Mary Theresa Ledóchowska
|Bl. Mary Theresa Ledóchowska, S.S.P.C.|
|Missionary, religious, foundress|
|Born||29 April 1863
Loosdorf, Lower Austria,
|Died||6 July 1922
Rome, Kingdom of Italy
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church
(Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver)
|Beatified||19 October 1975, Vatican City, by Pope Paul VI|
|Major shrine||Motherhouse of the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver|
Mary Theresa Ledóchowska, S.S.P.C. (Polish: Maria Teresa Ledóchowska) (29 April 1863 – 6 July 1922), was a Polish Roman Catholic Religious Sister and missionary, who founded the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver, dedicated to service in Africa. She has been beatified by the Catholic Church.
Mary Theresa was the eldest of seven children. Members of the Polish nobility, she and her siblings - including Wlodimir Ledóchowski, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, St. Ursula Ledóchowska and Ignacy Kazimierz Ledóchowski - were born in Loosdorf on the Lower Austrian estate of their parents, Count Antoni Halka-Ledóchowski and his wife, Countess Josephine Salis-Zizers.
As a young girl, Ledóchowska exhibited a great love of the arts and displayed talent as a writer. She loved society life and would dress in her finest attire to attend the balls which were part of the family's social life. She was educated by the Sisters of Loreto, though, and in her school life also displayed a devotion to the Catholic faith which was instilled in her by the Sisters and her family. This social life continued until both she and father contracted smallpox in 1885. She was nursed back to health, but her father succumbed to the disease. After his death, their uncle, Cardinal Mieczysław Halka Ledóchowski, took charge of their care.
During her convalescence, Ledóchowska had begun to reflect on the meaninglessness of her life. Her sister Julia later claimed that Mary Theresa had made a vow of virginity during that period. From 1885 to 1890, in order to help her family, which had fallen into economic difficulties after the death of the Count, through the connections of her uncle, she obtained the position of lady-in-waiting to Princess Alice of Parma, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, at the imperial palace in Salzburg. While living at court, she resumed her participation in the social functions there, again attending concerts and balls. At the same time, she maintained a strict commitment to the practice of the faith. Under the guidance of a Franciscan friar who served as spiritual director to both the princess and her, she was admitted to the Third Order of St. Francis, following its spirituality, with an emphasis on the Passion of Christ.
Shortly after her arrival, two members of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary came to the court seeking financial help for their missionary work. Ledóchowska listened intently as the two Religious Sisters shared their experiences of working with lepers in Madagascar. She took no action, however. The following year two other Sisters of the same congregation arrived at the court with the same purpose. This time their accounts of work in the overseas missions sparked a desire in her to commit herself to this work. Her interest in the missions increased when she read a pamphlet on Cardinal Charles Lavigerie's anti-slavery campaign. Pope Leo XIII had entrusted the evangelization of Africa to Lavigerie. She began to publicize his cause, which soon attracted donations.
In 1889 Princess Alice arranged for Ledóchowska to meet Lavigerie, who encouraged her to establish committees throughout the Austrian Empire in order to combat slavery. She proceeded to do so, starting them in Salzburg, San Ippolito, Vienna and Krakow. She began to use her literary talent to oppose slavery and to protest the inhuman treatment of women then prevalent in Africa. She wrote a novel entitled Zaida to show the terrible consequences of slavery, especially for women. At the same time, she began a mission page in a Catholic periodical. These mission features, called Echo From Africa, were based on letters from missionaries serving in Africa. The page of letters evolved into a monthly magazine, which made its debut in 1889, with her as the publisher, even though this was still unheard of in the 19th century. The magazine soon became a full-time job, and Emperor Franz Joseph personally released Ledóchowska from her duties at the imperial court in 1891 so that she could devote all of her time and energy to the missions.
Ledóchowska left the court and took up residence with a community of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Salzburg. Struggling to find financial support for her project, she lived in near poverty, surviving on a prebend granted to her by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who named her a canoness.
As the work expanded, Ledóchowska’s vision took shape gradually. She began to recruit other women as "auxiliary missionaries", whom she organized in 1894 as the Sodality of St. Peter Claver for the African Missions and the Liberation of Slaves, an association of laywomen. She placed her work under the patronage of the Spanish Jesuit missionary, St. Peter Claver, who spent a lifetime in service to the enslaved African people brought to South America, which earned him the title of "Apostle to the Slaves". The society's goals were to publicize the needs of the missions in Africa and to raise funds for this work.
On April 29, 1894, Pope Leo XIII formally blessed the enterprise, approving the St. Peter Claver Sodality as an Pious Association of the Faithful on 19 April 1894. Out of this society, the auxiliary missionaries developed into a religious congregation. On 8 September 1897 (the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, but also the anniversary of 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 new foundress then traveled throughout Europe to raise support for the missions which she and her Sisters served, addressing various conferences and international gatherings of Catholics to speak on the needs of the missions. One need of which she became aware was the lack of printed resources in the native African languages. Her publishing house began to produce books to answer this need, ranging from Bibles and dictionaries to hymnals. The number of Sisters began to grow and the congregation began to open houses in Africa.
Death and legacy
Late in her life, Ledóchowska developed tuberculosis. Despite the pain and exhaustion caused by her affliction, she continued to serve the needs of the missions and of her congregation. She finally succumbed on 6 July 1922 at the congregation's General Motherhouse in Rome.
The congregation Ledóchowska founded never grew into a large one, but communities of the Sisters of St. Peter Claver include 28 nationalities and serve in 23 countries around the globe. Echo From Africa is still published by the congregation.
During her own lifetime, Ledóchowska had become known as the "Mother of the African missions". 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.