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At the turn of the 20th century, James Alberione, a young seminarian in northern Italy, knelt in adoration before the Eucharist. In his own words he narrates what took place that night: “A special light came from the Host, a greater understanding of the invitation extended by Jesus: ‘Come to me, all of you…'”

Alberione heard an invitation that would transform and give specific direction to his future life as a priest, apostle, and communicator of Christ. John Paul II has referred to him as “the first apostle of the new evangelization.” He began 10 institutes which are known today as the Pauline Family. Together the members of the Pauline Family spread God’s Word using the fastest and most effective means furnished by technology: the press, radio, cinema, and television.

Prima Maestra 1922007Teresa Merlo met Fr. James Alberione in the church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian on June 27, 1915. The meeting had been arranged by her brother, who was a seminarian at the time, and she was accompanied by her mother. Fr. Alberione had already heard of Teresa’s desire to be a religious. Now, he invited her to join the group of young women he was forming at Alba with the aim of one day founding a feminine congregation dedicated to the apostolate of the press. This community would be parallel to the Society of St. Paul, the congregation of men which he had started a year before. With great faith, Teresa said “yes.”

In her recollections of that time, Mother Thecla Merlo wrote: “He [Fr. Alberione] told me that for now we would work in the sewing shop, but that later we would form a congregation of Sisters who would work with the good press.” Vincenza Merlo gave her permission for Teresa to try it out for fifteen days, but if she was not happy her brother was to send her home immediately. Teresa stayed.

Italy363In 1918, the women were invited by Fr. Alberione to move to the small city of Susa and take charge of the diocesan newspaper. He explained that this would involve the direction, composition, and printing of the paper; the women would learn the typographical skills from their brothers, the Society of St. Paul. The women named their little workshop the “St. Paul Typography” and placed it under the great apostle’s patronage. It was here that the group became known as the Daughters of St. Paul.

Four years later, the first nine members of the Daughters of St. Paul were allowed to make their perpetual professions in a private ceremony. Twenty-eight year old Teresa Merlo took the name Thecla, in honor of St. Thecla, the early follower of Paul. The women also received the title Maestra, in honor of Jesus the Master. Maestra Thecla Merlo was appointed Superior General of the new community.

The difficulties which the little group encountered from society and from the Church’s hierarchy were immense; who had ever imagined women–never mind women religious–operating printing presses and composing books and newspapers? The year the sisters madFH18e their perpetual profession, Fr. Alberione wrote: “For the Daughters, the vocation to the good press is one still to be created. God creates it, raises it up, confirms it, and brings it to fulfillment with His grace. It involves something new and therefore entails greater difficulties.”

With tremendous vision and trust in God’s will for this new form of apostolate, the little group continued to grow and develop. In 1928, they were allowed to wear a religious habit and opened their first branch houses in Salerno, Bari, and Verona, Italy. In the next four years, under Mother Thecla’s guidance, the fledgling community expanded to 25 communities in Italy and had new foundations in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. Prima Maestra754 adj cut2Mother Thecla remained Mother General until her death in 1964. During her lifetime she traveled around the world and under her direction the Daughters of St. Paul were established in every continent.

The first sisters embraced the apostolate of evangelization using the means of social communication with intelligence and an intuition which preceded the Vatican II Decree on Social Communication by almost 40 years. Mother Thecla, in writing a circular letter to these early Daughters of St. Paul, conveyed her own vocational commitment: “The power idea which must animate us is the thought of souls. This thought must goad us on. We must be concerned about how we are to reach people and bring them the Word of truth and salvation. How many souls never hear of God! Who will help them?”

Mother Thecla was certainly a woman both of her time and ahead of her time. She had a singular desire to reach the people of her day with the Word of truth and salvation. And she courageously led the Daughters of St. Paul to the forefront of evangelization with each new form of media as it was developed. Embracing the press, radio, film, and TV, she wrote: “Our Congregation will always be young, because it will make use of every new means to do good.”


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