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.
“Is this the baby who was singing at Mass?”
My heart was rejoicing. Mother Teresa was referring to Jessica’s little babbling which had caused me to tip-toe in and out of Mass several times so we wouldn’t disturb the others. My little daughter was a bit restless in the hot little room. You see, Mother Teresa made sure that the sisters lived just as the poor live, without creature comforts.
Mother Teresa’s question opened up a beautiful conversation about the family. She told me my children were very fortunate to have a family. The Saint of the Gutters was accustomed to picking babies up out of dustbins. Those little ones discarded by leper parents, perhaps, who could no longer care for them. I told her I was so blessed to have my children. At the time, I had three children on earth and three in heaven. We chatted for a long while and I felt as if I had known that tiny woman all my life. Mother Teresa radiated Jesus’s love and joy. It was transforming. Before she left to go back to her duties, my children and I gave her warm hugs. As Mother Teresa walked away, she turned to us and asked again for our prayers for the poor she served, as well as for herself.
Bunking with the homeless women at Mother Teresa’s shelter
In the moments after that amazing encounter with holiness I couldn’t fathom that anything else could ever top that experience. Yet, in God’s Divine providence, my life and ministry would unfold in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
It turns out that Mother Teresa and Father Hardon would keep my life interesting. I got a call from Father Hardon inviting me to spend a weekend in Harlem at the Missionaries of Charity convent. He would be giving a retreat to Mother Teresa and her sisters. How could I refuse? Though I was married and had three children (and one on the way that I was not yet aware of), I agreed to take a few days away from the family and partake in the activities of the sisters, to benefit from a holy retreat, as well as to serve hundreds of hungry guests in their soup kitchen. In order to make this happen, I was to sleep on a bunk bed in the women’s shelter among the many guests from all sorts of backgrounds.
I jumped at the chance. I’ll never forget being dropped off at the convent’s door and clutching my Rosary beads tightly in one hand as I pounded on the huge door with the other. I wanted to get off the Harlem streets as quickly as possible. The Missionaries of Charity sisters greeted me warmly. I was escorted to a little room and served a modest meal. Next, Father Hardon came to greet me.
“Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves,” was his gentle prodding for me to jump into action and help the sisters. I was eager to do just that. The long weekend was filled with grace and beauty. I observed the sisters in action and in prayer. I was involved in preparing food in their soup kitchen—making meals from food that had previously been discarded, a bit past expiration date or slightly bruised. I learned a great lesson from the sister who retrieved the pear I had tossed into the garbage, telling me that there was still one good part left on it. Ever since, I have become more cognizant about not wasting any food. Every good little bit can help to feed someone.
I’ll never forget looking into the eyes of the hungry guests we served, while heaping food upon their plates, knowing it might be their only meal that day. Some of them were sworn enemies coming together to break bread, enveloped in the prayer of the sisters. And those nights sleeping (or rather trying to sleep) on a bunk bed in the women’s shelter while others around me snored the nights away are etched in my memory.
Books born out of a precarious pregnancy
Upon returning home I learned I was pregnant with my son Joseph, who was blessed to be within me while holy sisters, Mother Teresa, and Father Hardon were around us. Later on, I’d see Mother Teresa again and she placed her hand on my stomach, blessing my unborn child. Still later, she would hold Joseph, rejoicing in his birth. She had prayed for Joseph in utero because I had a heart condition. A couple years later, I would be just about flat on my back on complete bed rest with another pregnancy. The doctor said my baby wouldn’t make it; I had hemorrhaged profusely. I had to stay still, wait, and pray. I got word to Mother Teresa, who prayed for me and sent a blessed Miraculous Medal, promising me that Mother Mary would take care of me. She taught me a simple yet powerful prayer, “Mary, Mother of Jesus, be mother to me now.” We sure do need Mary “now.” I prayed that prayer often.
Those were precarious times, not only because of the pregnancy, but also because of my marriage. I recount this in my memoir, The Kiss of Jesus. Mother Teresa was my hero and spiritual mother—always offering loving prayers and advice, imparting her holy wisdom. Miraculously, my daughter Mary-Catherine not only survived that pregnancy of bed rest and was born safely, but books were born too! I had never planned on writing, but I became so inspired to write for expectant mothers and mothers during that pregnancy. I suddenly saw a pregnancy as a nine-month novena of prayer. God knew what he was doing when he put me still. Mother Teresa would end up writing the foreword for my book Prayerfully Expecting: A Nine Month Novena for Mothers to Be, and she encouraged me to write for mothers, saying she would pray that my book would “do much good.”
Years later I found myself in another women’s shelter—this second time in Rome, Italy. Things were pretty chaotic after landing in Italy on Mother Teresa’s feast day, and the doorman was not available with a key to let me into the apartment. It’s a long story that I tell in The Kiss of Jesus, but suffice it to say that because of God’s mysterious ways, I felt more than a bit displaced and caught in a perplexing situation. I got a ride down the street to the Missionaries of Charity convent and was welcomed warmly by the MC sisters, who were actually expecting me. What they and I did not expect was that I arrived there much earlier than planned. While waiting to figure out where I was staying that night, I ended up mingling with the shelter’s guests. One young woman in particular seemed very fascinated with talking with me. She sat across from me at the shelter’s picnic table. As I spoke with her I looked up and I saw Jesus in her eyes. It was a special moment and reminded me of Mother Teresa serving Jesus in each person she met. I then rested a short while on a bed in the shelter after taking a quick shower and using a borrowed towel.
After the fascinating, yet perplexing adventure, the Mother Superior found me and said to me, “Oh, Donna-Marie! Our Lord brought you here to us on Mother Teresa’s feast day so you could feel homeless!” I had not told her about the interior trial that I had experienced. She went on to describe the beauty of knowing and understanding how Jesus often felt and how his poor often feel. She warmed my heart when she told me that Mother Teresa was watching over me. It certainly was a profound and moving experience.
Feeding dishes of rice
Mother Teresa taught the world about love. She would say that authentic love often “costs us,” that love often “hurts.” We can ponder her teachings and consider those we care for or those with whom we live. We can ask ourselves if we are willing to push beyond our comfort zones and really love that other person to heaven. Mother Teresa passionately taught that the United States suffers from a worse poverty than those in Calcutta who are starving for a piece of bread. She said the Western world is starving for love.
Mother Teresa never had her head up in some spiritual cloud of heavenly bliss, she was wholeheartedly aware of the needs of the day. She was a saint right in our midst.
My dear spiritual mother, the humble unassuming saint, taught the world that it is a lot easier to serve a dish of rice to someone on the other side of the world to meet the need of hunger (where we might feel some sort of satisfaction in doing it) than it is to serve that dish of rice (dish of love) to someone in our own home or neighborhood. Who is that someone? Our spouse, our teenager who is acting up, our neighbor who belittles our Christianity, the person cutting us off in traffic? Are we showing them love with our actions and with our prayers? Do we push beyond our comfort zone and love until it hurts? Mother Teresa taught me that I should strive to see everyone, even those who are hurting me, as “Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.”
It almost seems like light years ago when I met that tiny woman—beautiful Mother Teresa, a bit hunched over and looking frail, but in actuality, a powerhouse of faith, hope, and love. Yet I feel so very close to my spiritual mother in my prayers. As the dear Saint of the Gutters is formally canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta by our Church, her words, “Love begins at home,” ring in my heart. To be in Rome, Italy right now is tempting, but I know in my heart that I belong right here, sharing the lessons of love that I have learned from my dear Mother Teresa in interviews through the news media and in my talks, presentations, and face-to-face encounters; all the while striving to see and to serve Jesus in everyone I meet.
Let’s pick our eyes up off of our devices and strive to live in the present moments of our life and become more attentive to “Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor” all around us. Mother Teresa will help us. God is counting on us.
Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle will appear on “Fox and Friends” on Fox News on Sunday, September 4 to discuss Mother Teresa’s canonization.