Fr. Royer shares memories of Mother Teresa and why “I claim her as my Mother”
Editor’s Note: The author is a senior priest of the Diocese of Peoria who served as pastor of St. Mary Parish, Champaign, for 38 years and is known for advocating for the poor and homeless not only in the Champaign area but around the world. Blessed Teresa of Kolkata is scheduled to be canonized on Sept. 4.
By Father Tom Royer
I have met and talked with Mother Teresa several times. The first was in March 1972 when I was on my way to Bangladesh with The Emergency Relief Fund.
The very harsh military occupation of Bangladesh by West Pakistan begun in 1971 created a huge human calamity of hunger, disease and desperation for millions of Bengalis. The West Pakistan military forces withdrew from Bangladesh in early 1972 after the Indian army intervened.
For political reasons, U.S. and other international media had been silent about the situation in Bangladesh, so that the crisis was ignored in this country. The Emergency Relief Fund was the beginning of a humanitarian response. This initiative brought about 70 U.S. citizens to Bangladesh in March 1972 to examine the situation firsthand. Needed aid would follow.
Before entering the country, we spent four days in Calcutta receiving briefings from government officials and international relief agency workers.
The morning of the first day of the briefings I made a phone call to Mother Teresa. I had received her number from a CBS reporter that met us at the airport.
She had just returned from a trip to a refugee camp in Bangladesh. When I told her about our group, she invited me to stop by to see her. She gave me her address, 54A Lower Circular Road, an address I still remember to this day.
The cab ride through the streets of that city to visit her was a ride into a very different world. Everywhere there were signs of misery.
Emaciated beggars came up to my window of the cab to pull on my sleeve repeating, “baksheesh, baksheesh.” Sacred cows wandered about the streets and the poor were collecting their dung to dry on walls and tree trunks to use as fuel to cook their food. For many, the sidewalks and alleys were their homes. Then there was the odor, so overwhelming for the newcomer from the U.S.
A LESSON IN COMPASSION
I was driven to Mother Teresa’s place in the poor part of the city. Her convent of the Missionaries of Charity was behind a high wall. The cab driver pointed to a door down an alley. At the door was a small sign, “Mother Teresa.”
I pulled a cord that rang a bell. A nun answered the door and invited me into a courtyard. When I told her I had come to meet Mother Teresa, the nun led me to a place nearby where three others were also waiting to speak with Mother. They were obviously poor women from that harsh world out beyond the walls who needed to have a few minutes with this nun who was known to listen to her people, the poorest of the poor. We sat on two benches about a yard apart facing each other.
After a few minutes the woman across from me suddenly collapsed to the ground in front of me. The nun at the door noticed and immediately came over and called out to Mother Teresa, who was in a nearby room meeting with another visitor. Mother quickly came over to this very thin woman who had fainted.
I did not know how to respond to this poor woman who was obviously in need of help because our briefings about certain cultural norms emphasized that it was inappropriate for a man to reach out in any way to touch a woman with a handshake or whatever. So I sat there in a sort of troubled paralysis.
This first time I saw Mother Teresa she was literally kneeling at my feet. She placed the poor woman’s head in her lap, softly stroking her face. At Mother’s suggestion, the other nun came with a glass of milk, which Mother held to the woman’s mouth to slowly sip. With the other hand she smoothed back the woman’s dirty, matted hair, softly talking to her like a mom comforting her child who was hurt.
In that moment, this poor broken woman was all that mattered to Mother. Finally, the woman sat up and the other nun gave her a paper bag of food to take with her as she left. This everyday occurrence in Mother Teresa’s ministry with the ragged nobodies of Calcutta was a lesson in compassion that I have carried with me ever since.
LOVED, RESPECTED ON CITY STREETS
I had to wait about a half-hour till it was my turn to see Mother Teresa. She came over to me and greeted me with a smile and said, “Have you had any lung?” Spoken like a mother.
She sat down at the table across from me. I immediately felt at home with this world-famous woman who with a kindly manner and a wonderful sense of humor made me feel like family.
Mother Teresa wanted to get details about the plans of our relief effort, pleased that the U.S. was opening up to the suffering of the Bengalis. When I noted to her that our group would be in the city for the next few days, she asked if I would return to have the 6 a.m. Mass on Monday morning. I agreed.
The next day Eileen Egan arrived to join our U.S. group. As an international agent with Catholic Relief Agency, Egan had been a collaborator in Mother Teresa’s work for many years. It was Egan who brought Mother to the U.S. for the first time when she introduced her at the annual DCCW Convention in 1960.
Egan asked me to accompany her to visit Mother because she did not wish to travel alone in the city in a cab. So on Sunday, Mother welcomed me back a second time. I listened as these two seasoned veterans in relief work discussed the present crisis of millions of Bengali refugees fleeing into Calcutta. They also reminisced about their many years of working together. They were the best of friends.
Egan took the single photo I have of meeting Mother. And I took one of her and Mother holding hands.
The next morning I returned to the convent for the 6 a.m. Mass. The chapel was utterly simple. The only furnishings were the altar and a couple of statues on pedestals at the sides of the altar. This motherhouse was the place where the novices received their initial year of formation. That Monday morning 65 young novices crowded the chapel! This was 1972, when in the U.S. the number of novices to religious life was rapidly dwindling. Except for the celebrant’s chair there were no pews or chairs in the chapel. Everyone knelt or sat on the floor.
After Mass, once again Mother served me breakfast of bread, fruit and tea. Neither time did she herself share in a meal with me. I don’t know when or if she had breakfast. In her conversation with me across the table she invited me to accompany her to meet the children at the orphanage a few blocks down the street.
In walking down the street with her that morning, I was able to witness the great love and respect the local people had for her. Like everyday Calcutta, the street was full of people, all bowing and calling out greetings of her as we passed them by. Some came up to make a personal good morning to her.
Inside the “Shishu Bhavan,” the name of the orphanage, there was much noise and activity, including a crew of workmen involved in some repairs. I watched Mother talking with the boss of the workers. She was very straightforward in telling him what she wanted as they looked over a sketch of the work to be done.
Then she changed from construction foreman back to mother as she entered into the nursery to give affectionate good-morning greetings to each of the infants there. Whispering softly to each child as she stroked its face and taking one after another into her arms, she playfully swung each one around while softly singing what sounded like a nursery rhyme. What a delight to watch this happy Mother dancing around with these abandoned infants in her arms. The same tenderness she had shown to the woman who fainted from hunger, but here there was such joy.
After a couple of weeks I returned from Bangladesh to report back to the motherhouse. Mother again sat and conversed with me as I had the usual bread, fruit and tea.
From Calcutta I caught up with our U.S. group reassembled in New Delhi for a week of discussion about our experiences in Bangladesh and strategies of action on our return to the U.S.
“I WAS BLIND, BUT NOW I COULD SEE”
A few years later I received a call from Eileen Egan inviting me to visit once again with Mother Teresa, who was about to return to the U.S. My final visit with Mother Teresa was in Eileen’s office at the Catholic Relief Service headquarters in New York City. I introduced her to Art Simon, the head of Bread for the World, whom I had invited to accompany me. We were allotted a 45-minute period to talk with her. She thanked me for visiting her those several times when I was in India in 1972. As I was about to leave her, she said “when you return to Calcutta, you must stay longer to help in our work with the poor there.”
Mother Teresa died Sept. 5, 1997, 25 years after my visits with her in Calcutta. A couple of weeks after her death, the University of Illinois Indian Student Association held a 9 p.m. memorial service for her one evening on the University Quad. There was a soft glow of candlelight that night as a considerable crowd of students and others gathered to honor the life and work of this humble woman who served the utterly poor of the slums.
Invited to speak at the event, I spoke of my visits with her at her convent on Lower Circular Road. I also recalled walking down the crowded street in Calcutta to the Shishu Bhavan, noting the people’s joy and reverence in her midst. The street people of that city most certainly claimed her as one of their own. These university students from throughout India that evening also proudly embraced this Catholic, foreign-born nun as one of their own. By choice a citizen of India, and the recipient of many awards — including the Nobel Peace Prize — Mother Teresa was a Mother to all their countrymen. I, too, claim her as my Mother.
In many ways I have received blessings from my Mother. Let me speak of one of these blessings.
In our conversation at that first lunch at her table, I complained about the unpleasantness of Calcutta, the sight of misery everywhere, the stench of its slums, no birdsong — only the cacophony of crows and the everywhere pleas of “baksheesh.” Mother Teresa smiled and responded softly, “I love Calcutta. I love the people.”
After that, I was no longer bothered by the unpleasant sights, sounds, and smells of that city. At her word I began to see the people. I was blind, but now I could see. For me, truly a miracle.
A few weeks before her death, a famous photograph was published showing Mother Teresa standing beside Britain’s Princess Diana, holding her hand. It was noted that Mother Teresa was an important spiritual influence on Diana. What made it remarkable was that the two of them were soon to die a few days apart.
If we allow this saintly woman to take us by the hand, she will awaken us to see Christ present in the unnoticed poor.