‘Spontaneous love’ as diocese hosts Mother Teresa relics

Photo Caption: Mary House of Champaign touches a case containing sandals worn by Blessed Mother Teresa during a visit of the sainthood candidate’s relics to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria on July 16.

By: By Tom Dermody

As the world prepares to observe the 100th anniversary of Blessed Mother Teresa’s birth on Aug. 26, the religious community she founded gave the Diocese of Peoria a surprise and memorable gift last Friday.

Nearly 15 years after Mother Teresa herself paid a visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, relics of the candidate for sainthood were brought to the cathedral for an afternoon of public veneration.

“The Sisters are sharing with us a precious treasure,” said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, in welcoming members of the Missionaries of Charity and the relics they lovingly carried: a lock of Mother Teresa’s hair, a reliquary containing a drop of her blood, her rosary, and her well-worn sandals.

Mother Teresa died in 1997, and the cause for canonization of the diminutive nun known for her service to the “poorest of the poor” — especially on the streets of Calcutta, India — had immediate worldwide support. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 2003.

Even though word of her relics’ presence in Peoria came just days before their arrival, the cathedral was filled with hundreds of faithful. Most stayed long after a specially arranged noon Mass to venerate and pray before the items.

“A spontaneous outpouring of love,” is how Sister Marcella, the order’s regional superior from St. Louis, described the relics’ reception in Peoria. Sister Marcella explained that because of “providential circumstances” a North American tour of the relics was extended for two weeks.

“Everyone only had a moment’s notice,” said Sister Marcella, as cities including Peoria, Chicago, and St. Paul, Minn., were hastily added to the tour. The holy items will return to Calcutta on July 29 for activities next month commemorating the centenary of Mother Teresa’s birth.

Word of the relics’ visit to Peoria spread quickly via the media and Internet. Among those viewing them at the cathedral relics was a group of 50 pilgrims from Memphis, Tenn.

“We’re just a bunch of friends who are devout Catholics and very devoted to Mother Teresa,” explained Cathy Mack. After one of them learned about the relics’ visit online, the Memphis-area group quickly organized a caravan to central Illinois.

The experience was worth the journey.

“I could feel the Holy Spirit here and was reassured Mother Teresa’s work is still going to go on,” said Mack.

That would please all involved in last Friday’s visit, including Bishop Jenky. In his homily, the bishop said the visit of the relics is another challenge for central Illinois Christians, like Mother Teresa, to “see Jesus in the needs and suffering of the poor.”

The bishop pointed out that the Diocese of Peoria has been supporting the work of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity for more than five decades.

“Long before she was on Time Magazine’s cover or won the Nobel Peace Prize, there was a connection between your community and the Diocese of Peoria,” the bishop reminded the seven Missionaries of Charity seated in a front pew. Among them were four who serve the cathedral neighborhood from a convent located on the same block.

The Diocesan Council of Catholic Women was among Mother Teresa’s earliest supporters, and there was little fanfare when the nun came to central Illinois in 1960 to personally thank the women for financially and prayerfully backing her new religious community.

At the invitation of Bishop Edward W. O’Rourke and his successor, Bishop John J. Myers, the Missionaries of Charity established a presence in Peoria in 1991. With the help of dedicated volunteers, they operate a soup kitchen in the cathedral hall and instruct more than 250 children in the cathedral’s religious education program.

The four members currently serving in the cathedral neighborhood are easily recognized as they visit area homes by the familiar white sari with a blue stripe made famous by their foundress.

On Dec. 10, 1995, Mother Teresa visited St. Mary’s Cathedral to attend Mass and witness the renewal of vows for several community members. The then 85-year-old nun handed out medals to nearly 2,000 pilgrims who came to the cathedral on that bitterly cold day. (See related editorial.)

Last Friday, members of her community were the ones passing out medals and accepting prayer requests from the pilgrims who came forward for nearly an hour after Mass to venerate her relics.

“We cherish the memory of her visit,” said Bishop Jenky. A statue of Mother Teresa on the cathedral grounds commemorates the historic day.

Bishop Jenky said the church has reverenced the relics of saints “since the earliest days of faith.” In ancient days, for example, “it was deeply moving for the early church to gather the remains of martyrs.” Often, when the remains or other relics were brought into a city, they were acclaimed with applause.

“I invite you to acclaim by applause, and especially by our continued conversion, these relics of Mother Teresa,” said Bishop Jenky. The assembly responded with a sustained ovation.

Following the homily, a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the Missionaries of Charity was read by Msgr. Paul Showalter, vicar general.

Calling Mother Teresa “an exemplary model of Christian virtue,” the pope said the approaching centenary of her birth is “an occasion of joyful gratitude to God for the inestimable gift Mother Teresa was in her lifetime, and continues to be in the work of you, her spiritual children.”

The arrival of her relics in Peoria had a deeply personal meaning for John and Mary House, members of St. Matthew’s Parish in Champaign. A few weeks ago, John was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He and Mary have been praying daily to Mother Teresa since.

Mary House said she sensed “an overwhelming, almost palpable sense of holiness” when she touched the case containing the sandals in which Mother Teresa “did so many good works.”

Stefanie Rupert, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Peoria, was also especially struck by the sandals and all they represented.

“Mother Teresa is so inspiring,” she told The Catholic Post. “Measuring by her example is a good way to take a good look at your own life,” she said after venerating the relics with her children.

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