The laywomen’s retreat movement in our day owes very much to the pioneering efforts of St. Therese Couderc. But what success she had depended as much upon the trials she willingly accepted, as on her talent as an organizer and spiritual teacher.
Marie Victoire Couderc was the daughter of a prominent farmer of Sablieres in southeast France. After finishing boarding school, she decided to join a religious teaching community, the Daughters of St. Regis, founded recently at Aps by the local pastor, Abbe John Terme. She took the name Therese. This was in 1826. In 1824, Abbe Terme had been sent to LaLouvesc to work among the peasants of the area and at the same time to take charge of the shrine of the popular local missionary and saint, John Francis Regis. Father Terme soon concluded that there should be a hospice for women connected with the shrine. In 1827, therefore, he summoned Sister Therese and two others of his teaching sisters at Aps to manage the hospice. In Sister Couderc he discovered “a sound head, sound judgment and a power of spiritual discrimination.” Therefore, he named her superior of the hospice, although she was only 23. In 1828 Father Terme decided that the guests at the hospice should henceforth be restricted to laywomen who were making retreats according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Retreats for women were a great novelty then, and the undertaking caught on at once.
The Jesuit fathers took over the shrine and the hospice shortly before Father Terme’s death in 1834. Gradually the retreat-group at LaLouvesc was separated from the teaching community at Aps and turned into a new religious order devoted solely to retreat-related work. Eventually it took the name “Congregation of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle.” (The “cenacle” was the “upper room” in which Jesus and the apostles partook of the Last Supper, and in which, after the Resurrection, the disciples and Mary gathered daily to pray.)
When Sister Therese, superior since 1828, made her final vows in 1837, she also made an act of consecration in which she abdicated her authority. She resigned in 1838, blaming herself (though it was not her fault) for the debts the community had incurred. The three women named superiors to follow her were ill-chosen. The third of these nuns held Mother Therese in so small regard that she assigned her only menial tasks and tried to see to it that she had no contact with the other nuns. Mother Couderc’s fourth successor left the order because of the continued internal strife. During this whole period Therese was even denied the credit of being co-foundress, with Father Terme, of the order.
What is remarkable is that throughout St. Therese’s eighty years she held herself so “useless” that she was not disturbed by the confusion around her and the way in which she herself was “discarded.” Although there was much to criticize, she never criticized. She continued to work for the betterment of her religious community by prayer, penance and the acceptance of her rejection. In the end, she was able to say, “God has always given me peace of soul, the grace to leave myself in His hands and to want nothing but to love him and be ever closer to Him.”
The Congregation of the Cenacle eventually steadied and expanded into many nations. (Under Bishop James E. Kearney, the sisters opened their Rochester Cenacle Retreat House at 693 East Avenue in 1948). Stabilization and growth were no doubt largely due to the intercession of the foundress. Therese Couderc was beatified in 1951 and canonized in 1970.
St. Therese’s steadfastness amid trials has set for us all, I think, an admirable example. She belonged to an institution that was good in itself, though it came upon difficult days. If we were in the same position, we might easily grow impatient, say “What’s the use?”, and resign from the community. She didn’t. Because her order was good in itself, she stuck with it, trusting that God would not let it go under.
There is a parallel today with the Church itself. Some Catholics, faced with the Church’s trials during a period of transition, have said, “What’s the use?” and have left the Church along one avenue or another. But the church is a good thing. We should therefore stick with it in steadfast prayer. Our faith assures us that Christ, in due time, will rebuke the wind and say to the sea, “Quiet. Be still!” Will he then turn to us and say, “Why are you so terrified? Why are you lacking in faith?” (Mk. 5:39-40)
–Father Robert F. McNamara