By Kenneth J. Souza
“Since we are all children of God, we must help each other to grow in holiness.” — Blessed Mother Teresa
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — As a young high school student in south India, Sister John Theresa often read about Blessed Mother Teresa, who was known as “the angel of mercy.”
“I was always very interested in her and wanted to learn from her example,” Sister John Theresa recently told The Anchor. “I didn’t know about (the Missionaries of Charity) before that time, but they were working about a half-hour from my house. When I found out, I joined.”
Little did she know that during her formative years as a novitiate, she would soon be working alongside that very same “angel of mercy” and future saint.
“I was in New York from 1994 to 1998, so Mother Teresa used to come visit sometimes every six months, or at least once a year,” Sister John Theresa said. “All I can say about Mother Teresa is she is Mother. We all called her ‘Mother.’ Mother was so simple and worked to give her children the best.”
Looking back on her nearly 22 years with the order, the current superior of the Missionaries of Charity convent in New Bedford fondly recalled those personal encounters with the simple, humble nun whom Pope Francis will canonize a saint on September 4 in Rome.
“I can always remember being with her and her prayerfulness in the chapel, when she sat quietly with the Lord,” Sister John Theresa said. “And when she was with the poor people, she was just as quiet and calm. We would see her in the chapel after 9:30 p.m. when she would come in and tell us: ‘Children, go to bed.’ But she would often stay up late at night, sitting in her room signing papers, doing her work. We would see the light on in her room.”
Having only been ministering in the Fall River Diocese for the past two years, Sister John Theresa was not in New Bedford when Blessed Mother Teresa made her historic visit on June 14, 1995; but like many who did encounter the soon-to-be-saint, she has her own favorite memories of her beloved “Mother.”
“The last time I visited with Mother, I was with her in the airport and people were coming up to her to give them her blessing, because it was very special for them and Mother would always say: ‘Let them come,’” Sister John Theresa said. “That was the time Mother saw a lady who had (fancy) fingernail polish on and she asked her how much she paid for that. When the lady said it cost $20, Mother said she should have given the money to her and she could have helped the poor. She always wanted to give to others.”
That legacy continues on locally through the work of her Missionaries of Charity. Among the many Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy that the four Sisters currently serving in the diocese provide include: shelter for women and children; organizing and running a Bible camp program every summer; visiting prisoners at the Bristol County House of Correction in Dartmouth and the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford; visiting area shut-ins; and providing education and assistance to Hispanic families.
“Mother gave herself to everybody — without regard to nationality, race, color, or religion,” Sister John Theresa said.
“I think the most important lesson of Mother Teresa is one of simplicity,” agreed Sister Noreen. “With her, everything was possible in the presence of God. When all the sorrow and sufferings and difficulty came, she saw only joy. She had a tremendous love for all souls.”
Like her fellow Missionaries of Charity, Sister Carmel was inspired by Blessed Mother Teresa to answer God’s calling.
“It’s amazing to me how well she understood God’s call of mercy,” Sister Carmel said, noting that she’s been reading Mother Teresa’s writings and letters in anticipation of her canonization. “And she went through a lot of obstacles in the beginning, so I think it’s a blessing to have been called to become a Missionary of Charity.”
Some of those obstacles feature prominently in the recent film “The Letters: The Epic Life Story of Mother Teresa,” in which the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize recipient is portrayed by British actress Juliet Stevenson.
“That movie is based, in part, on a book written by Mother’s Spiritual director and I will tell you it was taken a bit out of context,” said Deacon Rick Varieur of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Parish in South Attleboro. “It described her as sort of distant and separated from God, but we know that in our tradition as the sort of dark night of the soul. It’s a gift God gives to those people who are very close to Him. But Mother Teresa persevered through all of that. It was really quite amazing and I think it enhances her sainthood immensely.”
A good friend of Deacon Varieur, Hugo Rossi, worked for Blessed Mother Teresa for eight years during the 1970s and was her driver whenever she came to visit the U.S. during that period. Rossi will be bringing a first-class relic — a vial of her blood drawn shortly before her death — to the South Attleboro parish on September 18 for veneration. He’ll also be sharing some of his personal anecdotes about the newly-canonized saint.
“One of the stories Hugo tells is the time she was in the South Bronx and he was driving her around,” Deacon Varieur said. “She was opening a new (house), so there was a lot of media there, and one of the reporters asked: ‘Mother, you’ve worked all over the world. Tell us, where are the poorest of the poor?’ And she told Hugo to go get the van. So Hugo got the van and Mother jumped in with some of the reporters and they drove to Central Park West. She got out of the van and pointed to all the multi-million-dollar apartments around the park and said: ‘Here — here are the poorest of the poor.’”
Another person with close ties to Blessed Mother Teresa and the Fall River Diocese is Father William F. Petrie, SS.CC., the former provincial superior for the U.S. east province of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who served in Fairhaven and is now pastor of St. Damien Parish on the Island of Molokai in Hawaii.
Father Petrie first met Blessed Mother Teresa in 1973 and eventually became her close friend and Spiritual advisor for 22 years before her death on Sept. 5, 1997.
He will be attending the canonization at the Vatican on September 4.
“Mother’s presence was a powerful, grace-filled radiant peace that seemed to empower and impact others,” Father Petrie said in a 2008 Anchor interview. “She was such in union with Christ that she radiated. She once said you can’t go to the poor unless you smile and you radiate joy. That’s what made her a powerful, faith-filled person.”
Father Petrie noted how their mutual admiration for St. Damien of Molokai helped to cement their bond.
“Mother Teresa was delighted to know that I was a member of the same religious congregation as Father Damien,” Father Petrie said. “He was her inspiration for starting the Hansen’s disease work for the Missionaries of Charity. Even back then she was asking: ‘When is he going to be canonized?’”
Ironically enough, Father Petrie has since seen Father Damien canonized and he will now witness the canonization of his longtime friend, Blessed Mother Teresa.
“During the course of her life, thousands of people have been touched and uplifted by her charism — that charism was her love of God and neighbor,” Father Petrie said. “Mother Teresa never sought volunteers to assist her, on the contrary she advised people to work with the poor and needy where they live. ‘If you have eyes to see, Calcutta is everywhere,’ she once said.”
While much has been said and written about the “simplicity” and “humility” of the Church’s newest saint, Father Petrie sees it another way.
“I once told Mother Teresa: ‘I know the secret of your success. I said it is your powerlessness,’” Father Petrie said. “She asked me what does that mean? I told her, think of Mary standing on Calvary. There was nothing she could do, there’s nothing recorded in Scripture. She was just present as her Son was suffering this great redemptive act and no one shared more in that mystery than the person of Mary.
“I told her when there’s a famine, an earthquake, a war, or masses of poor children you just go and stand there and something happens. She said: ‘That’s how it works.’”
A special Mass in honor of Blessed Mother Teresa will be celebrated on the day of her canonization — Sunday, September 4 at 11 a.m. — at St. Lawrence Martyr Church, 565 County Street in New Bedford, with the Missionaries of Charity. All are welcome.