Mother Teresa presents documents for a new house to a villager in 1994 in Mumbai. A new film on the sainted Mother Teresa will play at select theatres Nov. 2-3. CNS photo/Luciano Mellace, Reuters

New film explores Mother Teresa's legacy of caring

  • October 27, 2022

The future of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s Sisters, is more of the same — more hope, more love, more care and compassion launched into the gaping wound of destitution, despair and neglect visible in every city in the world. 

In advance of the early November Canadian theatrical release of Mother Teresa: No Greater Love, in the front room of her community’s house in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, Sr. Mary Bernice told The Catholic Register about continuing to live the legacy of St. Teresa 40 years after she first entered the Missionaries of Charity in New York City in 1982. Bernice is featured in the new documentary as one of the generation of Sisters who had direct contact with St. Teresa of Calcutta. Her memories of Mother are the bedrock of her religious calling.

“She was strong. She was firm. She was a tough cookie,” she tells the filmmakers in No Greater Love.

As an elder among younger women serving the poor in Parkdale, Bernice carries that same firmness of purpose she learned from Mother Teresa.

“We are the ones who are there for the poorest of the poor,” she said. “So there is a great need. I think not only the Church but the world is happy that we are there to fill in where they cannot fill in… I feel there is a promise of glory for the world, and that many vocations will come.”

Bernice understands that carrying on Mother Teresa’s legacy means directly confronting the horror of lives thrown away and despised by the majority.

“We’re seeing poor people, the poorest people, the drug addicts, the alcoholics who are left out in the street,” Bernice explained. “People don’t want to come near them. They say, ‘They did it to themselves.’ ”

In her lifetime, Mother Teresa brought the world’s attention to the dark underside of modern life. As she accepted the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, she told the powerful people gathered in Oslo, Norway — and the world via television, radio, newspapers and magazines — “I am most happy to receive it in the name of the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for.”

It was St. Teresa’s guiding instinct that the destitute and the rejected suffer from much more than being denied food, health care, housing and work.

“Hunger is not only for a piece of bread. It is also for love,” she said.

The film, which tells the story of St. Teresa’s life and the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, has been financed and promoted by the Knights of Columbus. It was written and directed by award-winning filmmaker David Naglieri, whose Catholic documentaries include Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism and Guadalupe: The Miracle and the Message. Commemorating the 25th anniversary of St. Teresa’s death, the movie has already played on screens across the U.S. and two days of movie-house showings are planned across Canada Nov. 2 and 3. 

The film encompasses most of the 20th century and some of its greatest tragedies. Born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Albania, in 1910, Mother Teresa’s life was soon engulfed in the Balkan war, leading directly into the First World War. She began her religious life in Ireland with the Loretto Sisters as the world was plunged into an unprecedented global economic depression. She soon found herself teaching the daughters of the elite in Calcutta as Bengal suffered an appalling famine — one exacerbated by Winston Churchill’s denial policy — which killed between 2.1 and 3.8 million people in 1943. 

The shy and pious habited sister saw people dying on the street then and she saw it again during appalling Hindu-Muslim riots in 1947. By 1948 she was ready to leave her religious community and begin walking the alleys and back streets of Calcutta in a 1-rupee sari with no plan other than to serve the poorest of the poor.

“Who could walk through a back alley in India?” Bernice asks the camera. “She had the seed of a deep, supernatural faith that allowed her to walk out into the streets with nothing.”

Bernice came to her calling from a life of struggle as a little black girl growing up in the ghetto in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Daddy couldn’t afford to pay the rent. So we were always trying to beat the rent man,” she explained.

She remembers early mornings when her father got the family up and took the children out before the sheriff would arrive, “because we didn’t want to be shamed in the street.”

But Bernice’s trajectory in life was different from her parents. By high school she was a leader, class president in Frederick Douglass High School. She went to Johns Hopkins University, among the elite of American private universities, to study psychology. By then she had left her Methodist church and went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults with the help of the Josephite Fathers. She nursed a vague calling to become a nun, but it was when she saw Mother Teresa featured on the cover of Time magazine that the calling rang clear as a bell.

Today, it’s not her calling but the calling of her entire community that trudges the back streets of the great cities of the world and worms its way into the lives of refugees caught in no-man’s land between nations.

“We have a calling. When Mother first started it she saw that. Those of us who are following that call also see that,” Bernice said. 

Photographer Michael Collopy, who produced some of the most memorable images of St. Teresa over years of photographing her, warns against the idea that Mother Teresa was only responding to far-off poverty in desperate, under-developed countries.

“She also felt that she had this mission in the West,” he said in the documentary. “She knew that there were individuals that were left on the street, unloved, uncared for, rejected by society, lonely. And she felt that that was the biggest disease of the West.”

Calcutta Archbishop Thomas D’Souza reminds the audience of St. Teresa’s particular kind of holiness.

“Her holiness did not keep her away from people. Rather, it brought her to the midst of people,” he said.

The film’s title is borrowed from Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1971 book about Mother Teresa — the book that made her a global celebrity and a living saint. But the documentary doesn’t avoid the difficult questions that arose when Mother Teresa’s private writings came to light after her death. Letters Mother Teresa wrote to Jesus as a spiritual exercise speak of a darkness, an inability to feel and know the presence of God — a darkness that lasted 50 years.

“I call. I cling. I want and there is no one to answer…” St. Teresa writes.

But her own spiritual struggles were never the point. She and the religious order she founded are there to respond to the darkness in other people’s lives.

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