Presentation Madre Teresa de Saldanha

Mother Teresa de Saldanha was an important figure in the Dominican Family and the history of religious congregations in Portugal. The first woman to found a congregation after the extinction of all the country’s religious orders in the nineteenth century (XIX).

Mother Teresa is not yet a Saint, but Pope Francis recognized her for her ‘heroic virtues’, and is now considered Venerable. As such, I would ask you to pray for her canonization.


I will divide her life into four phases: The Child, The Young Woman, The Founder, and The Nun.


So, let’s talk about Teresa as a Child.

Teresa de Saldanha was born in 1837, in the city of Lisbon, Portugal, into a noble family, with two brothers. Teresa was born a few years after the end of the Portuguese civil war, which led to fierce persecution against the church and the clergy, by the winners, the liberal party. By the age of three, she learns how to read, and shows a great love for studying .

Her mother demonstrated early concern about the spiritual life of her daughter. Thus, Teresa begins to be accompanied by a priest, learning the importance of a strong spiritual life, about the catechism, and, years later, goes to her first confession. At 11 years old, she received for the first time the Holy Communion, which marked her deeply.

By the time Teresa is twelve years old, she starts her formation. Her mother wants to provide her with an all-rounded and complete education and supports her in her self-development on two fronts.

On the one hand, the development of intellectual knowledge, sharing the teaching with some masters, in which Teresa highlights her talent for painting and singing.

On the other hand, developing the practice of works of mercy. Teresa accompanied her mother in caring for the less fortunate and poor in her association.

At the age of 15, Teresa became seriously ill. Due to its nature, it drove her into isolation for recovery separating her from society. During her isolation, Teresa grows spiritually, developing her relationship with God, and marks the transition from the child to the young woman.


Teresa, The young woman 

Entering adulthood, at the age of 18, fully recovered, her parents started taking her to appear in society. However, she came different from isolation and shared with her confessor that it was very difficult to be faithful to Jesus at dances and parties, so she didn’t like going to them. He responded that she needed to go, to console her parents, to set a good example, and she could offer her dislike and her difficulties as sacrifices to God.

Teresa came to recognise Our Lord as central to her life, and her greatest desire became to do God’s will, overcoming all the fears that came with it. As she wrote in one personal note (quote): “I had already developed a burning desire to be a nun, which at first I had a hard time confessing to myself was true because the idea of it frightened me.”

This desire begins to show in her painting of Ecce Homo. However, the painting wasn’t enough to express her desire, so she decided to take a vow of chastity to her confessor, and from that moment on, live only for God. Nevertheless, this vow was secret, which meant that Teresa had to follow all the protocols of a high-society girl.

The love for God in the poor plays a big role in Teresa’s will to follow religious life. In that regard, she founded an association, with her friends, called the Association for the Protection of Poor Girls, which provided education to girls that worked in factories.

In addition, she started working in a school owned by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Teresa enjoys it so much that she considers joining this congregation.

However, due to the politicisation of religion, the sisters are expelled from the country. This forced exit was hard to swallow for Teresa. First, due to the proximity that she had had with the sisters, and secondly, the suffering caused by the lack of sisters’ work in caring for those in need. Teresa delayed her vocation, trying to solve the pain caused by the exile of the sisters, inaugurating a school with her association.

Everything was going well until Teresa fell ill, again, with a wound on her forehead, which led to surgery. During recovery time, she again felt the call for religious life and, reflecting on the advice of a Dominican Friar, Jorge Wiseman, to always be faithful to Our Lord, and to live for Him. She understood that her desire to become a nun was not to be ignored. So, she ponders congregation for her religious life,  and chooses (quote):

“(…) the sisters of the Third Order of St Dominic, established in Stone, England. It’s a large establishment with a hospital, children’s classes, poor people to visit, etc., etc. I’ve already been accepted.” 

Her love for the Order of Preachers was evident, since she was a child, given a family tradition, and by the relationship she established with the Irish Friars, who lived in Portugal, who were to be her spiritual guides. These friars were the only remnant of the order in Portugal, overcoming the expulsion of religious orders due to their nationality.

When she decided on the congregation, she shared it with the people closest to her: her mother, and her sister-in-law Isabel. Both were sad to think of the possibility of being away from her.

Teresa tells Isabel by letter, and shares her plans: She asks Isabel to establish a school and ask the Sisters of the Third Order of St Dominic for their support so that Teresa would be sent to work in this school.

This would happen due to the great desire of the General of the Dominicans to re-establish the order in Portugal. However, Teresa knew that she couldn’t demand this of her future community and that if she entered, she had to go with total availability.

Everything seemed settled, but her desire to stay grew, from the various setbacks that prevented her from leaving, and eventually culminated in the intuition of Father Jorge Wiseman, whom Teresa referred to as a speaker of God’s will when he said (quote):

“Your Ladyship, if Our Lord gives you good health, you should work in your own country. Try to obtain all the necessary licences to be able to establish a religious congregation in Portugal. Your Ladyship should not be the first, because by your position and the fortune you will later have, you can do even greater service to the Cause of God from the outsider.” (end quote)

From then on, the tide turned, and Teresa went from joining a congregation to founding one in Portugal, seeking to renew her beloved order.

Teresa, The Founder

At that time, religious orders and their congregations faced all kinds of barriers. However, this wasn’t enough to stop Teresa from following God’s will. To overcome the difficulties that the social and political climate would place on the new congregation she founded it under the guise of her Association.

Teresa wanted to re-establish Dominican life in Portugal and, at the same time, to serve the poor, inspired by the congregations dedicated to the less fortunate that were springing up in Europe. Teresa and Isabel worked together to gather information from several of these Dominican congregations and connected with the contemplative sisters of the Convent of Siena, in Ireland, with whom Teresa deepens her Dominican spirituality, leading her to ask them to educate future candidates. With the Irish sisters, Teresa deepened her devotion to the great Dominican saint, Catherine of Siena, whom she was to name protector of the congregation.

In the years 1866 to 1867, Teresa was going to uproot her congregation. The year began with Teresa receiving a letter from the superior of the Convent of Siena,  accepting the request. In March, she received confirmation from the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, Manuel Bento Rodrigues, approving the establishment of a Congregation of Third Sisters. In October, a document was drawn up entitled “1º. Chapter of the Third Order of St Dominic in Lisbon”, which would become the birth certificate of the congregation, that Teresa called Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena, dedicated to contemplation-prayer, fraternal life in community, study and mission.

In November, two candidates set off by boat to begin their journey and formation with the sisters in Ireland. This was undoubtedly the most difficult stage, with progress and setbacks. But after a great deal of effort, two ladies joined her project. After two years, both sisters succeeded and received the favourable votes of the community to profess.

Teresa accompanied all the joys of her sisters, in prayer and spirit, and worked diligently to prepare for the arrival of her candidates. After hard work, through alms, Teresa manages to get a house, preparing two very poor rooms. On 8 November 1868, the sisters said goodbye to Ireland and returned to Portugal. It was in this house that the sisters began their mission, giving free lessons to poor girls.

The work quickly increased, giving different classes. Teresa was responsible for overseeing and keeping the machine running by fundraising, helped by her mum and her trust in divine providence asking for St Joseph’s interception. But also, to lovingly care for the sick sisters.

One year after the beginning of the sisters’ work, the school had one hundred and sixty children. The house needed a big upgrade to follow the growth, both by the number of students and the necessity to initiate the novitiate, in 1871, due to several candidates to the congregation. The house of Portas da Cruz wasn’t enough to support the dimension that the mission got, so Teresa tried to find a bigger place.

After various hypotheses, she discovers a property with a palace in São Domingos de Benfica with enough space to house the sisters’ mission. But how to get the money?

In 1872, Teresa’s father died leaving her some possessions, which allowed her to buy the property, where the entire congregation moved a few months later, and Teresa with them.

This property would become the Mother House of the Congregation, and in it, Teresa would set up the school of St Joseph, giving lessons to rich girls and poor children. The house quickly filled up but Teresa did not limit God’s will, opening two other missions in the same year, a School of Regeneration in the north of Portugal, and, at the headquarters of Nª Senhora dos Aflitos, an association founded by her mother, she opened an asylum for the blind.

Teresa was disturbed to think that the Order’s old convents, which served to praise God, could be turned into institutional buildings.

So she persuaded the government to cede the convents to her to set up free schools. In this way, she opened four more missions.


Teresa, The Nun

Teresa had removed a multitude of obstacles to the return of religious life to Portugal, and her work was going strong. But there was still one issue to resolve, and that was the Constitutions. Teresa had presented them to the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon and was anxiously awaiting his approval.

The Cardinal handed her the Constitutions and said (Quote): “Now here you have them. Practise them, venerate them and have them observed, but don’t firm them up with my approval until the day you take the Holy Habit”.

This was the sign Teresa needed to fulfil her deepest desire and become a nun, she had put this decision on the back burner, with great sacrifice, out of obedience, and to be able to ensure the congregation’s founding and necessities were being taken care of, in the hostility of times. Now, also out of obedience, she will gladly join her congregation.

And so it was, in April 1887, she received the Dominican habit and began her novitiate.

A few months later, Pope Leo XIII dispensed her to fulfil her canonical time and brought forward her profession, occurring in October of that year. The same Pope approved Teresa’s congregation in 1889. Teresa’s profession was made by Cardinal Patriarch José himself, where she was able to publicly express her long-standing vow of full surrender to Jesus.

The Sisters’ work was vast, practising charity in Asylums, Hospitals, Sanatoriums, and Refuges… and Teresa passed through several missions.

Among them was the Outão Sanatorium, founded the previous year at the request of the Queen of Portugal for the treatment of tubercular children.

The years went by, and the Work grew and grew, and, by 1901, the Congregation had 10 houses, with a total of two hundred religious. Teresa, as Mother General, supervised all these areas, but nothing could have warned her of what would happen.

Everything was about to change, and tensions with the Church rose again.

In 1908, King and his son were assassinated, and two years later, the  First Portuguese Republic was established. With it, the laws that persecuted religious life were revived. The Dominican Sisters, being a Portuguese congregation, were allowed to live in Portugal, but no more than three per house, no habits, and no prayers to be heard. All the other orders had to leave Portugal.

On hearing the news, the sisters decided to disperse for safety’s sake, but they did not abandon the congregation, as Mother Teresa explained to the Cardinal Protector of the Congregation:

“I currently live in a small house in Lisbon, where I am with two other Sisters (the number allowed by law).

We have a little chapel with the Blessed Sacrament, where our Sisters come to renew their vows. Everything is done as it was in the days of religious persecution, on the sly, because, unfortunately, that’s what we do.

I have already been able to admit some Sisters to Profession (…).

Fortunately, we still have some Sisters in the houses (…), but some 82 live with their families or in private homes”

Teresa was undeterred and sought new directions for her congregation. In this hard time, she was able to found a new sanatorium in 1910, issuing an ultimatum to the government, which was forced to accept, but enforced the religious limit.

In addition, due to the uncertainty in Portugal, she gathered her counsellors together and they decided to open houses abroad, sending the sisters to Belgium, New York and Brazil.

She lived out her last years with the pain of seeing the Mother House raided and having to break the law to gather the sisters together, but also a tender joy at the fruits of the sisters who left for America and Brazil.

She died on 8 January 1916 and was recognized as a saint by several newspapers of the time, with a great legacy that is still very much alive today.

I’ll end by asking you, again, to pray for her canonization, and share Mother Teresa’s maxim: ‘Do good whenever and wherever possible’.

Madre Teresa de Saldanha – PDF

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