To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s birth this year (Aug. 26), the Knights of Columbus Museum in Connecticut is hosting the American premiere of the exhibition “Mother Teresa: Life, Spirituality and Message.”Visitors not only learn about her life from birth to beatification in 2003 — they get to see some personal effects of the saintly sister.
No one can stand in front of the full-size reproduction of her simple room in the Calcutta Missionaries of Charity motherhouse without being moved to contemplate her virtuous life.
“People get to see how Mother lived,” observes Sister Francis Gabriel from the Missionaries of Charity in Bridgeport, Conn. Sister Francis has visited Calcutta and finds this cell as close as possible to Mother Teresa’s own. The Bridgeport Missionaries dressed the exhibit’s mannequin in a sari once worn by their founder.
Museum curator Mary Lou Cummings points out that Mother Teresa’s simple furniture — desk, table, bed, even the window — were recreated for this exhibit.
But the bedding is actually Blessed Teresa’s.
So are the washcloth and plastic bucket she always washed with, showcasing the exceptionally simple way this nun lived in order to be one with the poor she lovingly served.
Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of the canonization cause for Mother Teresa, says it was the Knights’ idea to add this full-scale replica room.
“This exhibition is a revised version of the [basic] exhibit we had in Rome for the beatification,” he notes.
Another addition to the exhibit: a timeline of Mother Teresa’s years-long association with the Knights. She visited the New Haven headquarters in 1988 and in 1992 received the Knights’ inaugural highest honor: the Gaudium et Spes Award. The museum’s exhibit also includes Tommaso Gismondi’s life-size bronze sculpture of Blessed Teresa carrying a child.
This chronological exhibit begins with Mother Teresa’s childhood in Albania and follows her vocation and impact on Catholicism and the world so that “a person should come away with a more complete knowledge of Mother’s life,” says Father Kolodiejchuk.
There are pictures of her family and little parish church in Skopje.
“You get these little things most people don’t get (to see),” says Father Kolodiejchuk.
The exhibit explains that she took her name after St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 1937 she professed vows with the Sisters of Loreto (Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) in Ireland, and then began working with them as a teacher in India.
The exhibit brings to light several little-known facts about Mother Teresa: She was the seventh person to be given honorary United States citizenship; for the first 10 years as a Missionary of Charity, she and her sisters worked from a single house. By the time she died, she had opened 594 houses that she called “tabernacles for Jesus” in 120 countries.
On display from one of those houses are her plate, cutlery, cup and saucer. Medical equipment used to treat her last illness is also included in the exhibit.
“The exhibit is so comprehensive,” marvels Deb Doherty, who was visiting from Saginaw, Mich. “I loved Mother Teresa forever and read a lot of her books and have been inspired by her” and “found out so much more about her” here.
A documentary video invites visitors to see Mother Teresa at work helping the “poorest of the poor.”
Voice of the Voiceless
In nearly every speech Mother Teresa made in the 1980s and 1990s, she spoke against abortion as “the greatest destroyer of peace … a war against the child, murder by the mother herself.”
“She saw a spiritual want or deficiency in many cultures and tried to reach them in any way she could, and bring them to greater understanding of the role Christ needs to play in our lives,” says Peter Sonski of the Knights of Columbus.
Father Kolodiejchuk says that Mother Teresa “exemplified many of the teachings of John Paul II: the pro-life message, the importance of the dignity of every human being, the dignity of the poor.”
He referred to John Paul II’s description of Mother Teresa as a “person-message.”
Dark Night of the Soul
Mother Teresa lived joyfully for Jesus, all the while experiencing painful inner darkness: a secret she carried for nearly 50 years, from 1949 to 1997, and known by only a handful of people until the cause for her canonization.
Says Father Kolodiejchuk, “Mother Teresa managed to hide the profundity of her holiness in the simplicity of her life and the simplicity of her words.”
For example, she would say, “To give what he takes and take what he gives with a smile.”
“That resolution and prayer was made in the throes of this great interior suffering, yet you would see her joy and smile,” Father Kolodiejchuk remembers.
People have been moved to tears when they see this exhibit.
“They never knew how simple the life she lived was and the darkness she went through,” says Sister Francis.
The Missionaries of Charity are bringing groups on pilgrimage to the museum from several nearby states to share the story and legacy of their founder. Even Mother Teresa’s successor, Sister Nirmala, came unannounced with several other sisters.
“All the great things you want to know about Mother Teresa are in here,” notes the museum’s director, Lawrence Sowinski.
Visitor Deb Doherty sums up the exhibit well: “Whether Catholic or not, you can’t help but be inspired by her. Going through this exhibit, you feel a sense of calm, peace and spirituality that stays with you.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Planning Your Visit
Knights of Columbus Museum
One State St.
New Haven, CT
The Mother Teresa exhibit runs through Oct. 4. See the website for more information.