Monday, May 12, 2008

Flashback: Mother Teresa Comes to Chicago and Has a Special Word for Me Involving the Gates of Heaven.


[Fifty years of memories written for my kids and grandchildren].

Mother Teresa of Calcutta came several times to Chicago during the 1980s and as a good friend of mine, Bill Isaacson, an attorney, was close to her, I would join him when she came in to meet her at the airport. The most significant time was in 1987 when she came in to address a group of well-wishers at Felician College. It was mid-July with the temperature hovering at near 100 degrees, without a breath of air. You could hold a lighted match aloft and the flame would not quiver, it was so airless.

Then she was a relatively healthy 77, an Albanian Cathlic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in 1950 and who for 40 years ministered personally to the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. She had attracted the attention of Malcolm Muggeridge who conducted a film documentary of her work, “Something Beautiful for God” which he later turned into a book. That publicity won international acclaim for her and she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. When she came to Chicago to meet with her sisters and speak at Felician she was operating 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, orphanages and schools.

She arrived at O’Hare carrying a plain cloth bag, attired in her plain white cotton habit with blue borders. She had a few nuns with her but the rules seemed to be that they traveled without much of a purse, depending on the charity of others. She was about 4 feet 11 inches tall, with a brown, wrinkled face that looked like a roadmap of Skopje, republic of Macedonia, part of Albania where she was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 10, 1910.

Her English was remarkably good. She was the younger of two children born to the Albanian family whose father was involved somewhat in Albanian politics. He died when Agnes was eight years old. Her mother raised her as a Roman Catholic. From early childhood on she was fascinated by stories of missionaries and by the time she was 12 she was committed in her mind to become a nun. She left home at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary and never again saw her mother or sister again. She went to Loreto Abbey in Ireland to learn English because it was the language the sisters used to teach school children in India. She arrived in India in 1929, entered the novitiate in Darjeeling near the Himalayan mountains and pronounced her first religious vows as a nun in 1931. She chose the name Teresa after Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower and took her solemn vows in 1937 at the Loreto convent in eastern Calcutta where she was teaching school.

While she enjoyed teaching, she was overwhelmed by the poverty of Calcutta, especially after a 1943 famine plunged the city in death; then there was Hindu-Muslim violence in August, 1946. In 1946 she experienced what she felt sure was a call to leave the convent and live with the poor. So she left the convent, beginning her missionary work with the poor and replaced in traditional Loreto habit with a simple white cotton chira decorated with a blue border. She took Indian citizenship and started serving the destitute and starving, picking them up off the street. She had no income and had to beg for food and supplies. Then she experienced a desperate emptiness which afflicted many saints including St. John of the Cross who described his inner malady as “the dark night of the soul” —a feeling that despite all the hard work you are doing, you go to bed at night with an vacuity, not a pleasant thing to experience. But confessors say that at the very time you cannot detect the presence of God, He is paradoxically very near. It was a time of great testing for her.

She received Vatican permission in 1950 to start a diocesan order that would become the Missionaries of Charity with the mission to care for, as she described it, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people who have become a burden to society and are shunned by everyone.” Because these people felt unloved, she herself received as a special “gift” the feeling of desolate loneliness as well as she toiled for the poor. She began with 13 members in Calcutta and by time she came to Chicago as a world figure she had 3,000 nuns running orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centers worldwide including refugees, blind, disabled, alcoholics, the poor, victims of floods, epidemics and famines.

In 1952 she opened her first Home for the Dying in housing made available by the city of Calcutta. She insisted that those who were brought in would receive spiritual care they were familiar with. Muslims were read the quramn, Hindus received water from the Ganges and Catholics the Last Rites. “A beautiful death is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.”

As she trotted by his side as I carried her cloth bag, she nudged me in the ribs. She was so tiny I had to bend down to hear her. As we got in a cab she said…her eyes twinkling...that I looked well fed. Well, she was right. I was then about 220 lbs. and 6 feet tall with a fleshy face and jowls. She beckoned me to bend down again with a long bony finger. When I put my ear to her lips she said with a mellifluous Indian accent, “Reduce, for the gates of heaven are narrow!” She smiled the most beautiful smile, her wrinkled face lighting up like 1300 candlepower. I belonged to her that very instant.

When she spoke at Felician (the school is now dormant and is a convent) I had arranged a camera crew from Quaker Oats audio visual to record her. In the audience which was filled to overflowing was a man I didn’t meet then but some years after, Msgr. Ignatius McDermott. The auditorium had no air conditioning. He told me later what I had fully realized, the day was “hotter than the hinges of hell.” She was utterly cool and calm and while people nearly fainted for lack of air, she spoke so persuasively that she stayed throughout it.

When we delivered her and her coterie to the convent where she would stay the night, she beckoned me again. I bent down. “Would you tell me where that camera crew came from?” she said. I told her my company. She took my name and while the cabbie’s meter was running, copied it laboriously. Two months later a scrap of envelope arrived at my house. It was hand addressed with pencil. We almost tossed it away but ripped it open. It contained a torn jagged edge of a paper bag such as what would carry groceries. . On it was written in careful, nun-like precision, eloquent words of deep appreciation for meeting her. We put it in our safe deposit box because to us it is very valuable—the only correspondence we have had from beatified person who may very well be canonized.

One would not imagine someone like this would be controversial. But in death, Agnes became such. The journalist Christopher Hitchens became one of her most virulent critics. He wrote that while alive she failed to defend herself against critical coverage in the press, citing charges of “gross neglect and physical and emotional abuse in her orphanages and unsanitary conditions in some of them.” The German magazine “Stern” made allegations concerning financial record sloppiness and the spending of donations. The medical press also criticized her in attention to some medical facts. Hitchens himself testified at the Vatican against her beatification and canonization process, writing that her own words on poverty showed “her intention was not to help people”…that “she wasn’t working to alleviate poverty but to expand the number of Catholics.” He quoted her as saying—and I am sure this is quite right—“I am not a social worker. I don’t do it for this reason. I do it for Christ and His Church.”

Hitchens who trumpets the fact that he is a militant atheist in his book “God is not Great” is her mortal enemy. Not to take the money to alleviate poverty but to do it for Christ and His Church by ministering to the poor and dying is, to him, a mistake.

I don’t quite know how to answer this charge since it’s almost midnight and I must go to bed. Maybe you can do it in Reader’s Comment.


  1. I am surprised that you would even care what Christopher Hitchens ever wrote considering his years typing out his streams of mediocre thoughts for that Leftist rag, "The Nation." Hitchens has been an interesting, somewhat talented, mentally unstable and virulent anti-Catholic. He spewed a lot of venom back in the 1980s over the canonization of Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
    Recently, I have read that he may be experiencing something of a religious conversion--and that wouldn't surprise me either. It may even improve his writing. As for his own alleged problems, perhaps some prayers for Matthew Talbott's intercession might be in order. Better yet, we could all ask Saint Teresa of Calcutta and Saint Maximilian Kolbe to pray for the guy.

  2. Great story about Mother Theresa, thanks for sharing it. I enjoy reading Hitchens because he has such a wonderful command of the english language and the ability to turn a phrase. Hitchens strikes me as a guy who's anti-Catholicism, and in particular his hatred for Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, reflects more of an inner-struggle and not the product of scientific insight. I would not be the least bit suprised if he were to fully embrace Catholism in the future.

  3. Our elder son is a printer for the Knights of Columbus here in New Haven, CT. She went out of her way to thank the people that worked to create the stuff that she needed. The printing facility is across a six-lane roadway from the big tower that the Supreme Knight and his crew reside.

  4. To those that are interested in morbid pathology (especially Hichens mindFPUAN), read a fine book by Martin Amis -
    "KOBA the DREAD (Laughter and the 20 Million" If you don't hurl at least twice you are not sane.

  5. We need more public intellectuls. I think Hitchens qualifies. He was recently thrashed in a debate with Dinesh D'souza and an honest contemplation of those arguments could turn his mind-they do after all, desire truth.