22 Mar She Lived a Rich, Full Life
Theresa Marsey was the eleventh and youngest child of a lively Austrian-American family. One of her early memories was of her father calling out, “Anyone who wants to go to the beach, be in the pick-up truck in fifteen minutes.”
Theresa and her brother George would always race to the truck at the last minute, and one day her father had started driving off as they tried to jump on the back of the truck.
They couldn’t quite make it, but clung to the tailgate as her older siblings shouted to their father to stop the vehicle. Theresa suffered severely scraped toes, but always laughed it off as one more adventure in life. That kind of tenacity was to remain with Theresa throughout her life—as was her tendency to try to do one last little thing that would cause her to be at least a little bit late for her next appointment.
During World War II, Theresa’s family endured the prejudices often visited upon those whose English revealed a German accent. They also suffered the loss of their home in the early post-war years because of a financial betrayal.
However, on the final night in that home, Theresa’s mother surveyed the now un-carpeted hardwood floor and told her teen and pre-teen children to invite their friends over for a sock-hop (dance). The recorded music and laughter of friends eased the grief of leaving their family home.
Theresa seems to have inherited her mother’s creatively adventurous spirit. It was the same spirit that, many years later, spurred on Theresa’s quick decision to accept an invitation to join some friends of Madonna House in Arizona and their motorcycle club, in the town’s Christmas parade.
She said later that she made a quick discernment: “Is it sinful?” “No.” “Would it be seriously scandalous to anyone?” “No.” “Okay, let’s go!” She was then in her mid-80’s! She was the hit of the parade.
During her family’s financially difficult years, Theresa left school to get a job to help out. Then, as things eased, she was able to save enough to attend Marquette University.
She later said, “I went to the university seeking wisdom; I received knowledge, but it wasn’t until I was immersed in Madonna House that I began to attain wisdom.”
After graduation, Theresa taught elementary school and since teachers had summers relatively free, she began helping at Catholic summer camps. It was there that she met someone who told her about Madonna House. She came for a visit and was delighted to find it “just like camp.” It was during her fourth visit that Theresa finally realized that God might be calling her to this vocation.
So, in 1959, after breaking off a second marriage engagement, Theresa returned to Madonna House to explore her vocation.
She joined the community, and her first assignment as a staff worker was to the Yukon. She then went to our house in Winslow, Arizona, engaging in catechetics and home visiting among other things. But after 2 ½ years she was recalled to Madonna House Combermere a few months before her final promises.
She sensed that she had somehow “failed”, especially in forming a community of love, but as she traversed the country by train, she received a very powerful grace to turn to the Lord and say, “Lord, if what you wanted was my failure, I leave that to you. I only want to do your will.”
With that, her grief and pain left her, and she learned to live from the mercy of the Lord and to place all of her inadequacies in his hands.
That was the summer I met Theresa. I was at Madonna House as a long-term guest and was working in the office. One day, Theresa passed through on her way to her upstairs dorm. Her eyes were red and swollen; she had obviously been crying.
I whispered to one of the staff, “Is she all right?” The staff worker responded, “Oh, yes, she just got made a local director. That’s why she’s crying.” This was a new outlook for me as to what might be called a “promotion” in the “outside world,” but here was apparently a call to die to self more completely so as to better serve.
I didn’t know then that I myself would end up joining Madonna House and be sent to Winslow and have her as my local director.
As local director, Theresa had a very hands-on approach to supportive friendship. One time, when a woman went to the hospital to give birth to her seventh or eighth child, a group of us descended on the house to paint the living room so that a freshly-ordered room would greet the mom on her return home.
Theresa was always getting ideas. Some of these were sudden inspirations as to how to re-organize the rooms of our house, and these occurred just as we were closing up at night to go to bed.
This lasted until a sofa-couch stuck in the open position in the middle of the door leading to the outdoor patio. After that, the three younger staff refused to move an inch of furniture after 9 p.m.
Over the years in Winslow, three significant things occurred that helped to form Theresa’s approach to living the Gospel. The first was that she and others in the house began attending Al-Anon meetings as friends of alcoholics. Although there were certainly parts of the 12-step program that eluded Theresa, the honesty and direct living of its spirituality struck a deep chord in her.
At about the same time, a group of men who had made a Cursillo approached Theresa asking her to help them study the Bible. This small group had not been meeting long before Theresa encountered the Charismatic Renewal. Thus, the 12 steps, Scripture, and the Charismatic Renewal became part of Theresa’s personal tripod on the path for greater interior freedom for herself and for others.
All of this emerged from her desire to “preach the Gospel with her life without compromise”. But along with these, the Little Mandate, that is, Madonna House spirituality, remained the touchstone of Gospel living for her.
At one point, Catherine Doherty recognized Theresa’s deep fatigue and recalled her to Combermere for a rest. This didn’t last long. After a couple of months, Theresa was appointed department head of the kitchen.
This may well have emerged from Theresa’s persistently voiced “creative” opinions about food and other such matters. She was also appointed director of training for the applicants. As one of those women recently said, “We were a wild bunch, but Theresa was the wildest of us all.”
In 1979, Theresa was asked to open a prayer/listening house in Muskegon, Michigan. Much of what she had learned in Arizona she incorporated and adapted in this new house: welcoming the neighborhood children, and forming a men’s group, and other groups as well.
After nearly twenty years in Muskegon, Theresa returned to Winslow, this time as a prayer/listening presence. She had quiet mornings of prayer, and in the afternoon she visited the sick, elderly, and homebound.
She encouraged people to make the Act of Consecration to Jesus through Mary, according to St. Louis de Montfort, something she herself had done in 1957. About this, she said, “Mary changed my life and directed my accidental moves, with much pain at times but always with peace and joy in the end.”
When I returned to Winslow as local director in 2003, Theresa delighted in introducing me to friends of the house as someone who had her as her first local director adding, “I taught her everything she knows.”
Later, when we had clashes of opinion, once the intensity had wound down, I would remind her, “But Theresa, you taught me everything I know!”
She would pause, and then with a twinkle in her eye, respond, “Yes, but why do you only remember the bad parts?!”
In 1974, Theresa stayed on in Combermere after the directors’ meetings for a few months rest, and I was made responsible for the house until her return. During this time, she wrote a letter encouraging me. Here is an excerpt from it.
“Kathy, I love you as a person and I appreciate the beauty God has put in you. Remember this after I return because I am not good at showing my love—though I hope God will have done something for me over these months. I will be praying for you during these days and at the Christmas Masses. Remember: I love you.”
I do remember, Theresa; and I know that you too remember that I love you.
In March 2019, Theresa returned to Combermere because of aging and poor health. Then here in her final weeks, before embracing her in glory, the Lord called her to embrace a cross of pain with him.
Vaya con Dios, Theresa! Go with God!
And may he smile on you as you may perhaps attempt to re-organize the heavenly mansions!