MARIA TERESA OF JESUS (1825-1889)
Foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Carmel
Maria Scrilli was born on 15 May 1825 in Montevarchi, Arezzo, Italy, into an influential family. She was the second daughter of parents who had been hoping for a son and heir. Her mother's disappointment and lack of affection on this account affected her deeply.
In adolescence, a serious illness confined Maria to bed for nearly two years. She recovered miraculously after invoking the intercession of the holy Martyr, Fiorenzo. During her long convalescence she realized the Lord was calling her to the consecrated life.
She therefore decided to enter the Carmelite Convent of St Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi in Florence, although her parents were strongly opposed to it. She returned home after only two months, but the time had nevertheless served to confirm her certainty that God was calling her to do something more.
While seeking to discern the Lord's plan for her, Maria opened a small school at home where she devoted herself to educating young girls. She provided a moral, civil and religious education, inculcating in them a holy fear of God and the love of virtue. Several other equally zealous young women joined her. Their outstanding spirit of sacrifice attracted the admiration of the Chief Magistrate and of the Superintendent for Schools, who put them in charge of the Scuole Normali Leopoldine.
Carmelite experience takes root
Gradually, Maria came to understand that she should found a religious institute devoted exclusively to the education of children from the earliest age through adolescence.
On 15 October 1854, after obtaining the approval of her Bishop and of Duke Leopold II of Habsburg, Grand Duke of Tuscany, she and her three companions were clothed with the Carmelite habit, and Maria founded the Institute known today as the Sisters of Our Lady of Carmel. For her name in religion, she chose "Maria Teresa of Jesus".
The Sisters were so full of love of God and apostolic zeal that the number of their pupils and aspirants rapidly increased. In spring 1856, at the request of the Municipality of Foiano, Mother Maria Teresa sent several Sisters there to run the girls' school; their work was deeply appreciated.
Unfortunately, political turmoil, anticlericalism and freemasonry, all widespread at that time, put an end to the new institution almost as soon as it began. The political leaders of Montevarchi, who frowned upon the Carmelites' presence, confiscated their school in 1859 via the law of partial suppression and obliged them not to wear the religious habit.
But the Sisters would not admit defeat, and the Foundress opened a house and private school in Montevarchi. Due to lack of space in the new premises and to avoid further difficulties, several Sisters and Mother Maria Teresa lived at her family home.
In 1862 individual citizens were deprived of the right to earn a living - let alone to run a private school -, and the Religious had to close their school and return to their respective families.
Taken for dead but still alive
Mother Maria Teresa moved to Florence in 1878. With the Archbishop's blessing she could at last reconstitute her community. She opened a boarding school for poor girls which enriched Florentine society with many young women of sound principles. After so many misfortunes, it seemed that everything had turned out for the best, but the Sisters' troubles were not yet over.
Perhaps because of their austere life and unhealthy living conditions, many Sisters died, including the Foundress. Years of suffering and adversity, borne with holy resignation, had undermined her health. She died near Florence on 14 November 1889, at the age of 64.
Again, it seemed that all was over. The Institute had only two Sisters, a novice and a postulant.
In 1919 new houses were opened, the Constitutions were drafted, and the Institute had many vocations and obtained diocesan approval "ad experimentum". On 27 February 1933, it received Papal Approval.
During the World Wars, the Sisters were asked to extend their apostolate to the wounded. Later ministry included assistance to prisoners and the elderly.
Mother Maria Teresa's charism lives on in her Institute in the nations where it is present today: Italy, the United States, Canada, Poland, India, Brazil, the Czech Republic and the Philippines.
Pope John Paul II declared Mother Maria Teresa of Jesus Venerable on 20 December 2003, and Pope Benedict XVI recognized the miracle required for her Beatification on 19 December 2005.