What we learned from Mother Teresa
Inside the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary, there’s a photograph of Mother Teresa. It commemorates a visit she made to the Wilmington church in the 1980s.
In a drawer at Monsignor Jerry Sherba’s Raleigh home, there’s a prayer card he received from her when they met in Rome.
In Burlington, Mary Jinkins keeps a program Mother Teresa signed in 1976.
The Very Reverend James F. Garneau, V.F., has a framed picture of himself and Mother Teresa. It was taken in Washington, D.C., just months before her death.
In Clayton, Father Peter Grace, C.P., holds dear a letter she wrote on behalf of the Passionists order in India. It is written in her famously neat penmanship.
And, in New Bern, Mary Lou Infinito has memories of a summer she cared for the dying with Mother Teresa.
North Carolina is 5,000 miles from what is now known as Macedonia, but was called Albania when Anjeze (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (later called Mother Teresa) was born in 1910. And it’s more than 8,000 miles from the Diocese of Raleigh to Kolkata, India, where Mother Teresa served the poor alongside religious from the Missionaries of Charity, an order she founded in 1950.
Despite the miles and differences in customs, ages, native languages, careers and vocations, Mother Teresa had ties with people in this diocese. Life had a way of connecting the dots. Whether it was for an hour, a summer or an entire year, those who met her formed a bond to her life’s work and learned from it, too.
Monsignor Jerry Sherba asked for her blessing
In 1986, Father Sherba was a young priest in Rome studying canon law. Mornings were for class, and he spent afternoons working at a men’s shelter near the Termini train station.
He often celebrated Mass on Sundays at San Gregorio. It was not unusual for Mother Teresa to attend that Mass with her religious sisters.
One morning, Father Sherba, at 6 feet 2 inches tall, met the 5-foot nun. She may have been small in stature, but she was known among the priests as someone who wasn’t afraid to challenge something said in a homily.
He wasn’t nervous, though. Instead, he felt he was in the presence of a woman who would be a saint. They talked about his work at the shelter and prayed together. She asked for a blessing from him, and he from her.
“I said, ‘Mother, I don’t have a camera. But may I have something?’ She handed me a holy card. On the front was printed, ‘I looked for the one that would comfort me, and I found none,’” he said. “She wrote, ‘Be the one.’”
Today that card is one of his treasured keepsakes.
Mary Jinkins recalled a meaningful day
Mary Jinkins met Mother Teresa a decade earlier. Now a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Burlington, she used to live in New Jersey. And on May 23, 1976, she went to a commencement at Immaculata College, where her aunt, Mother Claudia Honsberger, I.H.M., was being honored. Mother Teresa was an honoree, too. After the ceremony, the three of them sat at the same table for a meal.
Jinkins remembered that Mother Teresa said things such as, “my people would love this food” and “this is too much food.”
“You know banquets,” Jinkins laughed, thinking about the experience.
The conversation drifted past food. Mother Teresa, Jinkins said, told her she would do something important with her life.
“It really inspired me to think,” she said. “I was raised very poor. We were food basket people at our church. We went to Catholic school because the nuns gave us uniforms. We were their companions on errands … like the dentist or doctor … and they educated us.”
As an adult, though, Jinkins had a more comfortable lifestyle. And after she moved to Burlington in the 1980s, she organized doctors to support a free medical clinic funded by donations.
For Jinkins, the memories are clear even though it’s been four decades since she met Mother Teresa and took an impromptu trip with her from Pennsylvania to New York.
“She told us to be kind … she talked about how material things come and go, and she told us poor people are the kindest people,” Jinkins said. “I looked at her and said, ‘I was poor’ and my Aunt Barb (Mother Claudia’s familial sister) turned around and said, ‘We were not poor. We were rich in love.’”
The Very Reverend James F. Garneau, V.F., received a gift
It was June 1997. Mother Teresa, who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, was in Washington, D.C., to receive another honor, a Congressional Gold Medal.
In her hand that day, though, were miraculous medals she was giving to others. Father Garneau received one.
He had celebrated Mass for her that morning. At the time, he lived in the nation’s capital, and celebrating Mass at the Missionaries of Charity house for those with AIDS was part of his weekly routine. It just happened that he was saying Mass the day she was there.
The photo from that day isn’t his only link to Mother Teresa. He heard her speak when he was a student at Loyola College in Baltimore in the 1970s.
“She said nothing I didn’t know, but everything was illuminating like light in water … just her manner, her style, her holiness,” Father Garneau said. “Everything was just crystal clear.”
He has a relic, a lock of Mother Teresa’s hair, that he received from her sisters when he was in India doing seminars after her death.
“The Church is lifting Mother Teresa up, not just for the order, but for the whole world to remember to wait on Jesus in whatever disguise He comes,” he said.
Father Peter Grace, C.P., received unexpected help
Father Peter Grace, C.P., went to India under interesting circumstances. The Passionists, his order, arrived in India in 1981. They started with 12 members and were down to two by 1985 and none by the time Father Grace arrived later that year. Some had visa problems, others had health concerns, and, for some, it wasn’t the right fit.
For one thing, he said, his order had a hard time with the government, which was suspicious of Christians.
Under the advice of Church leaders, he asked for a tourist visa rather than a missionary one. He was accepted in the country.
At an airport in India, he saw a man who wore a cross and looked “like a religious type.” Coincidentally, the two men were on the same flight and both headed to St. Xavier College for lodging. They talked, and it turned out the man was a member of Mother Teresa’s order and asked him if he’d like to meet her.
He didn’t plan on that, but welcomed it.
The next day, after Mass, Father Grace met Mother Teresa. She asked him why he was in India; he told her about the challenges his order faced trying to build a presence there.
“I wasn’t there for her help. I was just there to meet her. People were always there asking her for something,” he said. “The next day she said she’d be happy to help me … and she’s acting like she has nothing else in the world to do but take care of my concerns.”
Mother Teresa wrote a letter to India’s equivalent of the State Department. He remembered the care with which she wrote the letter. It garnered the result they hoped. He stayed for a year, and worked in her missions, before moving to East Africa.
“People would be surprised to know she was an ordinary woman in many ways,” he said. “She knew how to help the poor. She was pleasant, humble and generous. She told me to take care of the poor in southern India because a lot of them were poor fisherman.”
She was also a kind hostess. “I [once] had lunch with Mother Teresa in the sense that she sat there and got one of her sisters to bring me lunch. She didn’t eat at all,” he laughed.
Mary Lou Infinito found her life’s purpose
In 1994, Mary Lou Infinito was in her 30s and trained in nursing. She left her New Jersey home for Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, India. She went to work at the Kalighat Home for the Dying, a free hospice. It was run by Mother Teresa and her order and served a homeless population. The patients suffered from ailments such as malnutrition, malaria, dehydration, hepatitis and infections.
“These people were dying from things that would be routine here in America … things people here didn’t die from,” Infinito said. “Before that point, I had watched people die of cancer, but not malnutrition.”
She was part of a team that bathed and fed the dying. They cared for lepers. And they served everyone, regardless of their faith tradition, and treated them with dignity.
“The work I did with her … I know the work I do today is because of it,” Infinito said. “It’s end-of-life work. And I think about Mother Teresa … she was a powerful, tiny little package, let me tell you.”
Today Infinito, who attends St. Peter the Fisherman Mission in Oriental, utilizes prayers Mother Teresa wrote. She thinks about her philosophy of caring for the poor “where they are.” She also presents to youth groups about Mother Teresa’s life.
“There’s no bigger, better role model for giving than Mother Teresa,” she said. “She’s that universal person who appeals to many. Meeting her was the experience of my lifetime.”
Did you know?
In early 1999, less than two years after Mother Teresa’s death, Pope John Paul II waived the usual five-year waiting period and allowed her canonization cause to be opened. This was the first time a canonization cause was not subject to the rule.
Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Teresa on Sunday, Sept. 4.