Maestra Thecla’s Big Heart
Testimony of Sr. Assunta Cocchiara
Abbess of Santa Scholastica Monastery Cassino, Italy
In February 1944, recounts Sr. Assunta, who at that time was Mother President of the Benedictine Sisters, [the town of] Cassino was destroyed. That same night, Montecassino and our monastery were bombed. The devastation was so great that we had no hope of returning. After various adventures during our flight to Rome, we reached the Basilica of St. Paul at 9:00 p.m. We were all very tired and hungry. Listening to our story, the Abbot, Fr. Vannucci, was at a loss. Not knowing what to do with us, he told us to go to Volpi Hill, where the Daughters of St. Paul had their Generalate. We followed his advice and were welcomed with great kindness, given something to eat, and then all twenty-eight of us settled down in a large dormitory for the night.
M. Thecla read on our faces the grief we carried in our hearts and with a maternal spirit sought to encourage us, saying:
“Don’t be afraid, my daughters. This house does not belong to us but to God, so it is also your house. No one will ever order you to leave. Nor will I allow you to go to other monasteries left untouched by the war. The Lord will protect us if we trust in him. This house is everyone’s house. Don’t worry about anything. Just trust in the Lord and he will provide for all your needs and all ours too. He sees everything and his divine Providence will never fail.”
One day I said to her:
“Prima Maestra, we are ashamed to still be eating the bread of your daughters.”
She look at me gravely but then a smile lit her face and her beautiful eyes. And she replied:
“Don’t say things like that. You are very welcome among us. Let us allow the Lord to work. Take heart, Mother President!”
I recounted this conversation to my nuns and we all felt truly encouraged. Speaking with M. Thecla one day in her office, I said:
“At this point, everything is over for us because Cassino was completely destroyed. Nothing is left of our monastery. What will become of us?”
She answered: “Mother Abbess, I will never send you away from here, but we should begin to take some steps. Wait and see: the Lord will give you more than you have lost. Remember the story of Job. The Word of God does not lie so we must have great faith.”
She herself spoke with such faith that I felt heartened and once more at peace.
One thing along is necessary: Faith
During our time in the community of the Daughters of St. Paul, we felt humiliated because we felt we were a disturbance to the sisters and that we could never repay their generosity. But Maestra Thecla, with her habitual smile, heartened us, saying:
“The good God will see to our needs. One thing alone is necessary: that we have faith in him.”
And her words proved to be true because her daughters never lacked the essentials and neither did we.
Maestra Thecla also helped other people. Every Saturday she would send a sister with bags of food and clothing to distribute to people who had taken refuge in nearby caves. The Lord truly helped the Daughters of St. Paul in a visible way because even though funds were scarce Maestra Thecla was always able to carry out her initiatives.
When problems arose, she didn’t become agitated, but remained calm and would often go to the chapel. To us, she said: “I entrust myself to your prayers and to those of your holy Abbess.”
To help us forget the sorrow of being so far from home, she told her daughters to organize classes for us, saying: “The Benedictine Sisters must keep their spirits up. Help them forget that they are far from home.”
On 18 August 1944, we moved to rented lodgings: the Starace house, located on a hill facing the house of the Daughters of St. Paul. Almost all the Daughters of St. Paul accompanied us, carrying a picture of the Sacred Heart that Prima Maestra had given us. Since our new home needed to be furnished, we remained in contact with the FSP
Generalate for some time, coming and going as if their home were ours. Prima Maestra said firmly:
“All beginnings are hard. I know the condition you are in and I will continue to help you. I remember the poverty of our own first years. But we always trusted in God and he sustained us.”
She gave us everything: dishes, glasses, tablecloths, clothing, food, sewing machines, etc. She would send one of her sisters over with bread and we would watch her unload the car, pulling out packages of all shapes and sizes. Prima Maestra even gave us a puppy to train as a watchdog and a piglet which we fattened to provide us with meat through the winter. She was like a true mother to us. She sent a circular letter to the FSP communities abroad, telling them about our problems. Offerings began to come in and we deposited them with the Institute for Religious Activities in the Vatican. Later, we used those funds to buy the land surrounding our monastery.
From her office window, Prima Maestra could see our rented house, the Villa Starace, across the way and she often said:
“When I enter my office, my thoughts and my gaze turn to you. I send you my blessing and pray for all of you.”
We lived in the Villa Starace for about ten years, always in intimacy with the Daughters of St. Paul. During that time, I had many opportunities to admire Prima Maestra’s many virtues, above all her charity, spirit of faith, prayer and profound humility, which shone in all her actions. She was a very loving person. She loved God. And, loving God, she loved all people. She had words of encouragement and faith for everyone. She was exquisitely charitable and kind at a time in which it was very hard to offer economic assistance to others.
When we left Rome to return to Cassino, Maestra Thecla came to say goodbye and promised to come and see us. Seeing how sad we were to leave, she said:
“Don’t worry! Nothing will ever separate us, because in spirit we will always be united before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament!”
When the Vicariate of Rome allowed us to accept some postulants, the first to take the Benedictine habit received the name “Thecla” in remembrance of our benefactress. Maestra Thecla was present at the ceremony and spent the whole day with us.
At that time I was facing many problems and I turned to her because I considered her to be my “Superior General,” and poured out all my woes. She listened to me with deep emotion and then spoke in such a good and simple way that I was heartened, rediscovered peace and found new hope. She advised me to surrender myself trustingly to the Lord and to never doubt his help.
When the first member of our community died, our sorrow was partially assuaged by the great kindness shown us. Maestra Thecla provided everything necessary for the funeral services and suffrages and I remember that our sister’s body was taken to the cemetery with the help of the Daughters of St. Paul, the Pious Disciples and the priests of the Society of St. Paul.
When we moved back to Cassino, Maestra Thecla saw to it that the Mother Abbess, who was paralyzed, was taken to her new monastery by car. The help she gave us was enormous. In fact, we returned to Cassino with sixteen trucks of material goods. Prima Maestra was delighted by this and exclaimed: “How happy I am! I’ve opened another community in Cassino!”
Later, one of the members of our community was hospitalized at Albano at the same time Prima Maestra was a patient there. Hearing that a Benedictine Sister was one of the clinic’s patients, she went to visit her immediately and asked how the sisters of the monastery were doing, both spiritually and materially. She concluded by saying: “In this clinic, there should always be room for the Benedictine Sisters of Cassino.”