“Before I made the world, I loved you with the love your heart is experiencing today and, throughout the centuries, My love will never change” (St. Faustina’s Diary, 1754).
Therese’s life was anything but ordinary from the start. The youngest of eight children, her mother had been rounds deep in radiation for brain cancer when she found out she was pregnant with Therese. The doctors insisted the baby wouldn’t be normal; there would be problems. Her mother knew otherwise, as mothers often do. From the beginning, there was love and trust and people praying for her. Thirteen months after Therese’s birth, her mother went to her eternal rest, but Therese had been saved. She was a thriving, active child—full of life!
Theresa with her family, being held in her mother’s arms
Therese was fortunate to find a mother figure in her stepmom and enjoyed a happy childhood with her, her father and siblings. By the end of high school, the strong, athletic, militant-minded basketball hero was being recruited by all the known universities. Standing at 6’4”, with the Olympics as an attainable dream, Therese signed with the University of Idaho because the coach had made such an impression on her.
After her first season, that coach was fired, leaving Therese with little reason to stay. Surprisingly to some, she opted out of the NCAA and signed with Vanguard University in Newport Beach, California.
The thought of coaching a team of her own had always appealed to Therese, so she registered for a class in Kinesiology. It taught practical skills like recognizing a player’s injuries and stabilizing injured persons. Little did she know that her friend and teammate Veronica would need the spinal hold skills they learned and practiced in class to save Therese’s life the next day.
A team bonding trip was planned to Newport Beach. Therese recalls swimming alone for most of the day because the water was very cold. Her coach swam with her at one point. Therese had mastered the cold water with a strategy that had never failed; run out into the water as far as possible and then dive under! As she dove, Therese hit a sandbar and knew instantly that something was seriously wrong. She said, “I felt my entire body melt.” She lay face down in the water and out of the corner of her eye saw two kids with a boogie board. Instinctively she yelled for help; immediately, she regretted using all her air to do so. The next thing she remembers was someone asking her if she was OK and then being stabilized by Veronica through the spinal hold.
The ambulance arrived, and Therese recounted thinking during the ride, “My guardian angel has always protected me—I’ve ignored him,” followed by the sensation of being flooded with peace and complete trust. It was a moment of complete surrender. She knew right then God would take care of this. Regardless of what happened, Therese knew she was in his tender loving care and she would be OK—just as her mother had known years earlier.
At the hospital, one of the best surgeons was waiting. He performed surgery for a broken C5 vertebrae. He fused the 4th, 5th and 6th vertebrae together to strengthen Therese’s neck. Her spinal cord was not broken, but badly bruised. She could feel a little, but she, could not walk and could not feel temperature. Therese wasn’t allowed to drink anything for days. The doctors were fearful she would choke. The overwhelming thirst she felt was unbearable.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was before (the accident). After reading St. Faustina’s diary in the hospital, I knew I had to be like Jesus.” The words “I thirst” now had a deep meaning to her, and she understood, “Jesus is thirsty for my soul.” When I drink, I understand I’m not just drinking water, I’m drinking God’s love and mercy, and I’m not wasting my sufferings. I’m trying to give him back the souls he’s thirsty for.” She realized how sinful she had been before. She reflected on what it means to be like Jesus. What did Jesus do?
He did God’s will.
“I knew the Gospel because of the rosary, but I didn’t truly know Jesus until after the accident when I got introduced to him through suffering.” She understood that Jesus had already suffered, and he was going to be with her the whole way through her suffering, supporting her through this trial.
Therese remained in the hospital for three months. The goal of her first therapy session was to get her to sit upright without passing out. A lot of contemplation occurred during these months. Therese said, “God could do whatever he wanted. If he wanted me to walk again, I would. All I needed to do was God’s will. God can do anything; I just have to stay out of his way and let him do it.” And so, she did.
After Therese got out of the hospital, she went home to live with her parents and siblings. Her two sisters were still living at home and became her primary caregivers. For a long time, survival was the goal. If Therese made it through the day, it was a success! She was so sick and so weak. Therese would throw up after every single meal, yet she still had to eat. Knowing what was coming, she learned to offer this suffering up for the souls in purgatory just as St. Faustina did.
Some of the most pivotal experiences during this transitional time in her life were frequent visits with her grandmother. Her grandma introduced her to a very special set of books, a 36-volume series called “The Book of Heaven.” In them, Jesus explains to a mystic, Luisa Piccarreta, a Catholic woman from Italy, how to do his will. Padre Pio had the people to whom he gave spiritual direction study Luisa’s writings. She was given the mission of the Divine Will. Her writings explore how to be united with God’s will and live in the Divine Will, focusing on how to glorify God in all aspects of daily life.
“These books taught me how to suffer better, accept this cross, and do God’s will,” Therese remembers. “I think God allowed this to happen to me for my salvation and for the salvation of whomever God wants it to be for.”
It’s been 10 years since Therese’s accident. She couldn’t have done any of it without the love and support she continues to receive from her family and friends. To these people, she is eternally grateful. By no stretch of the imagination has any of it been easy, yet one thing is for certain; Therese has a deep, beautiful understanding of God’s merciful love. She knows what it is to suffer with love and sacrifice and meaning. There is an overwhelming light around her that touches the souls of all she meets.
St. Faustina has a prayer to be merciful that emulates Therese’s life:
Help me, O Lord, that my eyes may be merciful, so that I may never suspect or judge from appearances, but look for what is beautiful in my neighbor’s soul.
Help me, O Lord, that my ears may be merciful, so that I may give heed to my neighbor’s needs.
Help me, O Lord, that my tongue may be merciful, so that I should never speak negatively of my neighbor.
Help me, O Lord, that my hands may be merciful and filled with good deeds, so that I may do only good to my neighbor.
Help me, O Lord, that my feet may be merciful, so that I may hurry to assist my neighbor.
Help me, O Lord, that my heart may be merciful, so that I myself may feel all the sufferings of my neighbor.
May your mercy, O Lord, rest upon me.
No matter the circumstances, Therese teaches us that God is healing and guiding our souls and yearns for us to be in eternal bliss with him. Her “yes” to God has brought so much fruitfulness to this world. God uses Therese daily to call others to holiness, as he has called her to holiness.
Therese Riedel is currently living in her hometown of San Diego. She is actively involved with local pro-life organizations and also volunteers training Wounded Warriors and Challenged Athletes in self-defense. As a member of the mystical body, her goal is to try and help hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth bringing a culture of life and a world of peace.
Joanne Huestis-Dalrymple is a freelance writer residing just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. She is expecting her eighth child this summer. Joanne leads a Catholic book club for middle school girls and is the head coach for the St. Thomas More Academy swim team. Joanne enjoys reading, writing and going on adventures with her family.
Photos above: Theresa with her service dog and Therese (Back Row, Center) on her high school basketball team.