On Oct. 29, 1874, Frascati, a pleasant town in the Alban Hills not far from Rome, was in a festive mood, its streets filled with joyful groups of the village poor. They were all headed for the home of Thomas Casini and his wife Melania Rayner, who were among the town’s aristocracy, to celebrate the baptism of their daughter Teresa, born two days before. The proud father, always generous to the poor, invited them to process with the family to the church for this sacred event. Little did they know how remarkable the life of this child would be.
Teresa Casini grew up to be the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an order of nuns dedicated to fostering priestly vocations and to the sanctification of priests through their self-oblation and reparation for priests’ failures. They do this by assisting priests in their ministry to souls and by prayer, sacrifice and expiation in their lives as consecrated persons.
It was not an easy journey for Teresa. After her father died when she was 10 years old, Teresa, her younger sister, Adele, and her mother moved to Grottaferrata, another delightful town in the Alban Hills, to live with her mother’s parents.
There she met Father Arsenio Pelligini, Abbot of the Basilian Monastery in Grottaferrata, who became her spiritual director. Under his guidance, when she was 18 she entered the cloistered convent of the “Buried Alive.” This was a very strict and poor convent where Teresa suffered much — not from the hard poverty of convent life, but from nightly visions of the devil telling her she did not belong there. Another voice told her she was there only to learn about religious life in a convent.
After a time, in consultation with Father Pelligrini, she left that convent and joined another fledgling community, where she stayed until the foundress died and the convent disbanded.
After spending a short time back with her family, she rented an apartment in Grottaferrata. Several young women of the town were attracted to her dedicated life which was directed by Father Pelligrini. Ultimately, a small community formed, moving to several locations in Grottaferrata as more young women were attracted to the life.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
On the day Teresa had made her First Communion, she was in the family chapel of her home when she looked at the crucified Jesus on the cross and was moved to tears thinking about the suffering and abandonment He had suffered. The wounded Heart of Jesus pierced by a thorn flooded her mind. That memory had defined the thrust of her life from that day on, and she was driven by her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She wanted to make reparation for herself and others by taking upon herself the burden of sin just as Jesus had by suffering on His redeeming cross.
Like St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Teresa desired to become a victim and to gather others into a devotion dedicated to the sanctification of priests and, especially, to reparation for those offenses committed by the souls of those consecrated to Christ. This was the foundation of the “work” she saw for herself and for those who would follow her. Halting steps marked her progress. What was easy in church in front of the Blessed Sacrament, outside the church had the slow ponderous rhythm of life.
Teresa, tall, blue eyed, with an engaging personality, attracted the interest of many young women in the town. They would gather at her rented apartment and talk about religion and virtue, do household chores together, and eventually spend considerable time before the Blessed Sacrament in the local parish church. Because so many young woman were knocking on her door, she had to move to a larger location.
Gradually the residence became a house of prayer. Teresa and the women living with her got up in the middle of the night to recite psalms and to observe the grand silence the rest of the night. In the evenings they would walk to the parish church for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Their lives had one purpose: to console the wounded Heart of Jesus. Their books of formation were the sacred Scriptures, The Imitation of Christ, the Catechism and Lives of The Saints.
After morning Mass on the feast of the Guardian Angels, Father Pelligrini called three young women into the sacristy and officially recognized them as a religious community. The three were Teresa Casini, Angela Mascherucci, and Teresa Canestri.
The rule of community life set down by Father Pelligrini was this: 2:00 a.m., recite the seven penitential psalms; 3:00 a.m., rest; 5:00 a.m., rise and say morning prayers followed by Mass and communion; 7:15 a.m., meditation; 8:00 a.m., breakfast; 11:00 a.m., chapel and other prayers; noon to 1:30 p.m., dinner, recreation and free time; 2:15 p.m., rosary in chapel; 4:00 p.m., return to the house, work, read, then prayers at 10:00 p.m. or at 11:00 p.m. on days when there was an hour’s walk.
Money to pay for rent, heat in the wintertime and food was a perennial problem for the fledgling community. The only thing there was plenty of was space around the table. Sharing the little food they had was a reflection of the poverty that touched each one of them. When all went well, breakfast was bread and water. Lunch alternated between bread, seasoned with garlic and a little oil, and a plate of vegetables.
They had to go to Teresa’s aunt’s house in the neighboring town of Frascati to to do their laundry because they could not afford to use the laundry facilities in Grottaferrata. Their poverty forced them outside their house to look for any means of survival. Because they were often seen carrying bundles of wood on their heads, they were known as the “nuns of the firewood.” At the public fountain, they filled their water jugs and washed their green vegetables with the other peasant women. The women began to wonder about Teresa’s sanity because they saw her doing these humble tasks with them and then see her dressed in fine clothes when she had to go to Frascati. She did this to protect the reputation of her “well-to-do” family, but to the peasant women, it was a strange metamorphosis.
Their Own House
The sisters’ life of poverty was not a problem, but owner of the building, knocking on the door and demanding rent money, upset them. To solve the tyranny of the rent problem, Teresa presented to Father Pelligrini the idea of building their own house. His adamant refusal to give permission changed when she sold her family inheritance to raise funds for the down payment needed to secure the necessary loan.
The building project, fraught with difficulties such as work stoppages and physical threats against the women by the brick masons demanding payment, ended in a simple cornerstone-laying ceremony. The cornerstone was laid on the vigil of the birth of the Virgin Mary. To maintain the schedule of payments to the bricklayers, Father Pelligrini told Teresa that she must go to Rome and beg for the money. She obeyed, but the constant trips were exhausting and fruitless.
After many trials and challenges from the bricklayers and Father Pelligrini, the sisters were given the key to the new building on Oct. 12, 1892. They moved in five days later on the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. The move did not take much time or effort because they had so few belongings.
Father Pelligrini blessed the new building, telling Teresa and her little community that their “work” was finally taking shape. Under the new roof, life was still difficult. Many times they had to skip breakfast, lunch and dinner because there was no money for even a crust of bread. Their life gradually improved when things like vegetables, oil, bread and wine began to appear at the convent door.
Their foundation date and the solemn dedication of their chapel occurred on Feb. 2, 1894, when the archimandrite of the abbey, preceded by students from the Greek college, processed into the church led by Teresa Casini and her five companions. The formal title “Victims of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” was given to the cloistered community dedicated to love God more intensely, to console the Heart of Jesus and to joyfully do everything possible for His priests.
At the urging of Cardinal Satoli, the institute changed its name from “Victim” to “Oblate” because they had begun doing things outside the cloister. Combining their spirituality and the fruit of expiation, they added an apostolic dimension. It was a turning point for the institute, because it made it possible for them to open schools for young boys to prepare them for the seminary. Called “Little Friends of Jesus,” the schools existed to give the Lord good and holy priests. Working on the principle that a good education never hurt anybody, not all the boys educated by the Oblates entered the seminary. Those who did excelled in their development toward the priesthood.
Over the years, the work developed gradually: the spirit of prayer, humility, obedience and unlimited sacrifice which led to expiation. These things together, instead of rejecting the world, led to embracing it, making it mysteriously closer so that, in that hidden place, there would be found a more profound and truer echo of what the world needed. Being an Oblate meant to never fail to accept any sacrifice, any suffering, any deprivation, any offering, or any expiation, all dedicated to the sanctification of the ministers of God.
Requests from Pastors
As time went on, the Oblates responded to requests from pastors in parishes to help them in their rectories and schools of religion. This led to filling the urgent need for homes for priests recuperating from serious illnesses, for retired priests and for those working outside the parish.
As one might expect, the motherhouse for the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is in Rome, with 12 convents spread throughout Italy. The first convent established outside Italy was in the Diocese of Youngstown in Ohio, in 1946, at the request of Bishop James McFadden. Presently, the Oblate Sisters have two locations in Ohio, one in Pennsylvania, two in Brazil, one in Peru, one in India and one in Guinea Bissau, Africa.
Mother Maria Teresa Casini suffered a stroke in 1925, and a more severe one two years later. She remained bedridden for the rest of her life, while directing the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from her bedside. She went to her eternal reward in the early morning of April 3, 1937, in Grottaferrata. She was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II on July 7, 1997. On Jan. 22, 2015, Pope Francis approved the decree presented by Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, for the beatification of Mother Maria Teresa Casini in October of this year.
MSGR. ASHTON is a retired priest, ordained for the Diocese of Youngstown in 1955.