Calcutta, Nightingale of slums and mother of the downtrodden and the abandoned, was officially declared by the Church a saint. She was acclaimed and admired by the whole world as a saint even during her life. The former chief Election Commissioner Mr. Naveen Chawla, who had visited Mother Teresa several times and had written her biography, wrote: “An unusual divine light shone on her from her childhood till her death. Because of the goodness and mercy manifest in her life Mother Teresa was a saint for millions of people all over the world during her lifetime itself”. Even today she spreads the fragrance of her love and mercy everywhere.
September 10, 1946. Sr. Teresa was on her way to Darjeeling for her annual retreat. Her train moved slowly spiralling the curly mountains and beautiful hills. In spite of the enticing sceneries of the endless hills and valleys, the heart renting in her mind. As she was immersed in prayer she sensed a call within. She felt that someone was calling her by name and asking her to go out of her Convent, live among the poorest of the poor and work for their uplift. She felt that Jesus was urging her to serve the poor and the dying, the abandoned and marginalized slum dwellers of Calcutta. For her it was a call within a call.
She felt that God was asking her to do something which was practically very difficult. However, she said to herself that it was an order that cannot be refused. This thought haunted her throughout the retreat. She was overwhelmed by a strong desire to quench the thirst of Jesus on the cross for love and souls.
Sr. Teresa took refuge in prayer with the firm conviction that, if it was the will of God, He would surely show the way to work it out. She spoke to the Church authorities about this idea.
Some of them discouraged her. Nevertheless she sent an application to Rome through the Archbishop of Calcutta. To the surprise of all, within months she received a positive reply from the Vatican. She was given the extraordinary permission to live outside the convent observing her three vows and work for the uplift of the poor, destitute and abandoned slum and street dwellers.
Sr. Teresa set out into the slums with empty hands. In consequence of the famine of 1944 and the Hindu-Muslim conflict of 1946 and the division of India, the streets of Calcutta were filled with lakhs of helpless refugees. At every nook and corner of Calcutta Sr. Teresa confronted suffering and death. Once she took a dying man from the street to a Government hospital. But the hospital authorities refused to admit him. They were reluctant to spare a bed for a man who was about to die. They changed their mind only when Sr. Teresa sat on Dharna in front of the hospital. The man died within hours. It was then that she began to search for a place where she could take care of the sick and the dying who could not otherwise get admitted in the hospital. Her intention was to give such unwanted patients a chance to be nursed and cared properly and to die with human dignity. She approached several civil authorities with this request. At the end an official of the Calcutta Municipality gave her a disorderly and abandoned inn close to the Kalighat Temple. Here she opened the first home for the dying named ‘Nirmal Hriday’.
She requested the Police and civil authorities to deliver into this centre the sick and the dying who were rejected by the hospitals and who were found on the streets. Here she created for them conditions conducive to die in peace with human dignity receiving necessary nursing care and human love. She said that the patients at ‘Nirmal Hriday’ had a beautiful death.
There were at that time in Calcutta more than 30,000 leprosy patients without shelter, who lived on the streets. Sr. Teresa opened a clinic with the name ‘Santhinagar’ for these marginalized lepers left for their own fate. She started also a home called ‘Nirmala Sisubhavan’ for the children abandoned in the streets.
The words of Jesus, “When you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40), moved her to sacrifice herself for the poor. She saw the face of the suffering Christ in the patients whom she cared for. She did not reject anyone on the basis of cast and creed. Nor did she prompt anyone to change his religion. For the people of all religions she was a mother of mercy and an angel sent by God.
She imparted the merciful love of Jesus to all. To serve without desiring anything in return and to give until it hurts was her motto. This movement of selfless service for the poorest of the poor she started with bare hands spread quickly over the whole world and became an international organization of mercy. By the time Mother Teresa died in 1997, the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity she founded had a membership of more than 4000 professed Sisters caring for the marginalized and abandoned in more than 500 service centres in 132 countries.
Mother Teresa, who was criticised by her opponents and revered as a living saint and angel of mercy by the common people all over the world, was an ordinary woman. As a woman who led a most marvelous and extraordinary life in the 20th century, she became the object of great admiration and veneration over the whole world. Her deep faith and constant prayer were the source of her strength. As the widow of the Gospel (Mk. 12: 41- 44) she gave everything until it hurt. And she encouraged everyone to do so. Here we perceive the beauty of her holiness. She is the face of God’s merciful love and peace. The fact that she upheld before the world the inestimable worth, dignity and greatness of every human person through her life and works of mercy and manifested her love and respect for even the least member of the human society, is what distinguishes her from all others. She used to say: “All cannot do great things, but all can do small things with great love”. That is what she did. That is how she became worthy of admiration of the whole world, the mother of the poor.
Fr. James Mundackal CST