An encounter with Mother Teresa 

from ecstasy to idiocy!

In 1981, I travelled to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Mercy. I had won a Travel Scholarship and the prize money had to be spent visiting a community project of my own choosing anywhere in the world. I chose to work in a number of Calcutta projects: in Khalighat, the hostel for the dying; in the orphanage, in mental health settings and provision of shelter for people with profound learning difficulties. I also spent a day in Titagarh, one of the leprosy rehabilitation centres far away from the capital.

Fascinating and deeply humbling as all these experiences were, I often wished that I would have the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa. But I was conscious of the fact that everyone wanted to meet Mother Teresa; not just tourists, journalists and politicians, but Kings and Queens, Emperors, Presidents and Prime Ministers…all wanted to meet her, wanted to invite her to their countries and constituencies, to be seen in her company, to be photographed alongside her…she was potentially political gold dust in any country with a sizeable Catholic population, including the UK.

So, how could a volunteer worker like me, get the opportunity to meet her in her adopted home?

‘It’s very simple, Kieran’, said Sister Manghola, in the tiny chapel on the third floor of the Administrative Block on Lower Circular Road, which was at the heart of Mother Teresa’s many enterprises, and also served as the Novitiate House for the training of her Order. ‘Come here any morning for 5.30am mass’, she said; ‘When mass is over, just wait at the back of the chapel along with other members of the congregation. Mother Teresa will speak to each of you.’

‘As simple as that?’

‘As simple as that’, she repeated, smiling broadly.

I hardly slept that night, and had some difficulty explaining to my Hindu hosts, Mr and Mrs Ganguly, why I needed to get up at 4.30 in the morning. I lived with them quite a distance from the chapel.

I left Jodhpur district at 5.0am, calculating that I could cycle the distance to the chapel within 30 minutes. On previous day-time cycle rides around the city the sight of nearly a million street-dwellers living under their jute sacks and plastic sheeting had often overwhelmed me; without sanitation and electricity and constantly deafened by the bumper to bumper, ceaselessly horn-blowing traffic spewing out poisonous exhaust fumes, it made me think Calcutta truly was hell-upon-earth.

But on this morning, the contrast could not have been greater: there was no traffic; there was no noise, no hustle and bustle, no people visible other than nearly a million Calcutta inhabitants asleep on mile after mile of pavements: motionless, seemingly lifeless, their bodies eerily blurred by the rising, cleansing dawn mist. I could only think this scene resembled the aftermath of a Napoleonic battle: they really did look like corpses, but without the wailing and whimpering of the dying.

On the third floor of the headquarters building, just outside the chapel door, I removed my trainers and socks. It was a custom I was getting used to living with the Gangulys. How civilized! How hygienic! How commonsensical! How practical! The chapel floor tiles, assiduously scrubbed and polished each day, remained pristine.

At precisely 5.30am, Mother Teresa and about twelve of her Sisters of Mercy, including Sister Manghola, entered from a side door of the chapel. The sisters’ shining white saris with the iconic blue borders rustled and swayed as they passed the small congregation. They knelt behind Mother Teresa and all bowed their heads reverently.

Father Banerjee, parish priest (and the only priest) of a Catholic church further along Lower Circular Road, officiated. The mass concluded in just over an hour, during which my concentration level was zilch! I was too mesmerized by Mother Teresa, physically and emotionally affected in being so close to her, and having no doubt whatsoever as I watched her pray, that I was in the presence of a saint (nearly forty years before she was canonized!).

The Sisters left quietly. Mother Teresa chatted to Father Banerjee for a few moments. Then she turned to the small group of attendees (including myself) who were standing, as instructed, at the back of the chapel. I was fifth in line.

As the queue dwindled, I got anxious. I wasn’t there merely to meet Mother Teresa and converse with her: I had another purpose, and I was anticipating the possibility that she might be very angry when she learnt about it. I had a Dictaphone in my pocket. I intended asking her would she record a message to my mother in Ireland. For any Catholic mother in any part of Ireland, this would be an especially treasured recording. But would Mother Teresa do it? How would she react to me springing this request upon her?

At the age of seventy-one, Mother Teresa was tiny and slightly stooped, but her wrinkled face was full of vitality. Her brown eyes were radiant but with a glint of steel. Her smile was warm and infectious. Her voice was strong and resonant.

I introduced myself, briefly telling her about my job and the reason I was there. Then we talked about the various social and community enterprises in which she and her Order and the many volunteers engaged. I don’t know whether it was recklessness or anxiety that made me ask her does she not sometimes feel that the sum product of these commendable efforts was merely a drop in the ocean given the scale of wretchedness and poverty that existed in Calcutta.

She was no longer smiling. But she wasn’t looking at me angrily or dismissively. It was more a wearisome look, suggesting that this was a question that she was asked ad infinitum, and her answer was always the same: “But the ocean is made up of drops, Kieran.”

If I had been feeling anxious at the outset, I was feeling much more so now. It was the wrong question at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. I sensed that I had blown it! But I still had to make my request. I rabbited on about matters that I was not, at the time, particularly interested in, and eventually I plucked up the courage to say to her in a distinctly nervy voice:  

‘Mother Teresa, I’ve brought a small recorder…would you mind giving a short message to my mother in Ireland?’

This could have sounded as opportunistic as it undoubtedly was, and I was prepared for the worst. Would she tell me to get lost! Would she shout: ‘You hypocrite!’ Would she just ignore me and summon the person standing in the queue behind me?

She said none of those things. She smiled and said ‘Of course. What is your mother’s name?’

‘Agnes’, I said, switching the recorder on and holding it close to her face. She paused for a few seconds, took a deep breath and commenced, ‘Dear Agnes… This is Mother Teresa…in Calcutta, with your son, Kieran…’

The simple joyful message lasted no more than a minute. I gripped the recorder tightly, not just because I was afraid of dropping it from my trembling hand, but more so because I could feel her breath on my fingers. I can still remember that feeling more than forty years later.

I thanked her and she blessed me and I left hurriedly. I hurried onto the landing of the third floor and I hurried down the staircase, two and three steps at a time. I imagined the impact on my mother. She would be bowled over! She would listen to the recording at least a dozen times; she would play it to every neighbour, friend and relative. And she would treasure it for the rest of her life.

I was ecstatic! But I was also in pain. It was a very slight pain at first and it did nothing to dampen the ecstasy nor distract me from the joyful and happy thoughts sustaining it.

By the time I got to the ground floor and stepped outside, the pain had increased substantially. It was an acute pain stretching from my toes to my knees. Now I was wholly conscious of the pain and the ecstasy had gone. Each step I took on the dry and dusty Calcutta pavement, I grimaced. Then I looked down and I could not believe my eyes. My feet were bare. I had forgotten my socks and trainers left outside the chapel door!