At the turn of the twentieth 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.” Alberione founded nine institutes and the Association of Pauline Cooperators 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.
Teresa Merlo met Father 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; she was accompanied by her mother. Father 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 complement 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.” Teresa’s mother, Vincenza Merlo, gave permission for her daughter to try it out for fifteen days, but if she was not happy her brother was to send her home immediately. Teresa stayed.
In 1918, the women were invited by Father 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 in the Society of St. Paul. The women named their little workshop the “St. Paul Typography” and placed it under the great Apostle’s patronage. Soon the group began to be called the Daughters of St. Paul.
Four years later, the first nine members of the Daughters of St. Paul were allowed to make their perpetual profession of religious vows. 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 made their perpetual profession, Father 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 twenty-five communities in Italy and established new foundations in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States.
Mother 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 established themselves in every continent.
The first sisters embraced the apostolate of evangelization using the means of social communication with intelligence and an intuition that preceded the Vatican II Decree on Social Communications by almost forty years. Mother Thecla, writing in a circular letter to these early Daughters of St. Paul, conveyed her own vocational commitment: “The power idea that must animate us is the thought of souls. This thought must spur 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.”