Sister Theresa Courtney was once mistaken for the other “Theresa” after meeting a woman she had only spoken to by telephone. Realizing that she was mistaken for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, she plainly stated, “Oh, that’s another Sr. Theresa.” “Well,” the flustered woman replied, “I’m sure that your work is just as good.” What was Sr. Theresa’s response? “It probably is; we bloom where we’re planted.” Her expressed sentiment is certainly accurate!
Over a 30-year period, Sr. Theresa’s varied and distinguished teaching career included elementary, middle, and high schools: St. Ignatius Loyola School in Manhattan, St. Mary School in Yonkers, and St. Barnabas Elementary School in the Bronx. After teaching grade schools, she progressed to high schools: the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent in Tuxedo Park and Cathedral in Manhattan. In 1985, she transitioned from teaching to advocating for, and counseling abused women.
As a member of the organization, Sanctuary for Families, Sr. Theresa provided counsel and encouragement to empower battered women and their children. The shelter was the only battered women’s housing in New York City at the time that accepted families regardless of income, including refugees and undocumented aliens. In this multi-faceted role, Sr. Theresa employed her perceptive teaching skills to educate domestic violence victims and, importantly, guided women through legal requirements for protection and child custody. She provided counseling, advocacy, legal representation, and shelter.
During this time, Sr. Theresa was asked to detail the tasks that consumed her many hours of administration. She wrote, “What do I do all day? Talking, listening to, weeping with, encouraging the women who live in our safe homes, sometimes accompanying them to court; helping them seek permanent housing; finding job training programs; aiding in school transfer and day care; disseminating information by speaking to groups; following progression in legal procedures and police response; spending lots of time on the phone talking with women for whom we have no room, and sending out SOSs for clothing, bedding and money.”
After 15 years working with Sanctuary for Families, Sr. Theresa was a volunteer at Fox House in Harlem.
Sr. Theresa once remarked in response to the question: How are you preparing for your retirement years? “I don’t feel retired. I never ‘prepared’ for these years. They’re simply a continuation.”
By Mindy Gordon, Director, Archives and Museum