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placeholder September 19, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
St. Teresa Reflections

Members of the Missionaries of Charity pray Aug. 26 near the tomb of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, India, in celebration of her birthday. Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, was canonized at the Vatican Sept. 4.

A saint of our times

Saint of the gutters, saint of the poor and abandoned, a saint of our times. That was Mother Teresa. I am sure there are people in our community who have met her.

I was privileged to meet Mother Teresa and shake hands with her while I was a student of Theology in Shillong, India. She had come there to give a talk to the theologians. I still remember the topic of her talk — Sacrament of Reconciliation. She was exhorting the future priests to be available always for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The magnitude of Mother Teresa's work can be appreciated better when we comprehend the milieu surrounding her life and works. She was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu of Albanian descent in Skopje, present day Macedonia. Catholics were a minority in her home town. It was her family's deep faith that was a bedrock in those tumultuous times which saw endless revolving doors of political entities clambering for power. Maybe these experiences of upheavals, violence and political changes prepared the future saint to work in a foreign country, India.

At 18 Anjezë joined the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. It was there that she took the name Sister Mary Teresa. After a brief stay in Ireland she left for India where she officially joined the Loreto sisters; she made her final profession in 1937. Her assignment was to be a teacher in one of the schools run by her religious order.

The Loreto sisters have schools in Calcutta (now, called Kolkata) which are considered elite schools even today. They cared mainly for the upper class children and a few poor children who received a totally free education. Sister Teresa taught in one of these schools; during class one of the girls passed out. Thinking the child was sleeping during her class, sister was upset.

"Why do you sleep during class?" She shook the child and yelled, "Why don't you stay home and sleep."

The child opened her eyes to see Sister bending over her angrily. Tears rolled down her cheeks as the child sobbed in confusion and fear. Sister repeated the question, "Why are you sleeping in class?" The child was too frightened to speak. Seeing Sister's growing frustration another child blurted out, "Sister, this girl has not eaten any food; she is very poor."

Now, it was Sister Teresa who was reduced to tears. She took care of the child and fed her. Sister Teresa was gradually awakened to the plight of the poor surrounding the school.

In September 1946 while journeying to Darjeeling for her annual spiritual retreat, Sister Teresa received the call/inspiration to serve the poor. She left the security and comfort of the convent and stepped into the slums of Calcutta.

At this time politically India was in great turmoil with the freedom movement gaining huge momentum under Mahatma Gandhi. India gained freedom from British rule in August 1947. It was under this stormy sky, with uncertainties of every sort that Sister Teresa set up her little nest in the middle of a slum in Calcutta.

She was a foreigner, and a woman with hardly any knowledge of the local language, Bengali. It appeared to be a recipe for failure, nay, for total disaster. But God's ways are not our ways!

An acquaintance from her teaching days allowed Sister Teresa to live in one of his huts. Soon news spread, "Sister is living in the slums." A few of her students and friends visited her and some of them chose to live with her. Students and people around affectionately called Sister Teresa, "Mother." Gradually Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa and the rest is history. Today, she is St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Kolkata).

(Rev. Augustine Joseph is parochial administrator at St. Augustine Parish, Oakland.)

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