Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be staying at Mother Teresa’s homeless shelters. And not just once, but twice. Truth be told, I have endured times of poverty, but my days spent in the shelters were not during those times, and they were in two different parts of the world.
The first time was in Harlem, New York about 30 years ago, when it was very dangerous to be on the streets of that barbed-wire jungle. The second time was just a few years ago in Rome, Italy.
Allow me to back up a bit in order to tell the story about meeting my spiritual mother, whom others knew as the Saint of the Gutters, or simply as Mother Teresa. Almost 30 years ago, I first laid eyes on the little saint of the poor, dressed in a simple white cotton sari trimmed in Blessed Mother blue. I caught my first glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye, when she walked right past me quietly in her bare feet just before Mass was about to begin at the Missionaries of Charity convent in Washington, DC.
I was visiting the nation’s capital because my spiritual director, Father John A. Hardon, SJ, had asked me to bring my family to see him for a face-to-face meeting. After our time with him, at Father’s encouragement, we set out to visit the sick and dying in the “Gift of Peace” home at the convent. We had a very meaningful visit, observing the great love and tenderness shown to the poor and suffering living in the home, at which there was a clear and beautiful aura of holiness. The MC sisters invited us to return the following day for a private Mass in their chapel. I was honored to be invited, but imagine my excitement when one sister informed me that Mother Teresa would be at one of their two Masses the next day; she didn’t know which one. My heart secretly soared hearing that Mother Teresa was there at the convent. Still, as much as I had always admired her for her selfless work with the poor and had considered her to be a living saint, I didn’t want to take up her time if we happened to see her the following day.
Early the next morning, we arrived at the convent’s chapel and I spotted several pairs of sandals lined up outside the door, which prompted us to take off our shoes before entering. Once inside, one of the first things I noticed was actually a lack of things. The chapel was very stark, yet so very meaningful. The few items there—an altar, a tabernacle, a crucifix, a statue of the Blessed Mother, and the words, “I Thirst” painted on the wall beside the tabernacle—drew my heart to what was most important. Those two words—“I thirst”—would echo in my heart for years after, and still do. I settled my children and we all knelt down to say our prayers before Mass.
Meeting the Saint of the Gutters
We had picked the right Mass, for Mother Teresa unexpectedly walked in. She seemed to float right past me. I needed to quickly direct my mind back to the Mass that was about to begin. Never mind the fact that a living saint was in our midst! I was kneeling down on the chapel’s bare floor with my husband and children, trying my best to prepare my heart for Mass, while still keeping an eye on my children: Justin, Chaldea, and Jessica. Mother Teresa’s presence certainly seemed to send a holy jolt up and down my spine!
Another surprise unfolded right after the Mass. As we were leaving the modest chapel, my children genuflected to Jesus in the tabernacle when unexpectedly a Missionaries of Charity nun came running up behind my six-year-old daughter Chaldea and gave her a hug. I surmised that the sweet sister must have been touched to see a little girl saying good bye to Jesus. Before I could finish my thought, I realized that it was none other than Mother Teresa! But, as quickly as she came into the picture, she was heading out of the room in another direction. The door closed behind her. I was so overcome with gratefulness after witnessing a living saint hug my child—but there was more to come.
As we were standing in a huddle in the convent’s foyer, the door opened across the way and this time Mother Teresa didn’t walk past me—she began to walk straight towards me. I was holding my little precocious one-and-a-half-year-old Jessica in my arms so that she couldn’t get into trouble or run around the convent. Then Mother Teresa was standing directly in front of us. She asked me a question…