Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997). The Albanian nun best known for her service to India’s “poorest of the poor” and founding of the Missionaries of Charity was declared a saint by Pope Francis on Sept. 4, 2016. I recently had the chance to speak with four of her friends who live in the United States who knew her.
Michael Collopy of Hayward, California, is a professional photographer who knew Mother Teresa for 15 years. He traveled with her all over the world, photographing her work. He created a book featuring photos of Mother Teresa and insights into her spirituality, Works of Love Are Works of Peace.
“Mother had a great sense of humor, was quick to laugh and smile and was all about love,” Collopy recalled. “She made a point of trying to see the face of God in everyone she met.”
Collopy was living in San Francisco when Mother Teresa set up her apostolate there, and he volunteered to drive her to appointments. Many people would approach her with questions and asking for prayer, and she “gave time to each person.”
Jeanette Petrie is a documentary filmmaker who lives both in San Diego and New York City. She recalled that Mother was generous with her time and attention to each person who approached her.
Petrie joined with her sister Ann to produce two films: Mother Teresa and Mother Teresa: The Legacy (which can be viewed on Amazon Prime and iTunes; also see www.petrieproductions.com.) She first met Mother Teresa more than 30 years ago, and spent the last 10 years of Mother’s life helping her establish Missionaries homes in former communist countries. She observed, “Mother was the real deal. She personified everything a saint should be.”
Marie Constantin, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a photographer who volunteered with Collopy, noted that Mother’s kindness with visitors was extended even when it was difficult. She remembers visiting the Missionaries’ Bronx convent, and encountering a woman who was widowed just the day before. Although Mother was in bed with a high fever, she got up to greet the woman “and you watched the grief melt off the woman’s face.”
Constantin wondered at times if Mother ever got the chance to sleep, but noted that her devotion to the Holy Eucharist renewed her spiritual life.
Born in Skopje
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, capital of today’s Republic of Macedonia. She joined the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin at age 18, and was sent to Calcutta to teach. She took the name Mother Teresa upon professing final vows in 1937.
In 1946, however, she believed Christ gave her a “call within a call” to launch a new community working with the poor. The Missionaries of Charity today numbers 4,500 members working in 125 countries.
In 1979, she received a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts “in bringing help to suffering humanity.” During Mother Teresa’s beatification in 2003, Pope St. John Paul II observed, “Her greatness lies in her ability to give without counting the cost, to give ‘until it hurts.’ Her life was a radical living and a bold proclamation of the Gospel.”
Fr. George Vaniyepurackal is administrator of St. Paul Parish in Jacksonville, Florida. He is from Kerala, India, and before coming to the U.S. watched Mother’s proclamation of the Gospel. He observed her doing all the things Jesus commanded in Matthew 25 [“I was hungry, you gave me to eat …]. Father serves as a hospital chaplain, and noted, “She inspires me to believe and live the Gospel as well. When I go to visit a sick person lying in a hospital bed, I think that I am visiting Jesus.”
He first met her in 1982, when, as a seminarian, he volunteered to work in a Missionaries of Charity orphanage. Three hundred fifty children who otherwise “would have been left out on the streets” were cared for by the sisters as if they were the children’s own mothers. He said, “The orphanage was not like a hospital but a home. They were so loving and caring.”
He spoke with Mother for a half hour in her modest quarters, and found her simplicity and humility appealing. She encouraged him to become a missionary priest, which he did. After his ordination, he was able to return and celebrate Mass for Mother and the sisters. He said, “I remember seeing her bending down in prayer in their small chapel. She had an intense focus on the Eucharist, which I found most impressive.”
Collopy also remembered Mother’s intense prayer life. He noted that it was exhausting keeping up with her daily schedule, which began with rising early each day for Mass.
Petrie described Mother as “a woman in love with Christ” who could always be seen with rosary in hand praying throughout the day. Her spirituality was complemented by good judgment and common sense, Petrie continued, as she had a keen sense for “recognizing needs and figuring the best way to meet them.”
Mother and the Missionaries have not escaped criticism. Some, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, were motivated by hostility towards Christianity, believes Constantin. Others complain about the quality of care the Missionaries offer, but that must be put in the context of working in the Third World, she argued.
Constantin recalls asking a human rights advocate in Washington, D.C. about conditions in a Missionaries orphanage in Haiti. She said, “There seemed to be a lot of babies, and very few adults to care for them.”
She continued, “I was assured that they were doing the best they could with the limited resources they had. Of the thousands and thousands of people who need help, you can either give five or 10 phenomenal care and neglect the rest, or spread what you have around more thinly. It can be hard for those of us in the West to understand.”
But regardless of any criticism, Mother Teresa’s friends were delighted about her canonization. Collopy said he knew she was a saint, and a model of great sanctity. Fr. Vaniyepurackal added, “She’s my favorite saint.”