Faith and Spirituality

Mother Teodora Juan, in the footsteps of Saint Therese

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Mother Teodora Juan, in the footsteps of Saint Therese

DAUGHTER OF THERESE. Mother Teodora Juan, who died at the age of 69, is remembered for following in the footsteps of their congregation's patroness, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus.

Photo of Mother Teodora Juan courtesy of MCST / St. Therese image from Shutterstock

Mother Teodora Juan, who headed a prominent group of nuns based in Tayabas, is remembered for her ‘personal touch’ – and her sense of humor despite a terminal illness

MANILA, Philippines – “Ano mga gamit mo?” (What are you bringing?)

Mother Teodora Juan, superior general of the Missionary Catechists of Saint Therese of the Infant Jesus (MSCT), surprised one of her close associates, Sister Leonarda Mentilla, by visiting her room and asking this question one day.

They were preparing for a trip to Europe in September 2022, and Mentilla was not used to flying abroad. Juan, who had been sent abroad for key assignments, came to assist Mentilla despite her busy schedule as mother superior.

Tinanong niya ako, anong jacket ang dala mo? Sabi ko, ‘Mother, would you like to see?’” Mentilla recalled. (She asked me, what jacket are you bringing? I said, “Mother, would you like to see?”)

Juan then got one of her thicker jackets and gave it to Mentilla. “Ito, ito, ito, ito ang dalhin mo (This, this, this, bring this one),” Juan said. It was a memory that struck Mentilla as “too personal.”

“She was a person with a personal touch,” Mentilla recalled in a mix of English and Filipino. “It is remarkable because she is concerned about you. It shows you are important to her. And anything that is important to you, is important to her.”

Less than a year after this trip, on May 21, Juan died of a terminal illness at the age of 69. She was the two-time superior general of the MCST, a prominent congregation of missionary nuns based in Tayabas, Quezon, founded by a Filipino bishop who is now on the road to sainthood.

In an interview with Rappler, Mentilla remembered Juan not only for her personal touch, but also for accepting the most difficult assignments – and for keeping a healthy sense of humor in the face of a terminal illness.

FAREWELL. Members of her religious congregation take a final look at the body of Mother Teodora Juan before she is buried on May 25, 2023.
Following ‘The Little Way’

Mentilla said Juan exemplified the life of their patroness, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, a 19th-century saint from Lisieux, France, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. 

A saint who has attracted millions of devotees, Therese of Lisieux is also the youngest of 37 “doctors of the church” – among the ranks of Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas – whose writings have had the most profound influence on the Catholic Church.

The core of Saint Therese’s teachings is known as the “Little Way,” or the “Simple Way.” In the words of Mentilla, a 68-year-old nun who has been with MCST for 46 years, it is about “doing ordinary things, extraordinarily.” One example, she said, is how Saint Therese offered to God all her daily activities, even chores as simple as sweeping the floor.

It is also the Little Way of Saint Therese that has animated the MCST for nearly 65 years.

The MCST was founded on August 12, 1958, by Bishop Alfredo Maria Obviar, the first prelate of the Diocese of Lucena in Quezon, whom Pope Francis placed two major steps away from sainthood by declaring him “venerable” in 2018.

From an initial group of five who taught children the Catholic faith, the MCST has now grown as a congregation of 243 members, serving in 46 areas in the Philippines and at least 12 other overseas communities, such as in Italy, Nigeria, Taiwan, and the United States.

Many of them serve as secretaries in dioceses and nunciatures around the world, as they have built a reputation as a reliable group of sisters. From 2016 to 2021, Juan herself was the office manager at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York.

WORLDWIDE. The Missionary Catechists of Saint Therese of the Infant Jesus or MCST is a religious congregation composed of 243 sisters teaching the Catholic faith, and helping dioceses and nunciatures around the world.

Asked how Juan followed in the footsteps of Saint Therese, Mentilla said, “Wherever she was, she would do the tasks related to her assignments in a very, very loving way.” She added, “Wala siyang pinipiling assignment (She was not choosy about her assignments).”

Juan embraced assignments that would make other sisters hesitate.

Mentilla recalled when Juan was sent to Gumaca, Quezon, to organize the catechetical program in what was then a newly formed diocese. The Diocese of Gumaca was carved out of the Diocese of Lucena in 1984, and they needed to jumpstart a program to teach the Catholic faith, especially to the youth. 

“The diocese was an infant diocese. You would start with zero because it was an infant diocese, newly separated from the other diocese, which was the Diocese of Lucena,” Mentilla said. “That’s why, I said, not all the sisters would welcome that assignment. But it was all right for her. And successfully, she was able to organize the catechetical program.”

Juan also welcomed assignments to be directress of MCST novices, and to study formation at the Vatican “without knowing the language, which is Italian.”

Juan believed she can be a missionary anywhere she is assigned.

IN MOURNING. MCST sisters mourn the loss of their two-time superior general, Mother Teodora Juan.

“Whether I am working in the house or office, or wherever I am sent, I am a missionary. To be a missionary is to bring the good news in my little way, just like Saint Therese. I try as much as I can to do little ordinary works in an extraordinary way. That is what our founder taught us: that wherever we go, we bring Jesus,” Juan herself said in an article in January 2017, when she was serving in New York.

Holiness and a sense of humor

What can ordinary Catholics and even non-Catholics learn from Juan? Mentilla mentioned two things: “love for prayer” and “patient endurance.”

She remembered how their mother superior kept a healthy sense of humor even while she was on her sickbed. “Pinapatawa pa kami (She made us laugh),” she said. 

It’s a reflection of what many spiritual writers, including Jesuit author Father James Martin, see as a link between holiness and a sense of humor. (Martin wrote the book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.)

“That is a sign of resignation to the circumstances and maybe we could say to the most holy will of God. You do not resist, that’s why you are happy,” Mentilla said. “It’s a sign that she has attained a certain degree of holiness. She did not complain. She could still manage to smile and to crack jokes amid her pain and suffering.”

“That is a sign of resignation to the circumstances and maybe we could say to the most holy will of God. You do not resist, that’s why you are happy,” Mentilla said. “It’s a sign that she has attained a certain degree of holiness. She did not complain. She could still manage to smile and to crack jokes amid her pain and suffering.”

Mentilla said, “Her body was emaciated, but never, never her spirit.”

Pasig Bishop Mylo Hubert Vergara, vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, also found this notable. At the mother superior’s funeral Mass on May 25, Vergara spoke about Juan’s willingness to serve despite her sufferings.

BURIED. Mother Teodora Juan is brought to her final resting place on May 25, 2023.

Vergara pointed out how Juan accepted the call to be MCST superior general for a second term, despite her old age and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was also elected board member of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, which gathers close to 400 Catholic religious congregations in the country.

Marahil, katulad ni Santa Teresita ng Niño Hesus na inialay ang kanyang matinding sakit na tuberkolosis para sa pagbabagong-loob ng mga hindi naniniwala sa Diyos, inialay din ni Mother Teodora ang kanyang paghihirap noong siya ay nakaratay sa kayang higaan bago mamatay para sa mga madre ng MCST,” Vergara said.

(Perhaps, like Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, who offered her grave illness that is tuberculosis for the conversion of those who did not believe in God, Mother Teodora also offered to the MCST sisters her sufferings when she was lying on her sickbed before her death.)

Vergara continued, “Naalala ko tuloy ang mga nasambit ni Venerable Alfredo Maria Obviar noong siya’y matanda na at hirap nang maglingkod: “Hangga’t may ibubuga pa!” (Then I remembered what Venerable Alfredo Maria Obviar said, when he was already old and was finding it difficult to serve: “Until the last breath!”) –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email