The world had great admiration for young Teresa, but her heart was fixed on the Lord.
When asked what three virtues were most necessary for the Christian life, St. Augustine famously replied, “Humility, humility, humility.” Venerable Teresa Valsé Pantellini knew this better than most. Though she was raised in the lap of luxury and was talented and well-educated, Teresa took as her motto “I resolve to pass unnoticed.”
Born in Milan in 1878, Teresa spent much of her early childhood in the luxurious hotels her father owned in Egypt. Later her family traveled throughout Europe as her father received honorary titles from various European heads of state. But while her life could have been nothing but opulent, her parents were careful to teach their children to pray and to serve the poor. Teresa’s was an impetuous nature, but from a young age the modeling of her parents helped her to redirect her strong will toward the things of heaven.
When she was 12, Teresa’s father died. Her mother chose to move to Rome with their three children. Over the years, Teresa became a very accomplished young woman, a remarkable pianist who spoke excellent French and German.
But while the world had great admiration for young Teresa, her heart was fixed on the Lord. Her public life may have seemed frivolous, but in private Teresa was making sacrifice after sacrifice to become conformed to Christ. “God asks us to mortify ourselves in small things rather than in big ones,” she said, “because the big occasions are rare, whereas the small ones are continuous.”
Though she seemed like an ordinary socialite, Teresa sneaked out of the house to go to Mass each morning, returning before her family was out of bed. When her mother insisted that she go to the theater, Teresa hid a devotional book inside the program and spent the performance in meditation. On the day of her First Communion, Teresa felt a call to enter religious life; after her mother died, when Teresa was 21, she made up her mind “to give myself irrevocably to the Lord,” she said, “for the education of girls from poor families.”
At 22, that’s just what the young heiress did, applying to enter the Salesian Sisters. But the Salesians were a strict order, working with the most difficult children and living in the most penitential conditions. Their superior was skeptical that someone who had lived as Teresa had could survive such a life. He sent her away, encouraging her to get married. She returned. He told her to enter another order, one whose life wasn’t so hard. She refused. He sent her to see how the Salesian Sisters lived, certain that she would be put off. Again, she returned. Finally convinced, Fr. Marenco began to see that not only did Teresa have a vocation, but an uncommon one.
After her formation, she was assigned to teach in Trastevere, working with girls from the slums. Despite having a naturally strong temper, Sr. Teresa never once lashed out, never even seemed to want to. Once a girl spat right in her face and Sr. Teresa, who was determined to let humility and love be the guiding principles of her life, responded with gentleness rather than rage.
Though it ought to have aggravated a wealthy, educated, talented young woman to find herself hassled by street kids, Sr. Teresa wanted nothing more than to love them, her Lord, and her Sisters well. She spent all her free time listening to the girls, praying with them, and loving them, whatever it took. Gradually, her gentle, unassuming spirit won many of the girls for Christ.
Throughout her life, Sr. Teresa refused any special treatment, whether for her social standing or for her fragile health. Indeed, she sought to be treated worst, to take the worst duties. When the Sisters began training the girls to work in a laundry to keep them off the street, Sr. Teresa found the most unpleasant and uncomfortable tasks to perform.
When, at 27, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and another Sister replaced her in this work, the girls refused to work as hard as they had with Sr. Teresa. To keep the peace, the ill Sr. Teresa went in secret to sort the laundry herself. Through all her suffering, she repeated, “Whatever you want, Jesus, I want too, and for as long as you want it.”
Sr. Teresa’s generosity and humility continued even as she lay dying. In the infirmary, she had a vision of Don Bosco offering to heal her—she hurriedly sent him to the Sister next door, who miraculously recovered from a 10-year illness and lived another 30 years. A month later, Sr. Teresa was dead at 29.
Venerable Teresa Valsé Pantellini saw herself not as the world saw her, but as the Father did. She wasn’t concerned with what others thought of her; she wasn’t concerned with herself at all. Let’s ask her intercession for the grace to decrease so that Jesus may increase. Venerable Teresa Valsé Pantellini, pray for us!