Mother Teresa during her 1985 visit to Canada. Teresa of Calcutta becomes a saint on Sept. 4. Photo by Carl Scarff

Mother Teresa: A saint’s legacy transformed a city, its people

  • September 3, 2016

Mother Teresa isn’t a saint because she ran a good clinic or organized an effective religious order or articulated novel theological insights. She becomes St. Teresa of Calcutta on Sept. 4 because she broke into our lives and stole our hearts.

It’s no accident Mother Teresa is being canonized during Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, said Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian Missionary of Charity who has guided the sainthood process for Mother Teresa.

“As divine providence would have it, this is the year. For Pope Francis and the organizers of the Jubilee of Mercy, that was one of the things they wanted to happen during this jubilee year,” Kolodiejchuk told The Catholic Register.

The University of St. Michael’s theology graduate is fully aware of how unique the Sept. 4 canonization will be. It isn’t just that St. John Paul II in 1997 — the year Mother Teresa died — waived the usual five-year waiting period before a sainthood cause could be launched. It is that Mother Teresa doesn’t belong exclusively to Catholics or to India or to Albanians.

“Since St. Francis of Assisi, there is no one who had such echoes outside the Church,” Kolodiejchuk said. “Of course there are other great saints. But the ones who had such universal appeal are St. Francis and Mother Teresa.”

The advantage of quick action on Mother Teresa’s cause for sainthood has been that it has been one of the best and most thoroughly documented ever. The official case for her canonization includes 17 volumes of transcribed oral testimony from people who knew or met Mother Teresa and a total of roughly 35,000 pages of documentation.

Kolodiejchuk dismisses the criticism that Mother Teresa was either willfully blind or naive in promoting a response to the poor that seemed to ignore the root causes of poverty.

“Her call is immediate and effective help to the poorest of the poor,” he said. “So the people on the street today who need help. The people who are hungry today. It is also the social teaching of the Church that we need to change the structures, the social structures, to get at the roots of poverty. Mother Teresa would agree with all of that... But her specific vocation was very clear to her that while other people — that’s their call — are working on the causes and changing the structures, my call is to help the person who needs to eat today. Because, otherwise they would be hungry.”

In Toronto, Mother Teresa’s sisters transpose that same logic to befriending the lonely, because otherwise they would be abandoned.

“We need to speak. We need to go out. The people are lonely, they are unloved, they need human attention. They need people to listen. They need care as well,” said Kolodiejchuk.

When Mother Teresa came to Toronto, it wasn’t because anyone asked for her or even thought this rich, developed city needed the kind of mercy Mother Teresa and her sisters offered. Her 1985 visit was a shock to the system for Fr. Massey Lombardi, then in charge of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s office for justice and peace.

“I’m sitting in my office one day and Cardinal (Gerald Emmett) Carter calls me. He says, ‘Massey, you want to come upstairs?’ I think, ‘Oh Geez, what did I do now?’ ” recalled Lombardi.

Carter told Lombardi the world-famous Mother Teresa was coming and it would be his job to show her around Toronto.

“I said, ‘What does she want to do?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What can she do?’ He said, ‘I don’t know that either.’ ”

In the 1980s deinstitutionalization of mental health patients across Ontario had reached a critical point. By 1985 former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital patients were living in unregulated boarding houses all over Parkdale on the western edge of downtown Toronto, or in many cases on the street.

Lombardi introduced Mother Teresa to a social worker active in Parkdale. Within a year there were four Missionaries of Charity resident in the Toronto neighbourhood. Sr. Bernice first came to the Missionaries of Charity’s Dunn Avenue house in 1987 and saw precisely why Mother Teresa wanted to be there. The outpatients were living isolated, lonely lives punctuated by only occasional visits to a clinic to pick up medication.

“These were the leftovers in society,” said Sr. Bernice.

The sisters are still there for the poor of Parkdale, particularly the mental health system survivors. They don’t try to reproduce the work of doctors and psychiatrists responsible for medical care, or solve the systemic problems of poor people barely hanging on as Toronto’s hot real estate market transforms their neighbourhood. The Missionaries of Charity believe poor people simply need a friend.

“These people are still living here, hoping that they won’t be pushed out. Because if they’re pushed out they have nowhere to go,” said Sr. Bernice. “Our charism is to satiate the thirst of Jesus. That’s the thing, to satiate the thirst of Jesus.”

The poor, particularly the poorest of the poor, is where Mother Teresa’s sisters find Jesus’ cry of thirst from the cross still with us today.

“When you come into our chapel you see, ‘I thirst.’ What that means is, she saw Jesus thirsting for these people,” Sr. Bernice said.

Also in 1985, Toronto’s Catholic school system decided to name a high school after Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School opened to Grade 9 students in the Scarborough neighbourhood of Malvern in the fall of 1985.

Loretto Sisters educational liaison Sr. Jane Dunbar was part of the hand-picked teaching staff who launched the school.

“It’s a poor neighbourhood. I would say the name really suits the neighbourhood. These poor people — they’re all, as far as I can tell, immigrants. And they’re struggling, I mean struggling,” Dunbar said. “We tried to promote what she was doing to help the poor people.”

Dunbar and her colleagues wanted Mother Teresa’s spirituality woven into the culture of their new school. They did it with a one-line prayer students and staff said every morning.

“We said, ‘Mother Teresa, we pray for your works of charity.’ We still say it every day.”

Tess O’Mara and Dr. Maria Wolff spent a few of months in Calcutta in 2002 — five years after Mother Teresa’s death — living, praying and working with the Missionaries of Charity. They came away different people.

“I had a great job — it paid well. It was a good, career-type job,” recalled O’Mara. “I went to India with Maria and I really think it changed my life then. After that, I decided I wanted to do something different.”

O’Mara spent her sojourn in India clipping toenails, combing hair and feeding people in the home for the dying. She would go from the home for the dying to playing with abandoned, disabled boys in another Missionaries of Charity home. She swept floors, emptied bed pans, sang lullabies. She saw, heard, smelled and tasted poverty.

“That was the impetus for me to decide to go into international development,” said O’Mara.

Wolff was a third-year medical student. That spring in Calcutta she lived with the usual horde of volunteers whom Mother Teresa has attracted to the Indian city since the early 1980s. Today an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine and staff endocrinologist at St. Michael’s Hospital, Wolff learned about frustration, helplessness and the power of ordinary human kindness.

“Seeing what the sisters did with so little, and yet they did so much. In North America we are really keen to give — we have so much. You write prescriptions, you write recommendations for things. But we don’t really give ourselves,” said Wolff.

“The sisters... gave themselves. That seemed more healing than all of the prescriptions that a doctor could write.”

Wolff came to appreciate Mother Teresa’s dedication to small, human acts of kindness wasn’t a special formula for the poor in the underdeveloped countries of the world.

“The more lasting legacy was that she said (to hundreds of volunteers) ‘OK, now go home and do this.’ That in a sense was harder, because it lacks the romanticism of being away and the extremes there… (Mother Teresa said) ‘Poverty in North America is the loneliness. Now go find the poor in your own homes and in your own families.’ That was actually the most startling legacy and one that I’m continually trying to live.”

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