Bl. Maria Ledochowska

(1863-1922)

“Saints Alive” usually features ancient people, and, more often than not, mystics who lived behind cloistered walls.

Today’s “saint” is modern, for a change, and far from dwelling in privacy; she became a publicist and active fundraiser for the foreign missions.

Maria Theresa Ledochowska seems very modern, to me at least. She was born the same year as my Aunt Frances. I was eleven when Maria died. I also saw her brother Wladimir in Rome on more than one occasion in the 1930s.

The Ledochowski family were Polish and members of the nobility, although she and Wladimir were born in Loosdorf, Austria. Her father was Count Antonius Kalka-Ledochowski. Her father’s brother was Count Mieceslaus Ledochowski. Mieceslaus was archbishop of GnesenPosen in Prussian Poland from 1866 to 1886. Then he was ousted by the Prussian prime minister Bismarck and imprisoned for disregarding the anti-Catholic Prussian laws. Created a cardinal while in prison, this Polish hero eventually came to Rome where Pope Leo XIII appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. (Because of the great authority that the holders of this office have over the foreign missions, they are often called “the red popes”.) Maria Theresa’s brother, Count Wladimir (1866-1942), joined the Jesuits and from 1915 to 1942 served as 26th general of the Society of Jesus. By the way, the head of the Jesuits is often called “The black pope”. So the nephew of the “red pope” became a “black pope”. Thus, Countess Maria came from a family of churchly leaders. She was to show herself equally gifted in leadership.

From 1885 to 1890, however, Maria Theresa was a courtier. Living in Salzburg, Austria, she was lady-in-waiting to the grand duchess of Tuscany, one of the Habsburg family. She had no special feeling for religious life until 1888 when she happened to read an address given by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie (1825-1892). Lavigerie was a French priest to whom Pope Leo XIII had entrusted the evangelization of Africa. As archbishop of Carthage and Primate of Africa, Lavigerie founded the Society of Missions of Africa (the “White Fathers”) to pioneer African missions. He brought to his task a tremendous missionary enthusiasm, and it is to him in particular that Catholicism in Africa owes its modern beginnings.

Countess Maria now felt called to help Lavigerie’s double apostolate to obliterate African slavery and spread the Catholic faith there. From 1889 on she began to publicize these causes. (She had gifts as a writer.) Her column soon attracted donations. Convinced now of her vocation, she left the court in 1891. In 1894, she decided to organize an association of laywomen to take care of publicity for the African missions and the administration of mission funds. It was called the “Sodality of St. Peter Claver for the African Missions and the Liberation of Slaves.” Pope Leo XIII approved the society on April 29, 1894. In 1897, this became a full-fledged religious order. Its aim was not to furnish missionaries-on-the-mission but to secure for the actual missionaries worldwide public attention to channel funds to them and to print Catholic books for use in the missionary countries in many different African languages. (During her life she sent 96,000 catechisms and other books to Africa.) Mother Ledochowska was constantly on tour, speaking for her causes and establishing support centers, presenting exhibits, and promoting novenas “to touch the heart and open the purse.” She had a real talent for organization. But prayer remained the motive force of her whole campaign. She became known as “the nursing mother of the African missions.” Between 1918 and 1933 the baptized in Africa rose from 1.8 million to 4.9 million. Only God knows how much of this progress is due to the loyal “marketing” of this valiant woman.

Pope Paul VI beatified Maria Theresa on October 19, 1975. Her feast day is on July 6. Vatican II reminded all Catholics that their baptism is in itself a call to help spread the Catholic faith. Blessed Maria is a splendid, modern exemplification of the missionary spirit we all should have and put to work.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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