What follows is a short biography of the life of St. Thérèse Couderc, a French Catholic nun in the mid-to-late 19th century, who was the co-foundress of the Congregation of the Cenacle, a religious order which holds retreats for women pilgrims. The contemporary order is devoted to the tenets of prayer, community and spiritual ministry (including adult faith formation, retreats, and other ways of developing Christian faith).
Little is publically available about the life of this lesser-known saint so my information is primarily from a few sources (see end of article). I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies and reserve the right to update this article for corrections or additions as I continue to learn more about the life of this humble woman.
While I do not plan to start doing biographies on the lives of all of the saints (there are other people far more suited to the task!). I did want to share what I’ve learned so far however, and my blog seemed a good place to do so. Also, it should be noted that I may display some unintentional bias in the interpretation of the material I have read about St. Thérèse Couderc, so please excuse any in advance. In full disclosure, St. Thérèse Couderc is my confirmation saint.
Marie-Victoire Thérèse Couderc was a simple mountain girl (born in 1805 at Le Mas, Ardeche) who decided early on, as did her older brother, John, that when she grew up, she wanted to join the religious community. Their father was against her becoming a religious, but the mother, who was herself devout, was for it. Marie-Victoire grew up in a small community without much of a Catholic presence — after France’s Reign of Terror, the religious presence had dwindled in the more rural areas.
Father Terme, Founder of the Order
In 1825, Marie-Victoire attended a mission led by a Father Terme who was impressed by Marie-Victoire and asked her father for permission for her to become a sister in his mission of building catechism schools. He was rebuffed. A second letter and in 1826, she joined Father Terme at Aps.
Now, around that time, Father Terme began a second branch of his mission, focused at Lalouvesc. St. John Francis Regis (patron saint of lace-makers, medical social workers and illegitimate children) had a shrine at La Louvesc, popular enough that pilgrims of both sexes journeyed there and cohabitated in the same inn. Father Terme, who comes across to me as a passionate type, insisted that this practice of mingling the sexes under one roof must be an offense to God,and set out to create a retreat house for women pilgrims to stay and pray while in La Louvesc.
Father Terme opened St. Regis House, and staffed it with his sisters, including Marie-Victoire, now Sister Thérèse, who became the novice mistress, and then succeeded another sister to become the superior, at the age of 23. The demand for a women’s inn exceeded the space that they had available and the unruly pilgrims caused no end of havoc on the reflective prayer life intended for the religious community.
Sister Thérèse proposed that they limit pilgrims to only women willing to complete a novena or a triduum while staying there. This idea, which seemed good to Father Terme, was embraced and it dramatically improved the environment. Father Terme, impressed by the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, which he’d discovered while making a retreat with the Jesuits, gave to the sisters at St. Regis House to go on their own retreat, and begin leading pilgrims through the exercises as well.
The local community responded positively to the retreats, and the work of leading the local schools branched out into the community (sisters walking through knee-deep snow for hours, fasting so they might receive Communion when they got there) and some of the biographies included stories like these of the bravery and sacrifice of the sisters who wished to reach these rural areas with the Good News.
In 1834, while on another mission, Father Terme contracted a fever and died. He had the forethought to compose a will before his death, willing St. Regis House to four of the sisters there (including Sister Thérèse) so the work would continue. The occasion of the lost will (and its finding) led to the inclusion of St. Philomena (patron saint of lost causes) as a friendly/honored saint to the group. Without Father Terme’s leadership however, it seemed like the early efforts of both apostolates would flounder.
Father Renault and the Jesuits
The decision was made to split the two apostolates, and the Jesuits came several times a week to lead pilgrims through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. Work began on building a chapel to replace their tiny oratory, and a new wing, funded by the dowry of Sister Gallet, a new novice, who also willed her estate to the Congregation upon her death.
Around this time, Mother Thérèse took ill for several months and was confined to her bed. Sent to Notre Dame d’Ay for further care, she dedicated herself at the Feast of the Assumption to Our Lady, and was filled with a great fear as to the wisdom of embarking upon such an ambitious building plan, with no guarantee of funding. Unbeknownst to her, during the period of her illness, Sister Gallet died, and now, her family contested the will, refusing to fund the expansion.
Upon Mother Thérèse’s return, Father Renault accused her, on the feast day of her own saint (Saint Teresa of Avila), of mismanaging funds. The debt was cited to total 37,000 francs but this was miscalculated because they included several gifts, so the actual debt was only 10,000 francs. Despite this, a council was appointed to oversee the financial decisions from there on out and Mother Thérèse had to defer to them for any decisions. As her business acumen, administrative skills and health were called into question, doubt filled the community, and it cast a bad light on the apostolate. Mother Thérèse feared that disunity would result in lost vocations and novices departing from the Congregation. What was to be done?
Madame la Vicomtesse de Lavillurnoy
In 1838, Madame de Lavillurnoy joined their numbers. Madame de Lavillurnoy, a widow of some extensive wealth, impressed Father Renault with her seeming piety, and she received the habit a mere two weeks after her entrance day. Mother Thérèse, who had already offered to step down as Superior, was further demeaned by Father Renault’s decision, not only to appoint Madame de Lavillurnoy as Superior (with approval of the bishop) but also declare her the Foundress of the Congregation, stripping Mother Thérèse, now Sister Thérèse, of any recognition she had for her co-founding work with Father Terme. It was hoped, that the money that Madame de Lavillurnoy brought with her, would secure the future of the Congregation and sacrifices must be made. Sister Thérèse was asked to be her assistant to guide the new mother through the transition.
Unfortunately, with less than a year of religious life’s experience, Madame de Lavillurnoy was unaccustomed to the extreme poverty that the sisters had shared for years. She moved much of her furniture and chandaliers from her old home into the retreat house, and ordered expensive meals every day and eventually ran up debt in the name of the Congregation, which they were unable to pay. This created a scandal and people withdrew their support of the congregation. When it came to the attention of Father Renault, an investigation was conducted, she was forced to resign, and another Superior was appointed, this time, Sister Charlotte Contenet.
The election of Sister Contenet, an older nun, came about as both she and Sister Thérèse, were nominated for the same title. Seeing the need for a united front, and that Sister Contenet was a practical woman, Sister Thérèse threw her whole support behind Sister Contenet, and it was a unanimous election. Sister Thérèse resolved to do everything she could to help Mother Contenet be successful in her new role.
Now, I must interject with my own interpretation of what happened, which isn’t explicitly stated in the biographies I’ve been reading.
The next several years of Sister Thérèse’s life are largely silent as she is ignored, ostracized, and given the worst jobs imaginable, by Mother Contenet. Neither of the biographies said anything negative about, well, anyone, but reading between the lines, I think there must’ve been some kind of personality clash that led to Mother Contenent’s dislike of Sister Thérèse from the outset. This compounded over time as Sister Thérèse was not allowed to have common recreation time with the other sisters, and despite her experience, was assigned to the hardest manual labor possible.
In 1842, Sister Thérèse was eventually assigned with another religious, Sister Marie, to a completely different house altogether, away from the rest of the community in Lyons (a rental the Congregation was considering purchase and required occupancy to retain). The house proved to be unsuitable to be developed into a retreat, but the sisters lived there for eighteen months, eking out what food they could from their efforts in the vegetable garden. While all of this was going on, Mother Contenent decided that several of the sisters that Thérèse had nurtured from the earliest days of the apostolate, were unfit for the work, and they were sent away, so, Sister Thérèse Couderc became truly, alone.
It’s unknown to me why this dislike existed on Mother Contenent’s side towards Sister Thérèse. Did she blame Sister Thérèse for the financial problems that Father Renault accused her of? Did she consider her culpable or incompetent in the way that Madame de Lavillurnoy handled her affairs? Was she perhaps fearful of losing her role as Superior and wanted to separate Sister Thérèse from her advocates within the Congregation? Maybe we’ll never know the answers to these questions.
A brief moment of joy the biographies mention during this period where Sister Thérèse is largely in the background, was the role she played in acquiring some property for the Congregation in 1843. Mother Contenet was interested in purchasing some land with buildings attached to expand their apostolate to the city of Lyons but the price quoted was too high.
Sister Thérèse, upon learning of the situation, and that an offer had been made by another party, went back to the sellers and pledged to purchase it in the name of the Congregation, it being accepted for a far lower bid than what Mother Contenet had been unable to afford. Mother Contenet had to return to the city and when she discovered that Sister Thérèse had been the means of them securing the property at a far better price, was flabbergasted that Sister Thérèse had in it her. Despite this vouching of her business acumen, little changed in terms of attitude. After setting up the new house, five sisters (including Sister Thérèse) moved in and by 1846, there were regular retreats at that location.
Schism in the Congregation
In 1851, a house in Paris was opened, formed from a donation the year before, and in 1852, Mother Contenet died from an illness. Madame Anais de St. Privat, her assistant general, insisted that Mother Contenet’s wishes were that she succeed her as Superior General, but Sister de Larochenegly was appointed instead. This resulted in a schism in the Congregation as Madame Anais refused to accept the decision.
This continued for two years at which time the Paris group was considering departing from the mother group altogether and the bishop was appealed to for a decision. The bishop sent Sister Thérèse to offer what aid she could, and she was placed in charge for the summer, during which time some of the sisters left (and a few later returned). In the fall, Mother de Larochenegly united the groups as Superior, but asked Sister Thérèse to remain for a year, and, seeing how the manual labor often made her ill, Sister Thérèse finally had relief from her labours, and was treated kindly by both Superior and sisters alike.
Montpelier and the Franco-Prussian War
In 1860, Sister Thérèse was sent to Montpelier to help with the new house there and where she was to remain until the end of her life (eighteen years later). The Church and its clergy were persecuted as people lashed out at France’s defeat by Germany during the war (1870), and it was a dark time for the Cenacle. Sister Thérèse who a year before had made a vow to God, an act of self-surrender, felt the persecution keenly, grieving for the suffering of those around her. As time passed, she increasingly went deaf, and weakened, was confined to her bed or to activities on the same floor as her room.
During these years, miraculous acts were said to take place — claims of bilocation in other cities, despite her inability to move, and an intense suffering as her soul united with the agony of Christ.
In 1864, Sister Thérèse had a spiritual experience where the Holy Spirit invited her to share in Christ’s agony during the Passion. Mother Lautier, a confidant of Sister Thérèse , wrote of the experience:
“Before granting her the favor of witnessing his Agony and participating in it, the divine Master had asked her consent. The humble Mother admitted that at this suggestion she felt her courage fail and trembled with fear, but nevertheless, she did not hesitate to accept and to surrender” (cited in pg. 64 of de Lassus).
In 1885, towards her final days, Sister Thérèse spoke of hearing the voices of the poor souls in Purgatory, some in praise, others in anguish. On September 26, 1885, Sister Thérèse died. Father Renault, who in Sister Thérèse’s lifetime, called her a saint, proved to be correct. She was declared venerable on May 12, 1935 by Pope Pius XI. She was beatified on November 4, 1951 by Pope Pius XII. She was canonized on May 10, 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Her incorrupt body can be viewed in Lalouvesc.
St. Thérèse Couderc, the Woman and her Writings
Who was this woman who was formed into a saint? Her fellow sisters have in writings remarked on her frequent contemplation of the Passion of the Christ, and of her often meditations upon the Stations of the Cross. She tried, as much as possible, to forget herself, even her own failing health, for the needs of others.
De Laussus’ biography has a wonderfully detailled description of her, which I thought worth including, as follows:
“She had a well formed personality and except during the dark years which were years of silence for her, she knew how to intervene, to express her position, and her convictions, never insisting on them, however” (pg 191, de Lassus).
“We have already noticed in her admirable examples of integration: head and heart, — dependence and freedom, — humility and magnanimity, presence to God and to the needs around her, […] sacrifice and joy, — passivitity and active cooperation, — in a word, the mystical life and daily practical realities” (pg 197, de Lassus).
Throughout her life, the suffering St. Thérèse Couderc experienced from her humiliations and physical pain developed within her a humility that marked her as a living saint. I truly believe that the only way in which we learn humility is by sharing in Christ’s suffering, as it is manifested in our own lives — not the mere tolerance, but the embracing of it, being a willing participant. This begins when we practice surrender in the pursuit of following God, as St. Thérèse Couderc is said to have written of in her 1864 work, To Surrender Oneself, but, unfortunately, I have been unable to find an English copy yet. If you know where a copy is available for lending, please contact me.
A portion of her masterpiece was quoted in de Lassus’, in which St. Thérèse Couderc, in her own words, speaks of the nature of surrender:
“There is nothing so easy to do, nothing so sweet to put into practice. The whole thing consists in making a generous act at the very beginning by saying will all the sincerity of your heart: ‘My God, I wish to be entirely thine; deign to accept my offering.’ Then all is said. But henceforth, you must be careful to keep yourself in this attitude of soul and not to shrink from any of the little sacrifices which can help you advance in virtue; […] Oh! If they could but understand beforehand the sweetness and peace experienced by those who hold nothing back from the good God! […] Let them but experience it and they will see that therein lies the true happiness they are vainly seeking elsewhere.” (from To Surrender Oneself, cited by de Lassus, 130)
If I may reverently add, oh, that we may all learn to embrace more fully the Passion of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, and the road to Calvary. May the Lord be at work in us, to nurture the virtue of humility and grant us the courage to say, “Not my will, but Thine”.
Special thanks to the libraries at Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI) and Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, PA) for the lending of source material.
- St. Thérèse Couderc: Foundress of the Cenacle, 1805-1885, canonized May 10, 1970 by Eileen Surles, r.c.1970, Editrice Ancora. Nihil obstat.
- A Great and Humble Soul, Mother Thérèse Couderc, foundress of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle (1805-1885) by Henry Perroy, s.j., translated from the French by John H. Burke, C.S.P., S.T.D., 1960, The Newman Press, Nihil obstat, Imprimatur.
- Therese Couderc: Woman and Saint, 1805-1885, by Paule de Lassus, r.c., 1988, Sisters of the Cenacle.*
- Wikipedia contributors. “Thérèse Couderc.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 May. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2018.
*This title in particular is a wealth of photography of the locations and people discussed in the book.