London Through the Eyes of Mother Teresa’s Sisters

The Missionaries of Charity discover 2,000 years of civilization in a city founded in the days of the Roman Empire.

(photo: Diliff, GFDL or CC BY 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Walking through London with a group of Mother Teresa’s nuns was quite an experience. And part of the charm was that none of them seemed to realize it. 

They had asked me to lead some young people on a Catholic History Walk, and arrived in a minibus with a cheery group. As we made our way to London Bridge, people smiled at us, made way on steps and stairs, offered help to an elderly sister who was using a stick. People simply seem to enjoy seeing the sisters, so distinctive in their sari-style white and blue habits, and always so cheerful. They honestly do radiate a sort of joy — all the more infectious for being so completely unconscious.

We began our walk on the south bank of the Thames — Southwark. The sisters have a convent not far from St. George’s Cathedral. This has been, historically, a very poor area — changing now, especially in the areas nearest the Thames. It’s being gentrified, with expensive apartments created in former warehouses, and lots of wine bars and restaurants replacing older shops. And here, as elsewhere, great towering skyscrapers soar up to dominate the landscape. Year on year, the London skyline is changing. Many Londoners — including newcomers who might be expected simply to relish the city they are making their own — feel rather daunted by the sheer height and size of some of the massive blocks, somehow dwarfing mere humanity.

And London is teeming with people and with noise. It can often feel impersonal — although the wine bars are packed and the noise is terrific, and there is a sense of buzz and life, there is a loss of an older, calmer, more neighborly way of life. The past decade has seen a rise in knife crime. There is a massive drug problem among the young. Homeless people sit in the street asking for money: when you get chatting, it is usually the case that their family lives have fallen apart — “my girlfriend kicked me out” or “I don’t get on with my mum’s boyfriend.” This is not the London of Charles Dickens with grinding poverty and children working in factories. Today, the biggest single health problem is in fact obesity. But there is a poverty of spirit, a loss of a sense of belonging.

The sisters are busy people. They don’t go in for long leisurely rambles looking into shop windows or lingering over coffee. Their days are measured in hours of prayer and contemplation. They care for the poor and organize community activities. They seem to see every hour as a gift, to be cherished with a sort of delight.

Although living and working in London, they had done no sightseeing. It was a joy to share the city’s history with them — and through their gentle encouragement, the young people opened up and sensed that it was okay to respond to the discovering of 2,000 years of civilization in a city founded in the days of the Roman Empire. We talked about the Saxon/Viking battle of London Bridge and sang the old song that is said to date right back to that era. When a tourist boat chugged along beneath us, the sisters led the enthusiastic waving to the people aboard. 

The Missionaries of Charity are of course international: there were sisters from different countries, all speaking English in addition to their own languages. All were interested in Britain’s story — especially the spiritual story. They were intrigued by the Anglican Church and its different facets – I found myself standing by the great church of St. Magnus the Martyr by the Thames, discussing the Oxford Movement and John Henry Newman. They all knew about the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. These sisters may not spend hours in study, but they are well-informed about the Church and the trends affecting and influencing history. Their conversation reflects an ability to think along large lines, while also relishing information and the continued search for further knowledge and understanding. 

I found them so stimulating: different from some young students with whom I have engaged, whose ignorance of history is often matched only by the confident assertions of their own wisdom. The sisters don’t preface their questions by statements of their own achievements or gifts, and they don’t see things through the prism of politically correct ideas. Nor are they smug. No immediate assertions of Catholic moral superiority, for instance, over the many complicated and cruel aspects of Reformation history with its mutual torturing and burnings-at-the-stake and so on.

People get sentimental about Mother Teresa’s nuns — but, honestly and truly, I felt so blessed and privileged to spend an afternoon in their company. These are splendid women — faith-filled and generous, humorous and self-giving, large-minded and fun to be with. They exude a sense of hope. I know something of their daily routine, having encountered them in Rome, when I once joined some other volunteers to help out at some incredibly early hour, chopping vegetables for their daily production of meals for the poor. “I couldn’t live your life,” I told one of the sisters today, as we all parted amid mutual affection and promises to repeat the day with other groups in due course. “I couldn’t live yours” she said, with evident sincerity, fingering her rosary in unconscious affirmation of a choice happily made.

And off they went, shepherding the children back for prayer at the end of the afternoon. They couldn’t see what I noticed as they headed off through the crowded street, people smiling or pointing them out — “There’s Mother Teresa’s nuns” — with tiny trails of happiness momentarily floating around them.