Sister Theresa Gottvald, M.S., one of the two founders of the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb. died Tuesday, Nov. 30, at the age of 88.
Born in the Czech Republic as Marie Gottvald in 1922, Sister Theresa knew from an early age that she was called to the religious life. When she was only 10 years old, she went to gain admission to the Mercy Sisters of Saint Frances.
She was sent home with a kind, “Wait a few years.”
At age 14, Marie was approached by a classmate named John on Valentine’s Day. The boy offered her a chocolate heart cut into pieces – a symbol representing his romantic intentions.
Politely, Marie refused the gift, explaining that she was soon to be married to someone more prestigious. Just months later, she was accepted by the Mercy Sisters of Saint Frances as an aspirant.
At her funeral Mass Dec. 4, Msgr. John Perkinton related this story, noting, “Poor John… His little cut-up chocolate heart paled in comparison to Jesus, as he extended His Sacred Heart, pierced for our offenses for Marie’s embrace.”
Sister Theresa would later recall how easy it was for her to leave home for the religious life.
“I traveled light, ”she is remembered saying. “My mother packed my few belongings in an old tablecloth and tied the four corners together.”
After her first profession of vows in 1940, Sister Theresa became a registered nurse, working alongside Sister Marta Silna, M.S. They were able to continue their work after the Nazis invaded their homeland.
However, shortly after World War II ended, things became more difficult. Communist leaders took over the sisters’ motherhouse for government purposes. Religious intolerance swept the nation.
Under the direction of their superior, Sister Theresa and Sister Marta fled to Austria in 1950. There, they worked as nurses.
Meanwhile, Bishop Louis B. Kucera of Lincoln was dealing with a severe staffing shortage at Saint Thomas Orphanage. He learned about the two refugee sisters from a Czech priest who had gained refuge in the U.S.
Bishop Kucera arranged for the sisters to come to Lincoln. Unfortunately, visa problems prevented their immediate immigration.
Sister Marta was able to get to Canada in October 1951. Sister Theresa continued to work in Innsbruck. She finally received her visa to the U.S in November 1952 and immediately began working at Saint Thomas Orphanage.
Sister Marta finally joined her there in December 1953. They mothered many youngsters over the years, including Gloria High Hawk, who arrived at the orphanage around the same time as Sister Marta.
“Mother Marta named me Gloria after Gloria in Excelcis Deo and Mother Theresa named me Rose because of all the roses in her garden in the summer.” Miss High Hawk recalled.
From time to time, Miss High Hawk would be sent to visit a potential adoptive family. She would invariably spend nights away from the orphanage shedding homesick tears and begging to return to her “mom.”
“Those two sisters were my mom,” Miss High Hawk asserted.
In February of 1954, Bishop Kucera authorized the founding of the American community of the Mercy Sisters of Saint Francis with permission from the Vatican. Under the direction of Sister Theresa, who alternated with Sister Marta as major superior from 1954 to 1970, the sisters all worked at Saint Thomas orphanage at first.
In 1961, Bishop James V. Casey changed the name of the order to the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln. Continuing to follow the rule of Saint Francis, the sisters began training for a teaching apostolate.
The orphanage was closed in 1963, and the sisters adjusted to serve the diocese as teachers, nurses and in other roles as needed. Sister Theresa worked with the elderly at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.
Also that year, the Marians moved to a new motherhouse near the Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat Center in Waverly. Three mission houses in other towns have enabled the sisters to serve communities outside of Lincoln.
As Sister Theresa grew older and had to retire from nursing, her apostolate changed. She worked in the garden as long as she could, providing beautiful flowers to adorn the sisters’ chapel. She used her gifts of music and art to praise the Lord.
In her last few years, she accepted the apostolate of suffering with grace and cheerfulness and devoted herself to the apostolate of prayer.
Sister Theresa remained a source of wisdom and leadership to the other sisters. “Do with love, whatever God asks,” she would tell them. “Find joy in doing little things with love for Jesus.”
Miss High Hawk continued to telephone Sister Theresa for counsel and encouragement, even past the days when Sister Theresa was able to hear her on the phone.
“Sister Margaret would talk to me and keep me caught up, and she would give my messages to Sister Theresa,” Miss High Hawk said. “I’d say, ‘Tell her I love her!’”
Sister Theresa’s death came on the Feast of Saint Andrew, which, Msgr. Perkinton said at her funeral Mass, “strikes me as something of a providential sign.”
He explained, “We remember Andrew, filled with joy, running up to his brother Peter and proclaiming, ‘We have found the Christ!’ That was Sister’s life. Her life filled with the love of God was in itself a joyful proclamation: ‘I have found our Lord, Jesus. Come and see for yourself.’”
Printed with permission from the Southern Nebraska Register, newspaper for the Diocese of Lincoln.