Moderator’s note: Today we have the final post in the Pray Tell series on women leaders in the Liturgical Movement. Dr. Katharine Harmon has offered a series of posts in this series in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of the approval of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. (The first post in the series is here.)
As you’re lighting your Advent wreath this liturgical season, take a moment not only to remember the shades of expectation and the witness of prophets of old, but of prophets far more recent, and less expected: Therese Mueller, lay woman liturgical pioneer, introduced this beloved Advent custom into Roman Catholic homes, chapels, and churches. Therese Geuer Mueller was born in Germany, in 1905. As a young woman, Therese not only completed her secondary education, but received an advanced degree which focused on economics and sociology. Dr. Therese Geuer met and married fellow sociologist, Franz Mueller, and together, the couple was deeply interested and involved in the work of liturgical pioneers and of Catholic youth movements in Germany.
The Muellers’ lives were interrupted by the coming of the Nazi regime. Both Therese and Franz eventually left Germany and immigrated to the United States, taking three small daughters, their love for the liturgy, and not much else. The Muellers first settled in St. Louis, and became involved with the Catholic Workers in the area. Though Therese was nervous about speaking in front of American audiences with her new English skills and German accent, the Catholic Workers and others interested in the liturgical movement were eager to hear about her experiences in Europe. Therese, with her interest in sociology, had been particularly attuned to how the liturgy could be taught and shared amongst a family.
Through their Catholic Worker friends, the Muellers met Virgil Michel and Godfrey Diekmann. Diekmann, in particular, thought that Therese’s work, which focused on strategies for teaching children to take part in and understand the liturgy, was exactly what the (sometimes too academic) liturgical movement needed. In 1938, Therese’s first article appeared in Orate Fratres, explaining how to create a meaningful baptismal gift: a baptismal garment which could be embroidered with a symbol for each sacrament the child received. A series of her articles were eventually compiled into a Liturgical Press pamphlet, titled, Family Life in Christ, first appearing in 1941. In Family Life in Christ, she explained how, as children grew, Mass should be explained, and children should be encouraged to participate in the Mass, along with mother and father. Spending some time with children before Mass, explaining the readings, and letting the children describe things in their own way, gave children the opportunity to become “consciously part of Christ and of His Sacrament,” rather than leaving children to daydream aimlessly in the pews (not unlike many an adult Catholic!).
Conscious participation in the liturgy did not end with participation in the Mass or sacraments. Therese saw the liturgical year as a powerful, concrete venue for teaching salvation history. Liturgical seasons afforded plentiful opportunity for creative, constructive tasks, in which children could be involved. For example, in 1940, she described “The Liturgical Year in the Home.” She described Advent as the holy season which symbolized the “time during which the Chosen People waited for their Redeemer.” So should we wait for our redeemer, “preparing our souls and our surroundings” for the coming of Jesus. How to do this? She described what she did in her family (which now had two boys along with three girls). At home in the living room, they hung an evergreen wreath with four candles, which were lit, week by week, as a tangible, visible reminder of the approaching Incarnation. This custom, borrowed from her native Germany, would catch like wildfire. Originally with four red candles and considered outspokenly “Protestant,” Therese thought this German custom would be a perfect way of ditching the “horrible, secularized, commercialized Santa Claus, more and more shameful each year” and developing an oasis for considering the Advent of God. In conversation with Fr. Martin Hellriegel, the red candles were switched to liturgical purple and rose, to match the liturgical colors of penitence and royal kingship.
Eventually settling in St. Paul, Minnesota, Franz Mueller taught at St. Thomas University, while Therese Mueller taught part-time at St. Thomas and at the College of St. Catherine (now Saint Catherine University). Both Therese and Franz were active throughout the liturgical movement, and wrote, spoke, and lectured about the crucial dimension for the liturgical life: the Christian home. Franz Mueller died in 1994. Therese Mueller died in 2002.
Katharine E. Harmon, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Theology at Marian University in Indianapolis. She is author of the 2013 Liturgical Press book There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959.