Most women saints have been foundresses of religious orders. Their lives were not without drama, but it was not usually the sort of drama that would make headlines.
The case of Blessed Mary Teresa de Soubiran was an exception. She was the victim of a melodrama that rivaled some of today’s “soap operas”.
Mary Teresa de Soubiran, born into an old noble family of southern France, felt called to the “hidden life” of a contemplative nun.
A priest-uncle, Canon Louis de Soubiran, ignored her preference for the cloistered life, and induced her instead to found a convent of Beguines. Beguines were more a pious society than a religious order. Their very liberal rule of life allowed each member to retain her own property, and even the vows of chastity and obedience were temporary.
Mary Teresa accepted this assignment, but during the nine years it lasted she succeeded in making the rule stricter. The members eventually gave up their property, opened an orphanage, and began to devote themselves to nighttime adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1863 Mother Soubiran worked these ideas into a new rule, and in 1864 she and some of her sisters opened a convent in Toulouse, where they could follow the new lifestyle. By now they had extended their program to include the care of working girls as well as orphans; and Eucharistic adoration was scheduled not just once a month but every night. Mother Teresa called the order the “Society of Mary Auxiliatrix.” By 1868 Pope Pius IX had granted it the initial approval.
Soon afterward, the troubles began. In 1868 Mother Teresa received a novice known as Mother Mary Frances. A capable woman, Mary Frances was chosen assistant mother-general in 1871. Five years older than the foundress, she now argued persuasively in favor of a vast program of expansion. As a result, the community spent beyond its means, and Mother Mary Frances announced that their financial position was close to bankruptcy, and she blamed it on the foundress. The upshot of it was that the sisters voted to expel Mary Teresa from the sisterhood she had established.
Cast out but still desirous of remaining a religious, Mother Mary Teresa asked for admission into another order. The Visitation nuns refused her, as did the Carmelites. Finally she was allowed to take her vows in 1877 as a member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd. They engaged in rescue work in Paris. The exiled nun banished from her thoughts – though not from her prayers – the religious community that she had originated.
Meanwhile, Mother Mary Frances had done everything possible to efface the memory of the foundress from the Society of Mary Auxiliatrix. Mary Teresa did not live to see the reaction that set in. She died of tuberculosis on June 7, 1889, completely resigned to her situation, yet foretelling that there would be a change within a year.
By 1890 the Society was so weakened and Mother Frances had proved so domineering and unstable that, faced by the opposition of her nuns, she resigned her office and left the order. After her death in 1921, it was learned that when she entered the community, Mother Frances concealed the fact that she was a married woman and that her husband was still living. That meant that she had never really been a nun, much less a Mother superior, for her vows would have been invalid. Consequently, her actions as superior had also been invalid – including her expulsion of Mother Teresa. And by the same token, Mother Teresa’s membership in the order she founded had continued without interruption until her death, since her exclusion had been illegal!
We know that God is ultimately just, but it helps every now and then to see Him come to the rescue of those who have patiently suffered injustices.
Meanwhile, in Blessed Mary Teresa’s case, what a scenario!
–Father Robert F. McNamara