St. Teresa of Kolkata’s compassionate care for the poor, the sick and the abandoned of India’s slums brought her recognition the world over, though by her own account, she probably would have done without it, except for how it could benefit those she served.
She wasn’t seeking the world’s glory, that’s for sure. That’s why I could never understand those who quibbled with her methods, or thought that she and her Missionaries of Charity should have taken a more transformative approach to alleviating the poverty in their midst.
Quite simply, she was about walking the walk. On her earthly journey, she clearly saw the face of Jesus in those who often made others turn away because of disease, poverty or other hopeless circumstances.
It would be tempting to end the story of her sainthood right there, but I think you’d be missing an often-overlooked aspect of her sanctity. She knew how to ask important people in power for help to get what she needed.
In doing research for this column, I saw glimpses of that St. Teresa in CNY’s files from two or three decades ago, when she was a fairly regular presence in New York because of the work her Missionaries of Charity were accomplishing here in the archdiocese. I came across a New York Post column by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch from 1996, the year before her death.
Even the irrepressible Koch knew he had met his match in St. Teresa. “Mother Teresa gets her way with everyone, including Cardinal O’Connor,” Koch wrote. He was, of course, speaking of his good friend, the then-Archbishop of New York, John J. O’Connor.
“No one wants to be known as having refused the wishes of a saint,” said Koch, right on point, two decades before his statement became fact.
Also in that column, the mayor describes an invitation that he and Cardinal O’Connor received the very day that the Missionaries of Charity were opening Gift of Love, their AIDS hospice in Greenwich Village. “Be there at 5 p.m.,” Koch recalled her saying.
“The cardinal and I each had to cancel our prior engagements because neither one of us would have dared miss the occasion and risk upsetting her,” Koch admitted.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as a singular occurrence, but others I spoke with who were in a position to know, say it was not.
Msgr. Peter G. Finn, now the administrator of Blessed Sacrament parish on Staten Island and dean of Staten Island, was director of communications for the archdiocese from 1983 to 1989. During those years, he was in St. Teresa’s presence on several occasions.
“She was by reputation someone who got in the door wherever she went,” said Msgr. Finn, who cited the diminutive nun’s “determined” nature.
Years later, when Msgr. Finn was pastor of St. Joseph-St. Thomas parish on Staten Island, he was asked to concelebrate Mass when the Missionaries of Charity were receiving vows of new sisters at St. Rita of Cascia Church in the Bronx. He remembers bringing teenagers from his parish with him.
A highlight was the blessing of a future saint, dispensed in the sacristy, along with a Miraculous Medal. “It was a moving experience,” like each time Msgr. Finn met St. Teresa.
Msgr. J. Christopher Maloney, administrator of St. John the Baptist-Most Holy Trinity parish in Yonkers, was a priest secretary to Cardinal O’Connor from 1986 to 1988.
“The cardinal had a pretty strict schedule. It was difficult to fit things in, even if he wanted to,” Msgr. Maloney recalled.
However, when the doorbell at the Cardinal’s Residence rang and St. Teresa was standing outside on the steps, the schedule went out the window. “The cardinal dropped everything,” Msgr. Maloney said.
His personal exchanges with her were limited—“She usually came with a specific purpose, speaking to the cardinal,” he said—but he remembers that whomever St. Teresa was addressing had her undivided attention.
“They were the most important person in the world for her,” he said.
Those brief conversations convinced Msgr. Maloney he was in the presence of a saint, and he said he hoped he made a favorable impression on her. “You had the sense that this was someone who could read your soul,” he said.