At the Doorstep of Mother Teresa’s First Love

Caroline Brennan, CRS’ regional information officer for South Asia, recently visited the Nirmal Hriday home of the Missionaries of Charity, located in Kolkata. As we honor the memory of Mother Teresa, here is her report:

At a crowded intersection in one of the poorest cities in the world, Mother Teresa’s arms are outstretched. This month, the world pays proper tribute to one of the past century’s most inspiring humanitarians, leaders and activists. But the people of Kolkata, India, where Mother Teresa founded her Missionaries of Charity, live with her presence on their streets and in their slums every day. To them, she’s still very much a mother figure.

The entrance to Nirmal Hriday, where those with nowhere left to turn come for love and support. Photo by Karl Grobl for CRS

It was in the Kalighat district of the city that Mother Teresa built her first Missionaries of Charity home, Nirmal Hriday (or “Holy Heart”), for the most destitute of Kolkata — those whose safety nets, immune systems or emotional endurance had all but failed them.

“This home was Mother’s first love. She first started her work here and she always wanted to look after the dying,” says Sister Glenda, Nirmal Hriday’s sister superior.

When I visited this “first love” of Mother Teresa, three people, including a man with no legs, were resting on its doorstep. On any given day, a few more people find their way to these steps of what is officially known as Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying Destitutes. They suffer from AIDS, leprosy, malnutrition, cancer or unidentified illnesses that leave them too weak to go it alone. The histories that lead them here are varied, but their needs are the same: medical and emotional care, a hope that they might see this trial through, or a place to rest with dignity in their final hour.

Refuge Against the Odds

Sister Glenda in the men’s ward at Nirmal Hriday. Photo by Karl Grobl for CRS

Despite the name, people here have an increasing number of survival stories. An estimated 70 percent of patients become healthy enough to leave the home. Last year, of the 1,200 patients admitted, 762 left in good condition.

“A majority of our patients suffer from malnutrition. Before they come, the people have nothing to eat. Nothing,” says Sister Glenda.

CRS supports this home, and all of those run by the Missionaries of Charity in India, with supplies of bulgur wheat and oil. These make up the daily meals of tens of thousands of patients, students, children and other beneficiaries at Missionaries of Charity. It is an extension of a deep partnership that began in 1951 and has expanded without interruption to Missionaries of Charity homes throughout the world.

What stands out in all of these homes — from the very first to those being built in different countries today — is the homes’ simplicity. They have the most basic amenities and are located literally in the poorest areas on our planet, but they have a simple mission, too: to care and to love.

Here at Nirmal Hriday, two large wards separated according to gender are filled with rows of hundreds of single cots. It feels like a military hospital in the middle of a war zone, compounded by the sense that every person lying in one of these beds is fighting a battle of his or her own. You want to hold their hands and fight off their enemies, and are grateful that Sister Glenda and her team of nurses take this on for all of us. Yet, even with the survival of so many, the loss of patients takes an emotional toll.

“Every day we have dying cases. People come with sicknesses for which they are not able to get treatment. They are coming and dying, just entering the house dying,” says Sister Glenda.

Simple Grace

Caroline shares a moment with Pailash, who lived on the streets until the age of 13 before being taken in by the Missionaries of Charity. Photo by Karl Grobl for CRS

Sister Glenda took me into the cold mortuary in the back of the home, where a small body lay on the table wrapped in a white cotton sheet. Sister Glenda took a quiet moment to unwrap and rewrap the body of Pabdhi, who was brought to the home the night before from a Missionaries of Charity orphanage for children with special needs. Pabdhi was 14 years old. The causes of her death are unknown, though Sister Glenda indicates they were related to her asthma.

“When I saw Pabdhi, I knew she was in trouble,” says another sister superior, Paula Marie, who worked closely with Pabdhi at the orphanage. “At 7:15 in the evening, I said a prayer to my Mercy. One hour later, she was gone and that was it. But she still had light in her eyes. After Mass that night, there was no light anymore.”

Young Pabdhi had died at the orphanage school, but was taken to Sister Glenda at Nirmal Hriday.

“Every Missionaries of Charity house has a mortuary, but not every house mortuary has air conditioning, you see,” explains Sister Glenda.

She covers Pabdhi’s blanket with a wreath of fresh flowers. Above Pabdhi on the wall is a stitched sign that reads, “I am on my way to heaven.”

Sister Glenda then returns to the hundreds in her wards — some of whom may leave one day in better health, some of whom she may wrap as she did Pabdhi — and engages them in conversation, smiling, inquiring about their well-being.

You get a sense that this is how it was when Mother Teresa first opened the doors of the house, sitting on these cots, comforting people who search for strength for each breath. You get the feeling that, in fact, she’s still here, sitting at the corner of someone’s bed, resting next to their pillow, stroking their hair and taking on their individual fight as her own.

Despite the odds against those who would be considered the most destitute of our world, Mother Teresa provided them refuge. In her extended home around the world, they are not defined by disease or class; no stigma is here to chase them, no debt to overwhelm them, no curse to punish them. They have come home to a place where they may gather their strength, fight to overcome the odds or peacefully let go the weight of their pain.

“Mother’s blessing is here — really, it is overflowing,” says Sister Glenda. “We have no problem. Mother said when she was dying, ‘I will help you more when I am with Jesus.’ We only depend on God … and God gives us the grace for everyone.”

Caroline Brennan is South Asia regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. She has reported on CRS activities for the Pakistan earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Darfur crisis, and postwar development in Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan, among others. Caroline is based in New Delhi, India.

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3 Responses to “At the Doorstep of Mother Teresa’s First Love”

  1. Helen Rankin Says:

    Dear Caroline, I am not sure if I should be writing to you or to someone else but my instincts tell me to start with you.My name is Helen, I am sixty years young and as a special long awaited Birthday present my husband surprised me with trip to Kolkata India in January 2009. I have been a nurse all my life and have most recently been ordained as an interfaith chaplain. My hearts desire is to follow my heroes’ footsteps who is Mother Teresa of course, and serve in her home for the dying at Nirmal Rhiday. I am sure you probably get requests all the time and perhaps are overwhelmed by them and I will certainly understand if this is not feasable but please know that this has been a very impassioned desire of mine for a very long time.I studied all about mother Teresa as I studied about earth chaplains and those that leave the world a little better place for having been here during my first year in the chaplaincy program. I also have met with people that have known mother personally like Susan Conroy from South Portland Maine USA. Who served with mother when she was still in college. Anyway, I have been serving in a hospice house for over two years and have been in a hospice program for over four as a volunteer.I would be willing to do anything that was needed to serve. Blessings to you and all those that care so much for these dear souls that suffer so much. With joy in hopes of meeting you…sincerely, Helen Campbell Rankin

  2. ingrid Says:

    Hi, I am doing a project about Mother Teresa. This website helped me a lot! I think you shoud keep publishing about people’s lives. Thank you for helping my project.

  3. John Lindner Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Ingrid.

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