An encounter with Mother Teresa of Kolkata has a lasting impact. In the days leading up to her Sept. 4 canonization in Rome, three of those who knew her personally recalled how their meetings with the saintly sister changed the direction of their lives.
Jim Towey, the president of Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla., is a former assistant to President George W. Bush and director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Before that, while working for Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., on assignment in the Far East, he met Mother Teresa.
“Thirty-one years ago, the Lord gave me the grace of meeting her, and it changed my life,” Towey said. “I met her the week she turned 75. When I met Mother Teresa that day in August 1985, I saw a person who was everything I wasn’t. She was so alive in Christ, so given to others.”
Towey’s life took a major turn, so much so that, today, he says, “While I will never be able to imitate her humility and sanctity, I can try to give my all in life as she did.”
His association with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity soon took on a permanent character. He worked regularly with her from 1985 to her death in 1997, and he and his wife, Mary, became close personal friends with her.
“When Mary and I were engaged to be married, our first wedding invitation was handed to Mother. She couldn’t come, but had 30 of her sisters come,” Towey recalled. “I owe to Mother Teresa our whole life. I met my wife in one of Mother Teresa’s missions. She predicted we would have five children, and we did. She saw three of them. And she was the instrument that was to revive my Catholic faith. So I have a debt to her I could never repay.”
Towey considers it “a privilege” that he traveled with this inspirational saint. As legal counsel, he helped her as she opened homes for people suffering with AIDS, helped her sisters with immigration approvals and protected the use of her name (because some wanted to use her name for fundraising, which Mother Teresa did not want).
“Just being around her was a little touch of heaven,” Towey reminisced. “There was something special about her. What I love most is how fully human she was. She, of course, loved God wholeheartedly, but she loved people, loved music and loved her sweets. Her nuns and priests meant the world to her. She was in love with life.”
Towey shared how Mother Teresa loved to laugh and would even get her sisters laughing through her lovely sense of humor.
And her maternal qualities were unmatched.
“When she was with her sisters, she was very much human and motherly in her dealing with them,” Towey said. “I think she was the most motherly person since the Blessed Mother lived, and she was a mother to so many people like me.”
Towey added, “She brought out the best in people.”
At the time of her beatification, he was asked to testify how she dealt with people and situations. Towey observed, “She was an incredible reader and great judge of situations and people. She had such wisdom. I would marvel how she would very quickly figure out what was going on. And it was remarkable: Whether meeting with the president or at the bedside of the poor, she was the same with people. She recognized President [Ronald] Reagan had more responsibility, but she recognized they were both children of God.”
Towey recalled this in action: Mother Teresa liked President Reagan, and he was helpful to her.
“She would call him up from India to the White House. When he left office, she called me in December and said, ‘I want to go to see President Reagan because no one probably goes to see him anymore.’” When she came to the U.S., she visited President and Mrs. Reagan, along with Towey, two of her priests and some of her nuns.
Mother Teresa’s influence continues to guide Towey and others through him. The Mother Teresa Museum (MotherTeresaProject.org) at Ave Maria University, which he founded, is the only one in the country authorized by the Missionaries of Charity.
And every May, Towey takes 12 students on a mission trip to Kolkata.
“They’ve discovered Mother Teresa in their lives, and I’ve watched how that has been life-changing for them. These new generations are meeting Mother in her missions, and it’s beautiful they have a saint as their friend,” he said.
The Missionaries of Charity sisters and priests continue to be like family to the Toweys. “Mary and I have stayed close in touch with several hundred of the sisters,” he said.
Looking back, Towey maintains, “I can’t think of what my life was like before I met Mother. It changed everything, and I owe her everything. I met my wife in her mission, and she rekindled the Marian devotion for me because she loved the Blessed Mother so much. I have a debt to her and the Missionaries of Charity. I doubt I’m ever going to pay it off, but I’m going to try.”
Women’s Rights Without Frontiers (WomensRightsWithoutFrontiers.org), an international organization exposing and opposing China’s state-enforced policy of population control, might never have been founded if founder and president Reggie Littlejohn had not met Mother Teresa.
While taking a trip around the world with her husband — while both were students at Yale — Littlejohn volunteered for several weeks at the home Mother Teresa began for abandoned babies in Kolkata.
“Mother Teresa began her home for baby girls by picking up one little girl out of a trash can, these lives that are considered to be worthless,” Littlejohn told the Register.
Her experiences at the home — including helping and feeding a young woman who was no bigger than a small child and that young woman’s reaction to her kindness — illustrated that every life is precious.
“Then I understood Mother Teresa’s position: Every single life, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the disability, is infinitely precious, and everyone deserves to be saved,” Littlejohn explained. “And I’m so glad I can talk about this young woman, because I want her witness to be out there.”
Now, Littlejohn proclaims and fights for the value of every life with Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
“The dignity of every individual, and the determination to save them, is the bedrock of my determination — to save these girls in China,” she explained. “It’s the impetus. They have an equal dignity to boys and have infinite value. They are infinitely precious, every single one of them.”
Lessons of Love
When author Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle met Mother Teresa, little did she know that it would lead to a long friendship and a correspondence of 10 years.
“I feel very blessed that, through God’s divine Providence, I met Mother Teresa of Kolkata, the saint of the gutters, almost 30 years ago,” O’Boyle said. “Mother Teresa became not only a wise spiritual mentor to me, but a loving spiritual mother.”
O’Boyle has written several books about her relationship with Mother Teresa (DonnaCooperOBoyle.com).
Mother Teresa prayed for her during her pregnancies, O’Boyle said, “reminding me to seek Mother Mary’s help, especially during a precarious pregnancy in which my unborn baby almost died. Mother Teresa rejoiced with me during the births of two of my five children. She seemed to have held my hand through some very frightening times, too.”
Those frightening times involved a painful divorce: “Indeed, she prayed me through some very difficult situations. Knowing Mother Teresa gave me tremendous hope and direction when I was a single mother navigating daily life in the domestic church through thick and thin — mostly thin.”
Mother Teresa’s many lessons, over time, changed O’Boyle’s outlook.
“Through Mother Teresa, I learned to see Jesus in everyone — even in those who hurt me. She would call them ‘Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor,’” she recalled. “Mother Teresa taught me to wholeheartedly embrace Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40, ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.’ She teaches us that we are to serve Jesus in the other with Christ’s love, which will not only help to transform the person we serve, but our own souls, too.”
She said Mother Teresa taught that the needy are with us everywhere: “So many in the U.S. are starving for love. Mother Teresa prods us to search our hearts to be sure that we are giving Christ’s love to our families, our neighbors and communities. She reminds us, ‘Love begins at home.’”
At the same time, O’Boyle’s books and speaking engagements give her opportunities to continue what she learned from Mother Teresa.
She carries on the tradition imparted to her by Mother Teresa of giving out blessed Miraculous Medals to all she meets.
“I have been doing it since her death and have given out thousands upon thousands of medals all around the world. I have seen amazing transformations happen to people upon receiving the blessed medals,” she said. “It could be a young mother having a meltdown in the airport or a young man serving at a gelato bar in Rome. One amazing encounter was with a waiter at a family restaurant in Texas. Upon giving him the medal and telling him, ‘The Blessed Mother will take care of you,’ the young man seemed to collapse in my arms, as he wrapped his arms around me in a tight hug as if he was a little boy hugging his mother. He had tears in his eyes. I found out later that he was part of a murderous gang.”
O’Boyle summed up the response of those who have encountered Mother Teresa with: “The blessings of knowing Mother Teresa don’t belong to me — I endeavor to spread Mother Teresa’s lessons of love around the world.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.
Rome correspondent Edward Pentin contributed to this report.