The eldest of seven children, Mary Theresa Ledòchowska was born in Austria on April 29, 1863, to Count Anthony, and his wife, Josephine. From her parents Maria Theresa inherited not only their noble blood, but also a heart sensitive for the needy.
Even though she grew up in a very religious family, Mary Theresa did not hear much about the missions in her youth.
In 1885 Mary Theresa became a lady-in-waiting to the Grand Duchess Alice of Tuscany. In the midst of the glamour of court life, she was exposed for the first time to the needs of the missionary world.
Two Franciscan Missionaries of Mary came to Salzburg to seek financial help for their missionary work. The lady-in-waiting listened raptly as the two women religious shared their experiences of working with the lepers in Madagascar.
This spark of interest in missions was fueled to a full flame when Mary Theresa read a pamphlet on Cardinal Lavigerie’s anti-slavery campaign. The prelate of Africa called for the women of Europe to support his crusade against slavery. His call bore fruit in Mary Theresa, who would one day say, “I myself would not be here before you today, and I would probably still be a lady-in-waiting at a court in Austria, if by chance I had not seen a pamphlet by Cardinal Lavigerie, which gave me the incentive to devote myself to the missions.”
“I don’t know of anything more beautiful than to co-operate with God in the salvation of souls.”
~Bl. Mary Theresa Ledòchowska
As Mary Theresa’s involvement with the missions grew, she began a mission page in a Catholic periodical. These mission features, called Echo From Africa, were based on correspondence from African missionaries. The page of letters evolved into a monthly magazine, which made its debut in 1889, even though the nineteenth century was not ready for a woman publisher.
The magazine soon became a full-time job, and Emperor Franz Joseph personally released Mary Theresa from her court duties in 1891 so that she could devote all of her time and energy to the missions. Soon the work of promoting and supporting the needs of missionaries in Africa could no longer be considered one’s woman effort.
Mary Theresa, led by the Holy Spirit, enlisted “auxiliary missionaries” and placed her work under the patronage of the Spanish Jesuit missionary, St. Peter Claver, whose life ministry earned him the title of Apostle to the Slaves.
Mary Theresa’s vision took shape gradually, emerging in wonderful form. First on April 29, 1894, Pope Leo XIII formally blessed Mary Theresa’s enterprise, deeming the St. Peter Claver Sodality a pious association, which gradually developed into a religious community. On September 8, 1897, Mary Theresa and her first companion professed their final vows as Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver.
For the next twenty-five years, the Foundress roamed Europe, enlisting people of all walks of life to help her congregation’s support for evangelisation in Africa. Realizing that the missionaries were in urgent need of books in local languages, she expanded her work, producing everything from Bibles and hymnals to dictionaries in local languages.
Pope St. Pius X gave his final approval to the constitutions in 1910. The lady-in-waiting’s dream blossomed into an international mission aid network. Her reward came when the recipients of her generous support offered gratitude for the assistance, calling Mary Theresa “Mother of the Africans.”
The gruelling schedule of appearances and editing took its toll on Mary Theresa. Despite suffering from tuberculosis, she worked to the very end, passing away on July 6, 1922. The thousands of missionaries she had supported through prayers, encouragement and material help felt as though they had lost a mother.
Mary Theresa Ledòchowska was beatified by Pope Paul VI, on October 19, 1975, Mission Sunday. The Holy Father cited her selfless, creative response to Jesus’ command to “go and teach all nations.”
In advance of Vatican II, Mary Theresa proclaimed that every Christian is a missionary by means of Baptism. She left her spiritual daughters with the responsibility of informing all Catholics of their duty to bring the Good News of God’s love to the whole world.