Saints for Our Times: St. Marie Couderc co-founded Cenacle retreat movement
By Mary Lou Gibson
Marie Victoire Couderc was 20 when she attended a mission preached by a young priest, Father J. P. E. Terme. It was the year 1824 and Father Terme and a few other priests had been sent to La Louvesc, in the Vivarais, a rural section in southeastern France, to look after the pilgrim shrine of St. John Francis Regis.
The priests opened a hostel for women pilgrims and Father Terme asked a community of sisters he had established to run the hostel. The sisters were teachers in Father Terme’s former parish of Aps. After he met Marie Victoire, he invited her to join this new congregation dedicated to education. She took the religious name Thérèse and when she was only 23, Father Terme made her superior general at La Louvesc. The congregation was known as the Daughters of St. Regis.
Soon after, things changed rapidly for Thérèse and her sisters. Editor Michael Walsh writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that in 1828 Father Terme attended a retreat at the Jesuit house near Le Puy. When he returned, he announced that the Daughters of St. Regis should begin giving of retreats for women. His decision that the sisters, not priests, should conduct retreats for the women who came to visit the pilgrim site was astonishing for its day. Tom Cowan writes in “The Way of the Saints” that nowhere did nuns give retreats.
But the concept caught on and grew and flourished under Mother Thérèse’s supervision. It was an immediate success, especially among country women. Thus, the Society of the Cenacle became a separate congregation from the teaching ministry of the Sisters of St. Regis. Dom Basil Watkins, OSB, writes in “The Book of Saints” that it was Thérèse’s intention to attract pilgrims to the tomb of St. John Francis Regis and to help them spend time in recollection. The small community of 12 sisters were installed at La Louvesc with Mother Thérèse at their head. They began giving retreats according to the method of St. Ignatius. Plans were made for a new house and church for the convent.
But the community’s financial resources could not meet the increased expenses, and the community amassed very large debts. Before Father Terme’s death in 1834, the shrine of St. John Francis Regis and the parish of Le Louvesc were taken over by the Jesuits. Walsh writes that Mother Thérèse blamed herself for the financial problems and mismanagement that followed. She resigned in 1838.
Sarah Gallick writes in “The Big Book of Women Saints,” the Jesuits demoted Thérèse and replaced her with a series of wealthy, well connected women. While she continued to play a role in the retreat program, Thérèse more and more withdrew into obscurity.
Years of internal dissension followed in the community and Cowan writes that there was disagreement and conflict over who was the true founder of the Society of the Cenacle. Thérèse lived most of the rest of her life as a simple nun and endured false allegations about her health and abilities from many in the religious community.
But these years were also a time of grace for her. Gallick notes that during the last 20 years of her life, Mother Thérèse received many mystical graces and discovered a revelation on the meaning of complete self-surrender to God. This became the keynote to her spirituality, and she wrote, “The surrendered soul has found Paradise on earth.”
Finally, toward the end of her life, by decree of a local bishop, Mother Thérèse was officially recognized as the cofounder of the Cenacle retreat movement along with Father John Terme. She died on Sept. 26, 1885. She was beatified in 1951 by Pope Pius XII and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Cowan writes that she is known as “a pioneer in the women’s retreat movement.”
Today the Sisters of the Cenacle continue to lead retreats all over the world. They have houses in Chicago, Houston, Atlanta and Ronkonkoma, New York.