Updated: Dec 7, 2021
The Three Theresas
Since I was a little girl, the nuns told me that my patron saint, the holy woman whose name I carried, was Saint Therese of Lisieux, the French nun often called “The Little Flower.” With a will of steel, she went all the way to the Pope for permission to enter the convent at the age of 15, quite remarkable for the time. Like myself, she always wanted to be a saint and tried to live her life for that to happen. She entered the Carmelite order with great joy. After several years of prayer and work and writing, she contracted tuberculosis in the cloister and died at the age of 24.
I received many “holy cards” over the years with her image printed on it, and with messages from the nuns for me to be like her. One day when I brought home a little pamphlet of Therese of Lisieux’s life, my mother told me the nuns were making a mistake. “You were not named after this saint,” she explained, “but you were named after your grandmother, who lived at the same time as Therese of Lisieux, before she was a saint.”
I was very surprised and instantly wanted to know grandma’s patron saint. “Why that is another saint,” said Mom, “another nun, Teresa of Avila.”
Immediately I began to seek information about the older Saint Teresa. I learned that she lived in 15thcentury Spain, came from a wealthy family, wanted to fight in the crusades with her brother, and eventually entered a convent. One day she realized that she and the other nuns were not being saintly at all, so she painfully began to reform the order, making it Carmel, one of the strictest orders in the Church. The Carmelite nuns prayed very much. They were cloistered, staying forever in the same enclosed convent. While they did cleaning, needlework, and gardening, as well as fasted a lot, like in the story of the little Flower, they did not teach or nurse or run hospitals like the Sisters of Nazareth, who taught me.
During Holy Week, right before Easter Sunday, Catholics had the practice of visiting churches. Our family did visitations also, and over the years it helped me find many different orders of nuns across Chicago. There were nuns in black and white, nuns in all white, nuns with some gray in the habit, some with navy blue parts, some in brown. But all of them were either teachers or nurses, none were cloistered like at Carmel. I thought it all over and finally a strong decision was made: I was going to be a Carmelite nun.
Ever since I was small, I loved praying. At least I thought I was praying. In school we were taught all the normal prayers and I recited them when called for, but something always seemed to be missing. Occasionally, when there was a quiet time before a Church service or right after communion, I spoke to God in the silence. The divine seemed so close then. Sometimes I would slip into the old feeling I had around the golden door on the altar and be lost for a while in the beauty of God’s presence. Then I did not want any words; I just wanted to be there.
One of my favorite times was during Lent when each Friday afternoon the entire school went down to the church for Stations of the Cross. One of the priests, with two young acolytes holding candles beside him, walked around the aisles, stopping at each of the fourteen images of Christ’s suffering hanging on the walls—from being condemned by Pilate through carrying the cross and being crucified to being put in the tomb. It was so sad to relive those incidents each week, but at the end, as the priest walked back to the sacristy, we would sing acapella a beautiful, slow hymn. It made me dreamy and pulled me inside, seeming to tuck Jesus into his tomb while we made requests. I loved it:
Good night, sweet Jesus, guide us in sleep,
Our souls and bodies in your heart keep.
Waking or sleeping keep us in sight.
Dear, gentle Savior, good night! Good night!
Good night, sweet Jesus, good night. Good night!
For many years I talked to Jesus at night time in my bed. At my first communion, Sister Immaculate had given all her students a beautiful eight-inch statue of the boy Jesus holding a golden chalice and a host. I fell in love with it. He seemed so real to me, even though he was wearing a pink robe. Each night I took the statue off the dresser I shared with my sister and held it in my hand under my pillow, telling him all about the day, asking his advice on problems, and letting him know about all the people that needed his help.
My other way of praying was going to Mass. It was an old ritual, I learned, begun by Jesus at the last supper, but now done in Latin, with the priest and altar boys up at the main altar, their backs to the congregation. The priest wore beautiful vestments, chanted several prayers aloud, and occasionally turned around to bless us. I followed all the ritual carefully in my missal, not missing a single step. From about the sixth grade, I attended Mass daily.
During school days, our entire class went together before school began. On Saturday and legal holidays, however, I was one of the few children in the church, and on Sunday and Church holy days, all school children were required to go to early Mass and sit together with their class and their Sister.
I remember one Saturday morning when my sister, Judy, was making it very hard for me to go to Church. By that time Mom had seven children—six girls and one boy—so the house became rather tight. Nancy and Leslie slept in the bunk beds now, with the twins, Kathy and Karen, in baby beds in the same room. Gary slept on a foldaway cot in the living room, and Judy and I shared a sleeper sofa on the porch off the kitchen. My half was the sofa section; Judy slept on the pull-out half. Once open, the bed leaned right up to the one piece of furniture in the room: our dresser. Three drawers held my sister’s clothes, three held mine. Of course, one could not take out any clothes until the sofa bed was folded up. This day I kept trying to wake my sister up, but she had been out with the girls the night before and was very sleepy. She would not budge. I got more and more anxious as the time ticked on, wondering how in heaven I would be able to get dressed. Finally, with one last request being denied, I pulled on the bed’s release bar sending Judy’s half to the floor, and I shoved her and the bed under the sofa! I made it to Mass on time in spite of all the muffled screams from my sister and the brisk five-block run to Church.
Judy was a great lover of rock and roll. I worried for her. Mom and Dad and all the nuns said that rock and roll was not good music, that it led to sin, that no one who loved God would want to listen to it. Whenever we did dishes together, Judy would turn on the radio that stood on the refrigerator in the kitchen and find her favorite rock and roll station. Whenever she walked out of the room or was distracted, I switched to the classical music station. She’d stomp back in and switch stations again, and I’d tell her how terrible the music was and then stop up my ears.
One Saturday, however, as Judy turned on the radio, there was a new singer starting a new song: “Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you!” I was stunned. The song and the singer’s voice were gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. Suddenly and surprisingly I learned two things: modern music could be beautiful, and parents and nuns can sometimes be wrong.
I fell in love with Elvis Presley on the spot and for the first time, my vocation to religious life wavered a bit. If I love this music should I still be a nun? On Sunday morning, however, I felt the strong pull again to go to the convent. What to do? On Sunday I had it all figured out. I spent the entire Mass singing “I can’t help falling in love with you” and “Love me tender, love me true” to Jesus.
In the eighth grade, all my prayers turned into requests. Everyone was talking about choosing high schools. My parents insisted that I take tests for the Catholic high school, Nazareth Academy, that my sister, Judy, attended. I wanted to go to Carmel, but every time I mentioned it, I was met with silence or a change of subject. Mom hinted how much she needed my help with the two new babies, twins Kathy and Karen. While my older sister was quite capable, she spent her free time doing high school projects, like painting the Big Bopper on six feet of butcher paper for the school dance, talking with friends on the phone, and going out on dates, while I spent my free time helping with laundry, folding diapers, cooking dinner, helping to bathe the little ones, and, of course, the inevitable house cleaning.
In Spring I learned that I was accepted into my parents’ choice of school. That same week our class had a visit from a group of young postulants: teens who were studying to be Sisters of Nazareth. The postulants wore long black gowns with elbow-length black capes, and a small veil covering most of their pulled-back hair. I was impressed. We watched an inspiring film about their training and the ceremony they would undergo in a few months becoming novices in the order and receiving a new name. Our class—girls only—broke up into groups with a postulant in each group answering questions, letting us check out the habit, and coaching several girls to enter.
I ran home from school, excitement building, ready to tell Mom and Dad all about the young nuns, just a year and a half older than myself. They listened carefully, and then replied firmly, “You can enter the convent after you graduate from high school.” But that was not good enough for me.
The next day I went to the rectory after school and asked to speak to Father Al. He was surprised to see me but listened as I told him of my desire “since childhood” to be a nun. I did not want to go to a normal high school. Why should I waste time there? Why couldn’t I do my high school in the convent? I was almost 14!
So, Father Al gave me his blessing and spoke to his buddy, Father Jerry, who then involved Father Pastor. They phoned my parents. After school on Friday, Father Al passed me in the school yard and mentioned lightly that my parents had an appointment with the priests that night. Terribly nervous, I watched them leave as I cleaned up after supper, got my baby sisters ready for bed, made sure Gary and Nancy were playing nicely, and sat down to work on my school assignments. But my mind would not concentrate; it jumped here and there, wishing and hoping and praying. When Dad and Mom came home they said nothing but closed their bedroom door and talked for a long time while I held tight to my little statue and prayed my heart out, eventually falling asleep.
The next morning, I awoke feeling very tired. It was my fourteenth birthday. As Mom fried eggs at the kitchen stove, she gave me best wishes and said that Dad had something for me. Trembling, not knowing whether to be scared or happy, I tip-toed into their bedroom. “Theresa,” Dad said as he buttoned his shirt, “as a gift to you, your Mom and I have decided that you can enter the convent this summer.”
I could hardly believe my ears! I was so excited that I jumped on Dad, throwing my arms around him, kissing his freshly-shaved cheek and thanking him over and over. Through his big smile he said, “Go thank your Mom,” but I was already flying around the corner into the kitchen hugging Mom, singing thanks and causing her to break the yolks in fried eggs for the first time in her life.
When I told Sister Florentine on Monday about my wonderful birthday gift, she was very pleased until I said that I was going to be a Carmelite. She looked surprised and told me that God does not want me to go to Carmel. “God wants you to go to Nazareth,” she said. “You should be a nun in our order.”
That was that. If God wanted me at Nazareth, I would do whatever God wanted. And of course the nuns, who spoke to God much more than I did, knew Him well, and besides, they would only tell me the truth.
In gratitude to Father Al, I decided to make him a gift. I strung rose buds from our huge backyard climber to make a two-foot-long rosary for him. I said prayers the entire time I strung the living beads, and wrapped it in a big, white handkerchief. Poor Father did not quite know what to do with the rosary of roses when I presented it, but he very graciously pretended to be thankful, telling me that anytime I needed him in the future, I was just to call.