September 9, 2016

Mother Teresa remembered for her holiness by local people who met her

(Editor’s note: In celebration of Mother Teresa’s canonization on Sept. 4, The Criterion is sharing stories from people who have met her and/or been inspired by her to serve people in need.)

By John Shaughnessy

When Dr. Chuck Dietzen went to visit Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1997, he brought a tape recorder with him, hoping to capture her wisdom and her voice for posterity.

“I wanted to turn on the recorder,” he says. “I wish I had.”

Instead, he has never forgotten the advice that she gave everyone in his group about how important it is to give hope and comfort to patients.

“She said, ‘No matter what you’re confronted with, never abandon your patients. Stay there. Be their hope. Let them know someone cares. Despite possible harm to yourself, remain there as a symbol of hope for them.’ ”

Dietzen continues to follow that approach as a pediatric rehabilitation doctor at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

“As Mother said, ‘We are all here to become saints. We all have a sacred goal to fulfill,’ ” says Dietzen, a member of St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in Zionsville, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

“She set the example we all could follow—that all of us ordinary people were created to do something extraordinary.”

‘What do you say to a living saint?’

With a laugh, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin recalled the time when “a living saint”—Mother Teresa—became angry with him.

It happened during his time as a pastor in Detroit, a time when he was also the chaplain for the sisters of the Missionaries of Charities—the order Mother Teresa had established—who were helping homeless women and children in that Michigan city.

“They needed a home,” the archbishop recalled. “Mother Teresa was nobody’s fool. She came to the city knowing there would be a fair amount of publicity, a Mass and probably a collection. The sisters invited me to come to the Mass, and I was happy to concelebrate. Everyone who was anyone was there. So after Mass, I gave up any hope of speaking with her.”

Yet his time came the next day when he received a phone call at the rectory, shortly after he had returned from fixing a toilet for a parish member who was blind. He was still in his coveralls when one of the sisters from India phoned, telling him Mother Teresa wanted to meet with him.

The archbishop remembered responding, “You tell Mother I’m going to get cleaned up and put on my cassock, and I’ll be right over.” The sister got back on the phone and said, “Mother says to come now.”

So he did, still in his coveralls.

“What do you say to a living saint?” the archbishop said with a smile. “I was the pastor of a poor parish in the inner city so I asked her a pastor’s question, ‘Mother, how did you do in the collection last night?’ She looked at me with a big smile. She said, ‘You know, Father, I knew before the Mass how much money I needed. I got exactly that amount. I didn’t get 10 cents more or 10 cents less.’

“My jaw dropped. I said, ‘Wow, Mother, that’s really something.’ She got angry. Isn’t that great? A living saint gets angry with you. She said, ‘No, Father, that’s not something. God never gives me too much—for fear that I’ll forget him. I get just what I need.’ ”

A day to remember

Thirty-four years have passed, but Mary O’Brien still vividly remembers the day she had the honor of serving as Mother Teresa’s hostess for a day.

It was back in 1982 when Mother Teresa arrived in Cincinnati to be the keynote speaker at a celebration of the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi. As a member of the celebration committee, O’Brien had the privilege of picking up Mother Teresa at the airport.

“We took Mother through some of the poor sections of Cincinnati so she could see them,” O’Brien recalls. “At the time, I was a principal of St. Joseph School, an inner-city school in Cincinnati. When I saw all that Mother did, I couldn’t help but be inspired by her example. I served in the inner city for a long time. It’s always been dear to my heart to work with the poor.”

Before the celebration, Mother Teresa spoke at a press conference, where one of the reporters asked, “Do you think you will be a saint some day?”

“She said, ‘I’ll have to die first,’ ” O’Brien recalls. “She had a sense of humor.”

At a Mass that day, O’Brien presented Mother Teresa with a San Damiano crucifix. After the liturgy, Mother Teresa spoke “for nearly 20 minutes on the dignity of the poor, the rights of the unborn and the poverty of St. Francis,” according to O’Brien. When the celebration ended, she drove Mother Teresa back to the airport.

“The entire day was such a privilege for me,” says O’Brien, now a member of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis. “I found Mother to be very humble and prayerful. She also was very accommodating, and very easy to talk to. Mother Teresa died on my birthday, Sept. 5.”

O’Brien turned 81 on Sept. 5. She still serves as the volunteer coordinator of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. She’s still inspired by Mother Teresa.

“She lived the Gospel values to the highest form. I am so happy we can now call her St. Mother Teresa.”

‘What it was like to meet Jesus’

Dr. Joseph Bergeron of Indianapolis wasn’t Catholic and he didn’t know much about Catholicism at the time, but a film about Mother Teresa’s life intrigued him so much that he decided to try to meet her when he traveled to India in 1989.

“I knocked on the door, and I asked if I could meet her,” he recalls. “She had an abrasion on her forehead. She had fallen. She sat on the cement bench with me and talked with me for about 15 minutes. We talked about her work, and how much I admired her. She took my hand and prayed for me. I prayed for her, too.

“In talking to her, I had the feeling that this must have been what it was like to meet Jesus. It was a religious experience, if you will. As a non-Catholic having that experience, I came away with a deep respect for the Catholic faith.”

The impact of that meeting has shaped Bergeron’s personal life and medical career, even leading the member of the Protestant faith to join the Catholic Medical Association.

“I’m also a member of the Protestant one. I joined both because there’s very little of an ethical voice in health care. We need somebody to say that abortion is wrong and euthanasia is wrong. We need to stand up for both.”

‘Thank you, Mother Teresa’

Mother Teresa’s example of “changing directions” has moved Norb Schott both emotionally and spiritually.

“She had a comfortable life teaching in the school of the Sisters of Loreto,” says Schott, about Mother Teresa’s early religious life. “On a train ride to a retreat, she saw the poor of Calcutta through the train window. She was moved by the Holy Spirit to change her direction.

“She left her comfort and donned the simple clothing of the women in India and went to the streets. That’s a real new direction in ordinary life—not just talking about caring for the poor, but doing it.”

Schott has been inspired by Mother Teresa’s change of direction as he has tried to deal with the loss of his wife two years ago. A retired nurse, he has found a new ministry in visiting residents of a nursing home.

“When I go to visit, the nurse in me wants to do for all the patients. Now, I just hug some, put my arm around them, look them in the eyes and say a good word. I don’t focus on the nursing,” says Schott, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle.

“A lady I visit at the nursing home, Pat, is many times sleepy and not aware of much around her. The nurse in me wants to draw blood and check her blood count. Instead, I play bingo with the patients, cover Pat’s numbers when she does not because she nods off, and treat her as my friend. Many times I say, ‘Why visit? She’ll be asleep.’ But she’s a member of the parish, and it’s good for me to reach out. I take her holy Communion.”

Schott thinks we should all follow Mother Teresa’s example.

“Thank you, Mother Teresa, for inspiring our hearts. May we be open to new ways.” †


Related story: Mass honoring canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta recalls her ‘shining example’

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