In the 1950s, Monsignor Alfred Schneider, who was director of Catholic Relief Services’ work in India, kept hearing about a nun working in the slums of Calcutta. Father Al, as he was known, was curious about this woman, who was also helping the poor.
One day, while visiting makeshift schools CRS supported there, he noticed children gathered around a nun, chatting cheerfully.
“I went over to find out who she was, and when she looked at me I knew. This had to be Mother Teresa,” Father Al wrote in his memoir My Brother’s Keeper. “Christ was in her face—in her shining eyes, in the lines of patience and laughter around her mouth, in the ineffable glow of love which surrounded her.”
So began the relationship between CRS, Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity that continues to this day, as it will on September 4, when I will be in Rome representing CRS for Mother Teresa’s canonization by Pope Francis.
The adjective Father Al chose—ineffable—means “too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.” On some level, he must have known he was meeting a saint.
At that time, Mother Teresa’s main work was her Home for the Dying. On those crowded streets, it was common for the sick to die unnoticed, their bodies nothing more than inconvenient obstacles on the crowded roadways.
Mother Teresa filled two empty warehouses with those sick and forgotten people. She and her volunteers—the beginnings of the Missionaries of Charity—carried them there in their arms. Though medical treatment was provided, most still died. But they died with dignity.
Father Al arranged funding so Mother Teresa could purchase an ambulance. He also wrote about her work in the journal of the National Council of Catholic Women, some of the first publicity she received. That group invited her to speak at its 1960 convention—in Las Vegas, of all places.
There, she spoke about expanding her mission to help lepers, 3,800 at that time, by taking them to clinics in what she called a “mobile clinic.”
“The ambulance was donated by Catholic Relief Services and it has been working for the last 5 years,” she said. “That ambulance is used for everything, [from] carrying the dead and living, to carry[ing] medicines and the sisters and everybody else.”
It was Mother Teresa’s first visit to the United States. Contributions flowed in.
When Father Al first met Mother Teresa, he was surprised to find that CRS was already contributing food for her work with the dying. We have continued to support and work with her Missionaries of Charity in the decades since, all around the world, in our joint commitment to helping the poor.
In his book, Father Al described horrific conditions in the Home for the Dying he first visited. “It was the most depressing place I ever saw in the world,” he wrote. “I was appalled by the suffering and awed by the dedication of this woman to alleviate as much of it as she could.”
Today if you visit a Missionaries of Charity facility, you will not find what Father Al saw 60 years ago. But neither will you find a luxurious health spa. The medical conditions are still challenging. The need can seem overwhelming. The funding is stretched to help as many as possible.
And you will find that serenity Father Al wrote about, the serenity that comes from dignity, from treating people with care and compassion. There is no hopelessness, there is only love.
As Mother Teresa told Father Al, “I give what I have. If I have money, I use it, but if not, I can still give of myself. I can give love and concern and that is what people need most.”
Four decades after Father Al met Mother Teresa, she had become an international celebrity, a Nobel Prize winner. But her relationship with CRS remained strong and on a visit to the United States, she altered her carefully worked-out schedule to visit our Baltimore headquarters, personally greeting every staff member.
Still framed on our wall is the handwritten message she left us that day in 1996: “I thank you for all the love you have given me to give to the poorest of the poor. Please pray for us as we do daily for you in Catholic Relief Services.”
That message is an inspiration to me every day I walk by it, just as Mother Teresa is a reminder to us all to do our part to love the people God entrusts to us.
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
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