A Talk with Sister Theresita on Her 100th Birthday
In a room on top of a hill, a humble yet remarkable woman celebrates 100 years of life surrounded by her loving sisters. Sister Theresita Schenk, born June 27, 1920, in St. Philip, Indiana, is as thoughtful and considerate as the day she entered community; and she always gives praise to God in her favorite way: music. Sister Theresita began her journey into faith-filled music with her mother, Margaret, who taught her to play the organ as a young girl. As a teenager, she attended Academy Immaculate Conception and St. Benedict College, where the Ferdinand sisters guided and cultivated her great love for music in the classroom.
“After spending four years in the Academy,” she said, “I felt at home here.”
Inspired by the sisters’ love for God and all people, Sister Theresita joined twelve other young women as postulants in 1938. Finding herself at peace in community, she professed her first vows in 1940 after graduating from St. Benedict College.
Sister Theresita wasted no time jumping right into music education after initial formation. Her many years of teaching extended to elementary schools in the surrounding area – including Sts. Peter and Paul School in Haubstadt and St. Benedict, Christ the King, and St. Joseph Schools in Evansville – and at secondary and collegiate levels at the monastery’s Academy, St. Benedict College, Indiana University, Vincennes University, St. Meinrad’s Seminary, and St. Scholastica College in Duluth, Minnesota. Her passion for music flowed as she taught hundreds of students, including a few of her fellow sisters. Many of her students fondly remember her as a calm teacher who sat quietly beside them and made suggestions as they practiced – always patient and kind.
Sister Catherine Duenne, one of Sister Theresita’s long-time organ students, found an unbreakable bond to God through music, and Sister Theresita was one of her inspirations.
“When you listen [to her music], it’s as if God is speaking through her, and every note is returned and gives glory to God. When I took lessons from her, that was evident in her teaching,” said Sister Catherine. “It wasn’t about playing notes on a page, but playing music and connecting on a deeper level and letting the music sing praise.”
During summer breaks, Sister Theresita worked tirelessly for a master’s degree in music education from Indiana University. After ten years’ hard work, she completed it in 1968. She’d hoped to finish a doctorate as well, but God guided her home; she did not want to leave her students and, therefore, couldn’t fulfill the university’s on-campus requirements.
Even without a doctorate, Sister Theresita performed a significant number of musical feats that guided people into a deeper relationship with God. After the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the community found that their music, previously in Latin, needed to be updated to English. With her in-depth knowledge of liturgy and music, Sister Theresita translated the Latin hymns and prayers to English, then composed music to fit the new words, making sure that each creation matched the spirit of the source material. Her hymns and prayer songs quickly spread to Benedictine communities across the U.S., leaving a lasting legacy of praise.Sister Theresita retired from teaching in 2010, serving as the community’s organist and continuing compositions until 2011. In 2014, at 94 years old, she moved into Hildegard Health Center, where she participates in prayer ministry.
Though she does not travel as much, Sister Theresita continues to praise God through her music. In the small community at Hildegard Health Center, she is a prayer leader and musician for the aging sisters. She plays the keyboard, piano, and organ for community prayer, sing-a-longs, and other services, making each day unique and prayerful.
“Her whole life and purpose of playing, teaching, or composing has been to give glory to God,” said Sister Catherine. And she fulfills this purpose each day.
Congratulations, Sister Theresita, on spending 100 years of life creating meaningful music, serving others, and inspiring a whole generation of musicians to give glory to God through music.