffering intensely in this situation, she sought to supply for her spiritual and intellectual needs by reading, and turned to St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. She studied them deeply. Her books are marked and re-marked, highlighted and underlined, with comments, observations and questions written between the lines and in the margins. The profound depth of her thought and understanding is revealed in these texts, which our Carmel now treasures. This prayerful reading bore rich fruit—in her own spiritual life and in the instructions she was able to give the Community as it developed. Carmelite spirituality and doctrine, as well as the mind of the Church, were always the criteria of her judgments and decisions. (This was especially true when future decisions had to be made concerning renewal.)
On the Carmelite feast of the Espousals of Mary and Joseph, January 23, 1939, Sister Theresa Margaret made Final Profession of Vows. Her Veiling ceremony (receiving the black veil of a Professed Sister, the final seal upon her total consecration to God) was scheduled for April 21st at 9:30 A.M. Bishop Jeanmard and twenty-four priests, many from the Diocese and some Texas friends, were present. It was the first public ceremony in the Monastery. An article printed in the LITTLE FLOWER MAGAZINE of that year states that a “Missa Cantata was celebrated by Father Joseph Kopp and the homily delivered by Father S. H. Ray, S.J., Director of Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House at Grand Coteau.” The Veiling Ceremony followed the homily. After the veiling, Bishop Jeanmard expressed his appreciation of having the Carmelites in his Diocese. He congratulated the Sisters on this, their first ceremony, and the parents of the young nun who for the second time were sacrificing a daughter to the service of God. “The world, and even some of the Christian world, frowns on a scene such as we see before us this morning: a young lady with the advantages of a university education renouncing all it has to offer to bury herself behind these ‘prison walls’ . . . Why this waste? What good can she do here? . . . We should thank God for this little group of intercessors in our midst, this lightning rod, which wards off the thunder bolts of His just punishment of innumerable crimes.” Bishop Jeanmard frequently referred to the Carmel as the “lightning rod” of his Diocese.
By 1944, when the first aspirant to persevere arrived, Sister Theresa Margaret was well grounded in the ideals of Carmel and capable of being a leader and sure spiritual guide. The Community grew by leaps and bounds! Suffering was reaping its rewards. And so was her concentrated study of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. The young postulants and novices looked forward to her instructions and eagerly listened as she explained, guided and directed them in the ways of the interior life. Questions and answers to both Novice Mistress and to her listeners were challenging. The spirit of Carmel was taking deep root in the Lafayette Community.
In 1949, Bishop Jeanmard, recognizing the unusual ability for leadership with which Sister Theresa Margaret was gifted, appointed her Prioress “by virtue of a rescript” received from the Sacred Congregation for Religious dated January of that year. In October of 1949 the new Prioress received the final Vows of the first permanent applicant.
Soon after her appointment as Prioress, a book promoting holistic living was given to Mother Theresa Margaret. Always searching for truth, she read it thoughtfully and recognized its health value for the Community. She asked Mother Dolores for her opinion and she, too, was enthusiastic. That was the “go ahead” signal. At Mother’s instigation, Mother Dolores, always young at heart, organized a small organic vegetable garden and instructed the developing Community in other health aids. (A garden on a larger scale was planted after we settled in our new Monastery and the surplus is canned or frozen for winter use.) This was the fulfillment of one of Mother Theresa Margaret’s dreams. Having been raised on fresh country vegetables, she knew the difference in food value and taste between homegrown products and those purchased at the market. The wholesome customs of her early childhood prompted her to seek all that was good and natural.
It was around this time, too, that she began to invite teachers to instruct the Sisters in Gregorian chant or give “classes” in different areas of religious life. These latter were lively with questions and comments! However, she was always prudent and selective of the teachers, realizing how easy it would be to deviate from the true spirit of Carmel—or from the spirit of the Church in the later years of renewal. And, she always encouraged questions and discussions, either in Community or privately, so that any misunderstandings might be ironed out. Freedom and openness among the Sisters were the criteria. This fostered a happy relationship and deep unity among us.
Even though several additions had been made to the little house, by this time it was too small for its many occupants. In 1952 a permanent monastery was proposed. Bishop Jeanmard received the idea enthusiastically and expressed the desire that any fund drive be a Diocesan project. Auxiliary Bishop Maurice Schexnayder persuaded the Diocesan consulters to make Diocesan property adjoining the then Minor Seminary available and Monsignor Francis Garneau promptly offered the cost as his gift to the Nuns.
But how to finance the building? Mother Theresa Margaret discussed the problem with Mr. Sid Ory, a long-time friend and shrewd businessman. With his usual drive, he established the Carmelite Guild to make Carmel known and to solicit funds throughout the Diocese. It began with “twelve apostles” as leaders (now expanded to about over one hundred!). Since its initiation, these men, at Mother’s invitation, have faithfully come every First Saturday at 6:00 A.M. to honor Our Lady with the prayer of the Rosary and unite in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice at 6:30. After Mass, they join together in the reception room for a simple breakfast of our home-baked bread and coffee, a conference by an outstanding priest or layman, and camaraderie. Often twenty or thirty men will stay after breakfast to help with yard work.
The enthusiastic efforts of those first “twelve apostles” enabled the Community to break ground December 8, 1954, the Marian Year. Our new Monastery was on the way!
Although St. Teresa wanted simple austerity for the daily life of the Nuns, the Monastery chapel was the “throne of His Majesty” and there the Saint desired the best. For this reason, Mother Theresa Margaret employed a young Swiss artist, Milo Piuz, who happened to be in the States at the time assisting Dom Gregory DeWitt, O.S.B.; Dom Gregory had been commissioned to execute a number of frescoes for the large Benedictine Abbey in Covington outside New Orleans. It was a happy choice; in his colorful, contemporary style, Milo captured the spirit of Carmel and the role of Mary, Mother of Grace, in a large mural behind the impressive, black granite altar and wrought-iron candlesticks. The strength and austerity of Carmel which these depicted was tempered by the white oak pews and light colored ceiling, lifting one to the heights, while the strong square wrought-iron tabernacle, gold-leafed inside and shielded by a tent-like canopy, recalled God’s constant intimate dwelling with His people. Stained glass windows modeled various forms of prayer. Ceramic Stations of the Cross completed the peaceful, prayerful ensemble. Visitors are amazed by the constant stream of people who come to spend some quiet time with the Lord.
Before taking possession of the new Monastery, in the midst of all the distraction, consultation, concern, planning, Mother Theresa Margaret wanted to prepare the Community with a retreat. Unable to obtain a retreat master on short notice, she directed it herself. She based her instructions on St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross, desiring that a deep, genuine prayer life take root in the new Monastery from the beginning. That she was able to concentrate on the spiritual with the constant material concerns of that time was a special grace. She could speak ardently, from her heart, of the deep things of God as if there were nothing else on her mind. That HE was foremost in her mind we were sure, but there were many material problems she had to solve with Him.
After several days of Open House, the Community moved to their new home January 22, 1956. Traffic to the Monastery was so heavy that a police escort was required to transfer the procession of cars from the old building to the new. The following morning, January 23rd, Mother Theresa Margaret’s Profession Anniversary, the First Mass was celebrated. We expected enclosure to be announced but instead the Chaplain invited those who were unable to come earlier to another day of Open House! Finally, by late evening the doors were closed and locked and Mother and the Community were ready to begin another phase of cloistered contemplative life.
CHALLENGES and RENEWAL
It was a time of challenge. After Open House the whole Monastery needed a thorough cleaning. Offices and rooms had to be prepared; the bare ceilings and walls required sanding, paint or stain and varnish; windows had to be washed (they were large and many to allow as much ventilation as possible in Lafayette’s hot, humid climate). It was a time of stress for the Community, but also a time of spiritual growth through self-gift and sacrifice.
The Monastery grounds, too, had to be planted with trees, shrubbery and flowers and an organic garden prepared. For this, Mother Theresa Margaret solicited the services of the Christian Brothers, our good neighbors. At that time it was the Regional Novitiate and the young men were delighted to assist. Years later they spoke of the graces received from the experience. This neighborly relationship with our Brothers continues to benefit us both.
Now that we were finally settled in our permanent Monastery, the Community prepared to make Solemn Vows. Because of historical circumstances, Solemn Vows had been suppressed in the Church since the time of the French Revolution. Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi, restored Solemn Vows to all the nuns able to maintain Papal enclosure. Following a retreat on the search of the soul for God in its Interior Castle (directed by Father Albert Bourke, O.C.D.) on the feast of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple, November 21, 1957, after a prayer vigil from two to three A.M., Mother Theresa Margaret pronounced her Solemn Vows and then received the Solemn Vows of all the finally professed Sisters of the Community. It was a beautiful, impressive ceremony. The remainder of the morning was spent in quiet, joyful, prayerful thanksgiving and preparation for the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
The following years were ones of enrichment, deepening and renewal. Mother Theresa Margaret invited Scripture scholars, spiritual masters, and others to give conferences, classes or instructions on subjects that would benefit the Carmelite religious and spiritual life of the Sisters. When she questioned Father Albert concerning books for meditations read before morning prayer, as was the custom at that time, he told her: “Give the meditations yourself. You are capable of it.” From then on, at Morning Prayer and at Community meetings, rather than use a book, she spoke from her heart on whatever subject was pertinent at the time. Most of the conferences were recorded in shorthand or longhand and the insights, the unction, the wisdom of her thoughts were like glowing embers. The Living Flame in her heart was revealed to us. Mother could pick up the short reading of the Office, an idea from the Hymn, a psalm verse or from some book the Community was studying together . . . or just simply speak from the fullness of her heart. This common reflection deepened the unity of the Community and the interior life of each Sister.
Special tribute was paid to Mother Theresa Margaret March 1990 when she received the Papal Medal PRO ECCLESIA ET PONTIFICE from Bishop Harry J. Flynn of the Lafayette Diocese. Presenting the medal, the Bishop said with a smile: “Mother Theresa Margaret is a Texas sunflower come to blossom in Louisiana. And in honoring you, we honor your Sisters to whom we are also very grateful.” He noted the “tremendous influence of Carmel through Lafayette and beyond.”
In accepting the award Mother replied: “Although I am explicitly named, the award is in reality a recognition of contemplative Carmelite life. . . . I am aware that our life, as simple as it is, is nonetheless somewhat of a mystery to many of our Catholic people.” There were chuckles when she remarked: “Repeatedly we are questioned: ‘But what do you do all day?’ “Our chief thrust,” she explained, “is not to do, but to be.” And she reminded them of the words of St. Therese: “In the heart of my Mother, the Church, I will be love.”
* * * * * * * *
In September of 1990, Padre Giovanni Salerno, founder of the Servants of the Poor of the Third World, presented Mother Theresa Margaret with the MISSION CROSS in gratitude for her prayerful support and encouragement. When he first contemplated establishing the Movement, he presented the idea to Mother during one of his visits. She assured him that it seemed to be a genuine inspiration of the Holy Spirit and offered to do all the Community could to assist its beginnings. The fire of his zeal spread and Father now has members of the Movement in several countries. The Movement was initiated in Cusco, Peru where Father Salerno labored as an Augustinian Missionary and medical doctor, reaching out to the many surrounding villages despite the fact that he is almost blind. He has been providing food and education for the poor of the area, especially the orphaned children, and has built a home to shelter and protect street children.
Another major missionary involvement for the Community under Mother Theresa Margaret’s leadership was the support given Father Alexander Lee and his efforts to provide homes, a hospital, a beautiful church and school, recreation center, barber shop, and other facilities for St. Lazarus Leper Colony in Anyang, Korea near Seoul. From the original hovel of poverty, suffering and despair, Father transformed the Village into an ideal setting which these ill, “outcast” children of God could call “home.” He, as well as most of the leper patients, joined the Secular Order of Carmel under the direction of our Carmelite Fathers in Seoul. Father’s efforts and solicitude gave the patients a dignity and will to live. Then he reached out to other leper colonies in China and Vietnam to teach the Anyang patients the joy of sharing!
On May 12, 1991, Mother Theresa Margaret was the recipient of the JERUSALEM CROSS, presented during a solemn Byzantine Liturgy celebrated by Bishop Nicholas Samra in the name of His Beatitude, Maximus V Hakim. The presentation was made in recognition of Mother’s constant prayer, ardent desires and untiring efforts toward unity commensurate with her cloistered Carmelite vocation. The earnest dedication toward Church Unity was fostered by her reflective contemplation of Jesus’ poignant prayer at the Last Supper: “Father, may they all be one, as you are in Me and I in You . . . May they be one in us.”
Monday, September 30th, Mother Dear (as we affectionately called her) celebrated her ninetieth birthday and the Diamond Jubilee of Profession of Religious Vows. She requested the Byzantine Liturgy, which was served by Most Reverend Nicholas Samra, D.D., Melkite Bishop of the Northwest region, Archimandrite Herbert May and Deacon Gregory Haddad. Presider and homilist was Most Reverend Sam G. Jacobs, D.D., then Bishop of Alexandria. This union of East and West was significant of her great longing for and dedication to Church Unity. She publicly renewed her vows in a prayer that summed up the orientation of her whole life:
"Most Holy Trinity, God of Merciful Love, in your Presence and that of Jesus, my beloved Spouse, I ask Mary, my Mother, my spiritual parents, Saints Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross, and my whole Carmelite Family, especially my sisters, St. Therese and St. Theresa Margaret, to witness and support the offering I make of my entire life to Your glory alone. I do so with profound gratitude for the boundless mercies in which You have immersed me since the day of my Baptism throughout these ninety years, sixty of which have been consecrated by Religious Vows, which I reaffirm with all my heart."
"Now, in the twilight of my earthly life, as I approach the finish line and hear the first accents of your gentle call to make the transition to eternal life, I look to you, Father, with the confident hope encouraged by the sure Little Way of St. Therese, that despite my countless failures and efforts to love you supremely, clothed in the merits of Jesus. Then, welcoming me with joy, I ask you, Father, to place me among the Legion of Little Souls who spend their Heaven in showering roses upon earth. May these graces promote unity among your children by moving many hearts to respond to the poignant cry which burst from the lips of Jesus as He stood on the threshold of His redeeming death: “I pray . . . that all may be one in us” (John 17:21). Then at last, as one Church, Love will be repaid by love, Thy Kingdom will come and Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. That this bold hope may be realized, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I place it in the Heart of His Immaculate Spouse, Mary, Mother of Grace. Amen. Alleluia!"
There were no dry eyes in the chapel as this humble affirmation of her Carmelite vocation was proclaimed by the venerable Foundress.
Monsignor Paul Metrejean, another of Mother’s cherished sons, captured the grace of the occasion in a poem written to celebrate her ninetieth birthday:
REFLECTIONS AT NINETY
(For Mother Theresa Margaret)
I have grown old within this solitude
And wandered worlds of wordless wonder here
Amid the wondrous silence of these veil
And vows that hem me, hold me free and near
To Him for Whom I long, To Him, my Rock, Who does no wrong.
The life I chose at life’s young turning turned
My life to Him as sunflower to sun;
I gazed upon His Golden Face, pursued
His every move, pursued by love to run
Into the heart and home Of Him, my Rock, Who does no wrong.
And now from race to rest He brings my course
And hosts me in the hollow of His Hand:
He bids me wait and watch His coming soon;
I bend to Him as bride to precious Lamb
With this, my final song:
That He, my Rock, can do no wrong.
COME, MY LOVE, MY DOVE, MY BEAUTIFUL ONE
As the year 2003 began, we noticed it was becoming more and more difficult for Mother Theresa Margaret to speak. She seemed to experience an urgency to get to her work and accomplish all she could. We could not prevail on her to take time to rest. Her breathing was becoming more and more labored, which was a cause for concern. On March 4th, she succumbed to what was probably pneumonia and had to go to bed. But, she insisted on getting up for Mass the following morning, Ash Wednesday, and remained up most of the day at her desk. There was no thought for herself. However, her nights at this time were very difficult. She was restless and could not sleep, breathing became more labored, and she frequently asked the Infirmarian for assistance.
On March 19th, after a number of tests, our doctor informed us that it was urgent that Mother Dear go to the hospital immediately for a procedure to clear her lungs “or she will die today.” “You will be home by evening” he assured her. Earlier, during Mass, Mother Dear could hardly breathe even though the oxygen level was raised as high as possible. Her gasping could be heard by Monsignor and the servers in the Sanctuary. Holy Communion was her Viaticum. It was the last time she was able to receive Him whom she so ardently loved, so tenderly cherished and so faithfully served.
We called Monsignor Larroque, our Chaplain, to anoint Mother Dear before she went to the hospital. He came around 10:00 A.M. Mother greeted him with a smile and told Monsignor that she had come through such experiences three times before but she didn’t know if she would make it through the fourth one. When he asked how she felt, her reply was “joyously miserable!” Once at the hospital, Mother Teresa Margaret was occasionally heard to murmur “for You, Jesus . . . for prisoners . . . for priests.” Her last words were “Jesus, Mary, I love you.”
Dr. Meza engaged the best lung specialist available. This was Dr. Fadi Malek, a Greek Orthodox physician with a growing family. We felt confident with him. During the procedure, which began as scheduled at 3:00 P.M., the Community gathered in the cloister chapel to pray the Rosary and the Mercy Chaplet for Mother Dear. All seemed to be going well with the procedure, until suddenly Mother Dear’s face turned a deep purple-blue. Her voice box had collapsed. It was a fearful moment for those who were with her. “Do you want her on a ventilator?” the Doctor asked. Sister Anne answered no because, as a Community, we had agreed to no life supports. But realizing the Sisters would want a last moment with her, she told a close friend of the Monastery to call Mother Regina. Mother responded “Yes, at least until we all have a chance to see her.” Dr. Meza told us he was using extraordinary means for an extraordinary person. It was not usual, he said, to put a ninety-six year old on a ventilator in the health condition Mother Dear was is. But she had come through such close-to-death experiences three times before and he wanted to give her every chance. Besides, he loved her as if she were his own mother.
No amount of assurance by Dr. Meza and the nursing staff that Mother would be alright could move us to leave her alone at the hospital. We determined that she would have at least one of us with her day and night. She always dreaded being in a hospital. Jesus was using this suffering as a last purification and to add more jewels to her already glorious crown. Through the week that she was in ICU, groups of Sisters would visit each day to fill her in with Community news, which she was always eager to hear, and this seemed to comfort her. Or, we sang some of her favorite hymns. She could not speak because of the ventilator but she was mentally very alert and would motion for a writing pad if she wanted to comment, ask questions or make known a need.
Tuesday, the feast of the Annunciation, Mother Dear’s favorite feast, hope went down. It was becoming obvious that she would not be able to breathe on her own. And her kidneys were beginning to fail. She seemed to be withdrawing into herself, responding to the call of her Beloved.
A fax received from Brother Jeffery Calligan, F.S.C., on March 25th after he had been informed that Mother was dying, communicates the love and esteem that so many felt for her:
"Dearest Mother, Mother Regina tells me that God is calling! I know the ear of your heart is hearing and ready as always to respond a resounding YES to the ROCK of your life. Though miles away we both stand together in the hearts of Jesus and Mary and time and space do not exist any longer. My love and prayers are with you, supporting you who have been the support so many times in my life and in the lives of so many others. I hold your hand only to let it go as you dance your way to our LOVE! Dance boldly! As you have always lived . . . Do not fear for your daughters or for your sons (including me). Our hearts are bound by that eternal love that knows not time or place. As you stand before the face of God unveiled, burn up what is lacking in our love and intercede with your Spouse for each of us. My prayers are with you. You are in my heart, dear Mother. RUN TO YOUR LOVE! FIAT!
Your brother and son,
* * * * * * * * * * *
Dr. Meza and Dr. Malek recognized that Mother Theresa Margaret’s organs were failing. Her lungs were inflamed and encrusted and she could no longer breathe on her own, even with oxygen. The Bridegroom was eager for the embrace of His Bride. No matter how difficult it would be for us, God wanted her. “Come, my love, my dove, my beautiful one. Winter is past. . . .”
Seeing that it was now her time, we prepared and planned for removing the ventilator. Mother Dear seemed temporarily relieved. But only for so short a time. . . . The entire Community gathered around her in the room as she started struggling to breathe. She was gasping for breath, suffocating, just as Jesus did on the Cross.
We prayed the Rosary and Mercy Chaplet as she was agonizing and then remained in silent prayer. Sister Anne recalled that some months before, Mother Dear had mentioned to her that when she died she wanted to be in her arms, as St. Teresa of Jesus had died in the arms of Blessed Anne, her Infirmarian. Sister sat on the bed close to her, slipped her arm around Mother’s shoulder and whispered in her ear: “I’m holding you, Mother Dear. . . .” All the Sisters were touching Mother in some way—her hands, her feet, or whatever they could reach. It was our last expression of love, gratitude and farewell for all she was to us as Mother, Sister, confidante and guide. As the Bridegroom approached and she heard His call, “Come, my love, my dove, my beautiful one,” she opened her eyes wide. Mother Regina, who was standing before her, told her we were all with her and that Jesus was coming for her. Then she relaxed and gently breathed her last. It was 9:07 A.M. All kissed her farewell and thanked God that the agony was not prolonged.
* * * * * * * * * *
In a letter received from Father Jerry Fitzpatrick, O.C.D., former Definitor General, he said:
"Nothing became Mother Dear’s life as much as her death. Her courage and faith during that final ordeal proved so well the material of which she was made. At her age—and stage—it was really quite remarkable to see her fortitude and endurance, and we can only give thanks to Almighty God for giving her such grace for that final perseverance and I can only pray that we will run the race and finish the course with something of the same superlative spirit. That is what she would want and for that she will surely assist us from heaven. So we can be certain of help from on high! Mother’s departure to her heavenly home was truly a solemn and sacred occasion, not only for your Carmel, but for Lafayette itself, and, indeed, beyond. Mother Dear was a pillar of the Church and a defender of the faith all her life long and, as you well know, her influence was as valuable as it was widespread. I can only guess how triumphant was her entry into the new and eternal Jerusalem! Mother Dear—her name was fidelity, and she has left your Carmel a great legacy of Teresian Carmelite life! I know that your Community will be true to this and build on it as you journey through the years ahead. With such an ally in heaven surely the best is yet to come. . . .”
THE SEED IS PLANTED
The funeral was planned for March 30th, Laetare Sunday, a day Mother Dear always loved because it seemed to give Jesus a break in the dark foreboding of the Lenten Season as it moved toward the Passion. This was the day Jesus chose to plant His beloved Sunflower in His Mother’s garden! Sunday dawned a glorious day. Every sunflower in Lafayette found its way to the Monastery. The chapel grounds, inside and out, proclaimed the glory of God and the beautiful Sunflower He had called to her Eternal Home.
The Funeral Mass began shortly after 2:00 P.M. People were still coming to pay their respects to the Mother they loved so dearly and reverenced as one very close to God. Our Ordinary, Bishop Michael Jarrell, along with Bishop Sam Jacobs of the Houma-Thibodeau Diocese, retired Bishop Spreyer, twenty priests and Archimandrite Herbert May concelebrated, a fitting tribute to her who had aided so many in their vocations. Others told us they would have come but were obligated to their parishes. Along with Father Marion Joseph, Father Gregory Ross and three of our Carmelite Brothers from New Orleans represented the Province. Monsignor Larroque gave the homily, one of the most difficult tasks of his life, he said. He quoted Mother who told him that every time she heard the words of Consecration “This is My Body which will be given up for you” she repeated them in her heart to Jesus: “This is my body which I give up to you.” Father Paul Metrejean read his poem In Paradisum dedicated to Mother Dear. A talented poet and friend, Father had composed verses for her Golden and Diamond Jubilees. “I don’t have any for my death,” Mother Dear teased him. With reluctance, Father Paul obliged. Before the ceremony of Farewell, Bishop Jarrell expressed his condolences to the Community and warm gratitude for Mother’s influence in the Diocese. “Even though we are sad,” he said, “still we are happy that she has attained the reward of her labors.”
After the Mass, the Sisters entered the chapel to accompany Mother Theresa Margaret to her last resting place in our cemetery. All were carrying large palm branches from the garden and very large silk sunflowers. This brought more tears to already moist eyes. We ourselves were the pallbearers. Twelve close friends, among them her doctors, followed as honorary pall bearers. All present were welcomed into the cloister for the burial. Father Marion Joseph read the prayers for burial; sprinkled the casket with holy water, then handed the aspergil to the bishops and priests. Archimandrite Herbert May sang the impressive Byzantine Litany for the Dead. Then each Sister tenderly laid her palm, a sign of victory, on the coffin, and planted the sunflower she carried around Mother Dear’s grave. Our beautiful Sunflower was now gloriously blooming in God’s garden. It was six’o clock before all left the cemetery and we could close the doors.
We received so many messages expressing sympathy and loss, both from within the United States and abroad. Letters from missionaries told us how much Mother Dear’s notes meant to them. Her vocation of intercessory prayer continues in Heaven . . .
Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, Carmelite Bishop of Infanta in the Philippines, who has been a friend and visitor to the Community since 1961, called Mother a future-oriented visionary: “the past did not constrain her. She moved into the future, one with her Mother, the Church, following the lead of the befriending Spirit of the Risen Lord. Her faith in Jesus Christ, intensely, responsibly and conscientiously lived, manifested itself in her free spirit. As a leader, she knew how to lead persons firmly along the way of truth and of the cross without depriving them of their consciousness of God’s mercy and compassion. . . .”
Bishop Patrick Ahern, author of Maurice and Therese, had this to say of Mother Theresa Margaret:
"Noble is the word for her, and her influence will go on for years. How fortunate the people, priests and religious of Lafayette are to have had this unique woman and her Sisters praying for them. And, how fortunate we are to have met her and to know you. You have a great tradition to maintain and you had better do so--or you will hear from us! . . .”
Father Daniel Chowning, O.C.D., a frequent retreat and conference master, said:
"When I think of Mother I think of a woman with a huge heart. . . . One thing I intuited is that she was a woman who always sought God. She reminds me of the passage in the Spiritual Canticle of the heart that is stolen by the Beloved because her heart was always with the Beloved. . . . She was a woman who had such riches, such depth of feeling, wisdom, prophetic insight. . . . Her heart sought God alone in the solitude of Carmel. . . . She trusted completely in times of light and in times of darkness. The Lord, her Rock, could do no wrong."
To this, her Community echoes a firm AMEN.
Although she is no longer with us, she still leads us. Her spirit remains very alive in the Community and the ideals and desires that her heart envisioned for each one of her daughters is a challenge. Mother Dear loved Carmel. She was deeply imbued with Carmelite ideals from her intense and prayerful study of the writings of our Carmelite saints, her reflection on their intentions and goals and her constant contemplative gaze into the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Now, after sixty-nine years of generous service and loving self-gift to her Spouse,
The bride has entered
into the pleasant garden of her desire
And rests, reclining
on the gentle arms of her Beloved.
(St. John of the Cross)