By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
Local Catholics who met or saw St. Teresa of Kolkata shared their experiences as the world celebrated her canonization in Rome.
“She is the most blessed human being, with a sweet smile on her face,” said Felix Mathew, who attends Immaculate Conception Parish in Worcester and talked with her in his native India.
As a student he served at her centers, he said. As a professor, he took students to work with her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity. When she visited, she talked and ate with them. His wife, Leelu Felix, once touched the saintly woman’s feet in an Indian gesture of respect and received her blessing.
George Joseph, of St. John Paul II Parish in Southbridge, didn’t grasp his blessing immediately.
A Catholic school student born and raised in Kolkata, he was asked to spend a week doing chores at Mother Teresa’s home for destitute children. He said that was in 1974 or 1975, when he was 14 or 15.
The next summer he and others sang for residents of her home for the elderly and the dying.
Mother Teresa came in and out, but he did not see that as a big deal, he said. He and his peers found the saintly woman awe-inspiring in the way they would any mentor, “especially a stern nun.”
Was she stern?
“She was very appreciative of what we were doing,” Mr. Joseph replied. “She’d come in and smile and say, ‘Thank you children; God bless you.’” But she would scold you if you misbehaved.
Now, Mr. Joseph said, he’s overjoyed that he got to meet St. Teresa and perhaps contribute to her ministry a bit.
He said his father, now deceased, had a friend – Joseph Mathew, a wealthy businessman – who gave Mother Teresa space on his property to launch her mission.
He was friends with Mr. Mathew’s children, who were all influenced by Mother Teresa, he said. Two modeled their life mission on hers, one establishing an organization to educate women in Kolkata, another opening homes for orphans in Glendale, Ariz.
St. Teresa also inspired the ministry of Daniel Joyce, of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Westborough.
When Mother Teresa spoke at the charismatic prayer group he attended in his native India, he didn’t go up to her, he said. He didn’t understand her approach of addressing individuals’ immediate needs instead of rallying groups to change systems that perpetuate poverty.
But after his experience with the Charismatic Renewal he felt obligated to reach out to the poor, he said. He visited slums, and sometimes got physically sick from seeing how people there lived.
“Then I began to understand, you cannot do the job unless you are called to it,” he said of Mother Teresa’s sisters’ work with the poorest of the poor. They shared people’s lives, while some social justice advocates just talked.
“Poor people … don’t need a handout,” he decided. “They want relationship. They need to be respected.”
He said it’s easier to give money than share friendship; the rich don’t want to take the poor for coffee because that would be a step down for them.
But Mr. Joyce got involved with a community that connects some “haves” and “have nots,” first in India, then in Massachusetts. He felt that the most rejected in India were people with mental handicaps. So he volunteered with L’Arche communities, founded by Jean Vanier, a layman he could identify with. In L’Arche, people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers in “inclusive communities of faith and friendship,” explains the website www.larcheusa.org.
Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, first learned from Mother Teresa’s sisters and almost didn’t get to greet the saint herself.
“I went to India for my junior year abroad and I volunteered for a Missionaries of Charity home for the sick and dying,” he said. “It was really transformative for me in a way that I didn’t expect. … Going into it I sort of looked at these nuns as … perfect.… They were sharing with me how hard it was for them to see Jesus in the poor and suffering. Sometimes they had to struggle.… It gave me an even deeper respect for them and their work.”
A couple years later, when he managed a homeless shelter in South Bronx, a priest invited him to come when Mother Teresa visited her sisters nearby. Nervously waiting for a holy celebrity, the two men prayed the rosary.
“Then the room fills up and she comes in,” Prof. Schmalz said. “I was taken aback because she was really, really short. … She gave everyone a rosary. She came to the end of the line where I was and turned around.”
She’d missed him! But she turned back and said, “Oh, you want a rosary too. Jesus through Mary.” She clasped his hands.
“These were really strong hands,” despite her short stature, he noted. “She just gave me a black plastic rosary, but it was really something precious.” Her strong devotion made him nervous, he said; he wondered how he could ever achieve that.
Decades later he learned of her doubts.
“It gave me a sense of how Mother Teresa was a heroic figure, but she was also deeply human,” he said. “She’s more like us than maybe we originally thought. … So I really think she’s a real saint for our times, when so many people feel either alienated from God or rejected. She reached out to those people,” despite experiencing spiritual dryness. “She’s got a lot of things to do up in heaven, but she’s watching out for all of us.”
Jesuit Father Paul F. Harman, director of special projects in mission at Holy Cross, had more time with Mother Teresa. He said he and Jesuit Father Robert E. Manning transported her when she came to the college for an honorary doctor of ministry degree in 1976. She didn’t have her sisters with her, but traveled with a woman who worked for the church, he said.
The Jesuits took her to the convent at St. Stephen Church to sleep and brought her to their own residence for breakfast.
“I do remember that she reached for a piece of fruit and put it in her little handbag,” Father Harman said. “She said that she’d find a practical use for the hood” from graduation.
Her Jesuit chauffers also took her to St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, as the Trappists had requested.
“When we rang the doorbell the monks were ecstatic to see her standing there, and they brought her into the chapel,” Father Harman recalled. “I think they had a little tea and cookies for her.
“And then we brought her to Regis College in Weston … her next stop. … I do recall that, traveling there, she wanted to say the rosary.”
Asked what it was like to be in her presence, Father Harman said, “Of course we were in awe; we just felt so privileged.” Not wanting to tire her, he and Father Manning assured her she didn’t have to talk, but she continued to chat. They talked about poverty in India and the United States, physical and spiritual, he said.
“What I do remember is her talking about the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel,” he said. “That was very dear to her. She said that was a large part of her own prayer and meditation.”
He said that the day she was canonized he mentioned her in a homily to students – who were very young or not born yet when she died.