A New Religious Community Takes Root in Santa Rosa
January 22, 2014
Mother Teresa Christe of the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa discusses her journey from sedevacantism to communion with Rome and the establishment of a community of sisters devoted to prayer and Catholic education.
In Northern California, the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa are preparing to receive their first three postulants on February 2. The new community of four perpetually professed sisters was established as an Association of the Faithful in 2012. Their charism includes intercessory prayer for the Diocese of Santa Rosa and the instruction of the faithful in the Catholic faith. They were welcomed into the diocese by the newly appointed bishop, Robert Vasa, in 2011.
The Church in Santa Rosa has suffered much in past decades due to financial and sexual scandals, and vocations to the priesthood and religious life experienced a period of stark decline. However, this diocese of 140,000 Catholics has been experiencing a slow turnaround in recent years. The establishment of the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa has been a part of that, and the community’s superior, Mother Teresa Christe, hopes to see her small order grow and make a significant contribution to the spiritual revival of the diocese. She recently spoke with Jim Graves for Catholic World Report.
Jim Graves, CWR: My daughters regularly see priests at work in our parish, but only see nuns in pictures. How would you recommend I explain to my children what a nun is, and how can I introduce them to positive examples of women in religious life?
Mother Teresa Christe: A nun is a daughter of the Church, a spouse of Christ and a mother of souls. If you wish to be successful as a married person, you must dedicate your whole self to your family. A woman who chooses religious life must dedicate her whole self to her vocation.
When I work with young people, they’ve asked me, “Did you become a nun because you couldn’t find a man?” They think nuns are on the fringes of society, but we’re actually at its center, its heart.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing a religious vocation, notes that when we are baptized, we not only receive the three theological virtues and seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, but the seed of our vocation in life. As we grow up, our experiences, including our sufferings and trials, point us in the direction of the vocation to which God is calling us. This is where our baptismal vocation can be lived most fully. It is where we’ll be happy, and have the most positive impact on the salvation of souls.
One doesn’t just decide one day, “I want to be a nun.” Instead, that decision comes after a lengthy dialogue with God. It must not only be attractive to me, but a fit with my life.
I first encountered positive examples of women religious by reading the lives of the saints. I read the stories of wonderful examples of women religious, such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Children can also visit religious communities; some sponsor summer camps for children. This can lead to some more serious conversations about religious life.
Parents should talk about religious life with their children and pray for vocations. From the earliest ages, children will consider the idea of the consecrated life as a realistic possibility. The words parents say to their children are very powerful. When children meet religious, they’ll think, “These are the people for whom I’ve been praying.”
CWR: How did you decide to become a nun?
Mother Teresa Christe: The Lord took me by surprise!
I grew up in a large family in Los Angeles. I had seven brothers and two sisters. My mother was a devout Catholic.
I felt directed toward the married state. I had a life full of activity; we owned horses, I liked ice skating. As a teenager, I dreamed of getting married and moving away from the big city to Montana, where I’d have 10 horses and 10 children.
Although I had read about women religious, I had never met one. It was a dormant period in religious life when I grew up; if I did see a sister, I did not recognize her because she did not wear anything to indicate her vocation.
In the 8th grade, my parents sent me to a Catholic boarding school in northern Idaho. It was there that I first encountered sisters in full habit. I was scared to death when I arrived, because I thought the nuns would be hard and strict. But, they were the most kind, warm and sensitive people I’d ever met. I was happy there. I learned to live in the state of grace and have fun.
My respect for religious life grew, but I didn’t feel the call. At 17, I got my first job, and began making my own money. When I went to Mass, I thought I’d be happy because for the first time I could put money into the collection basket that I’d earned myself.
But, when the basket came around, I had an unusual and dramatic experience. I pulled the money out of my pocket, looking at it, then the crucifix. I felt a profound sadness. I said to Our Lord, “You gave me your whole self, and all I can give you is a few dollars.”
I had the sense that I wanted to put my whole self into the basket. I knew God wanted more from me.
I went on a high school retreat, and listened to a priest speaking on vocations. He said that we were all like a tree, which bears fruit from the use of our time, talent, and treasure. As we grow into adulthood, we give to God from that tree.
However, if you are called to religious life, you give God the whole tree. He gets to plant it where he wants, and pick from it what he wants. The whole tree belongs to him. Some are called to give that whole tree.
I told a woman religious that I loved children, and of my desire to have my own. She told me about spiritual motherhood, and said that if I was called to religious life, I’d have more children than I could imagine.
I entered the convent after high school. I thought I would be unhappy there, but I experienced the joy that one experiences in a true vocation.
CWR: You became a sister with the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (Congregatio Mariae Reginae Immaculate), a group that identifies itself as Catholic but is not in union with the Holy Father. You were one of about 50 sisters at Mount St. Michael in Spokane, Washington. You later returned with 14 other sisters to full communion with Rome. How did you make this decision?
Mother Teresa Christe: Conversion comes in many layers. In the traditional community I entered, we never thought of ourselves as out of full communion with the Church. But the grace I received in baptism acted as a homing device that called me to full communion.
I loved my life in the traditional community. But, it was the saint for whom I’m named, St. Teresa of Avila, who said, “In the end, I die a daughter of the Church.” I realized that to have the fullness of the Catholic faith, I need to be in union with Rome. We have to trust Our Lord; where Peter is there is the Church.
My former community believes that due to confusion and heresy, the popes after John XXIII lost their authority. It’s really a hopeless outlook.
Part of my process of coming into full communion with the Church was recognizing the authority of the Holy Father at the time, Pope John Paul II. Privately, I prayed for him, and asked the Lord, “Please make it clear to me when you want me to move and come into full communion with Rome.”
CWR: Are you still in touch with the CMRI community?
Mother Teresa Christe: No. We would only communicate should a major event occur, such as a death. The CMRI sisters believe we have been misled. They’ve circled the wagons, and become a more intensely closed community. They’re committed to their theological theory, and they’re surrounded by a culture that supports them.
I pray for them, however. I love those sisters very much. I pray that by God’s grace they can come into full communion.
CWR: How were the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa founded?
Mother Teresa Christe: When the 15 of us left the CMRI community, the Diocese of Spokane, first under Bishop William Skylstad and then Bishop Blase Cupich, set us up in a temporary situation by incorporating us as the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church. We remained in the full habit, and were honored for our years in religious life.
But, for some of us, it was a transitional community, as we had several options for what we could do with our lives. We received further education, and worked in diocesan schools. I attended classes at Spokane’s Gonzaga University.
I worked in a youth camp in eastern Oregon in 2007. I had the chance to meet Bishop Robert Vasa, then bishop of Baker, Oregon. We immediately had a connection. We talked extensively about the need for evangelization. Bishop Vasa is a personable man, a good communicator and very faithful to Church teaching.
After four years in transition with the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, Bishop Cupich realized that our community was done with discernment, and some of us were ready to move on. Some of our sisters left for Michigan, and founded the Sisters of Our Mother of Divine Grace (www.sistersmdg.org
It was about this time that Pope Benedict XVI, now Pope Benedict Emeritus, asked bishops to make the Tridentine Mass more available to those who wished to attend it. I wanted to be part of a community which participated in both rites of the Mass, and sharing the Tridentine rite with the faithful who had never had any understanding or experience with it.
I had this vision in my heart, which affected my discernment, of the Parable of the Talents. For years I’d worshipped in the Tridentine rite. I thought, “Don’t drop it or bury it in the ground. Take it and use it for the good of souls.”
Bishop Cupich helped us assemble a packet about our new community to be presented to diocesan bishops who would have an interest in having us come to their dioceses. Some priest-friends suggested we approach such bishops as Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, and Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette [today, archbishop of Portland].
Father Thomas Nelson of St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California suggested Bishop Vasa, who was on his way to Santa Rosa. Since I had met Bishop Vasa and we had an incredible connection, we sent him our packet. We received a response from him immediately. He agreed to give our new community a try.
I moved with another sister to Santa Rosa in 2011. Two other sisters from a Marian community in Connecticut joined us.
CWR: How is it working with Bishop Vasa?
Mother Teresa Christe: I love working with him; you know exactly where he stands.
Bishop Vasa has been placed in a region of the country that is very liberal. Many here are sensitive to being politically correct; Bishop Vasa comes in and says, “The Ten Commandments say this.” He has been a faithful, straightforward bishop in an area where he’s learned you have to apply the truth gently. He won’t compromise, but I think he’s recognizing areas where he’s come on too strong.
CWR: What is your apostolate?
Mother Teresa Christe: I work at the diocese’s Cardinal Newman High School where I teach two theology classes. They were the idea of the bishop.
Newman High is a good college prep high school with a good sports program, and we attract many students, both Catholic and non-Catholic. It’s in an affluent area, where many people can afford a private education. However, practicing Catholics only make up about 20 percent of our classroom population. Many of our students don’t know what the word “Eucharist” means.
My theology classes are a kind of “AP religion” for students who want a more challenging education in the Catholic faith. There was some resistance from the administration, who initially argued that we’re saying the Catholic kids are better than the non-Catholic kids, and that they valued diversity.
But my classes have gone well, and haven’t caused division among the students. We started with a freshman class, and now we’ve added a sophomore class.
Our other sisters are involved in works of Catholic education as well. One runs the confirmation program and teaches religion classes at the cathedral school. Another works in the chancery assisting the superintendent of Catholic schools. Our goal is to teach people the Catholic faith, emphasizing its beauty and goodness.
We also assist in reverent liturgies. We help with music, especially the Gregorian chant, and with the sacristy and in maintaining the altar.
We’ve been well received. Many are happy to see sisters in full habit at work again in the diocese. Some thought it would be something they’d never see again. One teacher at the high school told me that my presence made campus life feel complete, with laity, priests, and now consecrated religious on the staff.
CWR: You’re now welcoming young women to come and explore a life with your community. What kind of woman do you think would be interested in the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa?
Mother Teresa Christe: One who has a love for the Church, striving for unity while using both forms of the Roman rite. One who is self-sacrificing and courageous in her love for God, Our Lady, and the Church. One who loves the liturgy, and has a Marian spirituality and a sense of adventure.
She should be age 20 to 35, with some exceptions. It is helpful if she has a college education, but she can also be educated within the community.
We’re not a long-established community—if this is what she wants, I can point her to some great ones—but if she wants to be part of an adventure in building one, this is the place for her.
CWR: What will a typical schedule for your postulants include?
Mother Teresa Christe: They will rise early, and begin with an hour of Eucharistic adoration. They will especially pray for the priests of the diocese. They will chant the divine office, and then say Marian consecration prayers. They will share breakfast together while listening to spiritual reading. They will then go about their daily duties, coming together later to say the Rosary, make an examination of conscience, and recite the Angelus at noon.
There will be afternoon recreation, other prayers throughout the day and a common dinner. One of the sisters formed in religious life will lead them. Ours is a structured religious life, which works for four or 400 sisters. Our vision is to faithfully and lovingly live our lives.
CWR: Where do you live?
Mother Teresa Christe: We live in a house vacated by the bishop. He said it was too big for him, so he gave it to us. It has a chapel. But since we’re growing, we’re making arrangements to move into what was once a convent for the cathedral. It’s being renovated for us.
CWR: Why do you believe religious life has declined so dramatically over the past 50 years?
Mother Teresa Christe: There has been a dramatic change in the culture and in people’s sense of the purpose of life. The culture previously had a greater sense of God’s presence, and saw life on earth as a temporary time before going to heaven.
In the 1960s, we became more short-sighted, and religious life became less attractive. People thought they should get the most out of their lives here, and material goods increased in their importance. Devastation followed, and many broken families have resulted.
Some people today are looking to return to a more Catholic view of life.
CWR: When you meet sisters who have a “modern” or liberal perspective, what kind of exchange do you have?
Mother Teresa Christe: We express good will toward one another, but, as their lifestyle is very different, it’s hard to have a deeper conversation with them. As Bishop Vasa has said, theirs is not a religious life but an apostolic one. They don’t live in common, they have their own bank accounts…they have the elements of the single life rather than the religious one.
It is my hope that the great women’s religious orders in our Church which are experiencing an aging and decline experience a renewal before they die out. They have great charisms to offer the world.
About the Author
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
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