Back (left to right): Mother Teresa Christe, Sr. Marie de Lourdes
Front (left to right): Sr. Mary Rose and Sr. Maria Faustina.
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
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
I entered the convent after high school. I thought I
would be unhappy there, but I experienced the joy that one experiences in a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
We’re not a long-established communityif this is what she
wants, I can point her to some great onesbut 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.