Filmmaker Michael Nabicht with Mother Teresa in 1981. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Patrick Delahanty)
Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa (1910-1997)
on Sunday, September 4. In 2015, the Vatican recognized the miraculous healing through
her intercession of a Brazilian man with multiple brain abscesses, the second
miracle required to declare her a saint.
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, today
capitol of the Republic of Macedonia. She grew up in a devout, middle-class
Catholic home. From a young age she was taught by her mother, Drana, to have
compassion for the poor. At age 18, she entered the Sisters of Loreto in
Ireland, and took the name “Teresa.” In 1937, she professed her final vows.
She was sent to teach in India, and while there she
received what she would later describe as a “call within a call,” which led her
to found a new community, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950. The MCs call
was to serve the “poorest of the poor” in the streets of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta),
as well as throughout the world. Today, the community numbers 4,500 sisters,
serving the poor of 125 countries including the United States. In 1979, she
received a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for her efforts.
As her canonization approaches, CWR talked to three
Americans who knew and worked with Mother Teresa and her sisters.
knew she was a saint”
Jim Towey is president of Ave Maria University. In
1985, he became personal friends with Mother Teresa and served as her legal
counsel in the United States during the last 12 years of her life. He also
worked as a full-time volunteer for her community for two years, including at a
home in Washington, DC for people dying from AIDS.
CWR: How did you
come to know Mother Teresa?
Jim Towey: I was
working for a US senator, Mark Hatfield, and he sent me overseas to do business
for him. I knew he was friends with her. I had always admired Mother and her
work from afar, as she was everything I wasn’t. I wanted to meet her, but the
problem was I didn’t want to be around the poor!
So I talked myself into going to Calcutta for a
day and a half, and I thought I’d balance it out by going to Hawaii afterwards for
I met her on August 20, 1985, the week she
turned 75. I was captivated by her. She was so cheerful and alive in
CWR: What was Kolkata
Towey: I’ve been
there 17 times. The first time I went, I was shocked in every sense: the smell,
the sounds, the sights. I saw such destitution. Families lined the streets,
living on the pavement. It was overwhelming.
It’s different today. The poverty is still
there, but has been pushed away from the main arteries of the city. There has
been a lot of construction and modernization, and English is more frequently
used. But the poor are bad for business. I take students there, and you find the
poverty is more off the beaten path.
CWR: Where would
the poor be without Mother Teresa and her nuns?
Towey: For those
they serve, it’s a matter of life and death. For the legions they are unable to
reach, their very existence is a sign of hope. It tells them that the world
does care. And it’s not just the poor of Calcutta, as her community is active
in 120-plus countries. She started on her own in 1948; today, she has four or
five thousand nuns.
CWR: What was
she like to work with?
Towey: She was all
businessa “no-nonsense,” get-things-done kind of person. I helped her with
business and legal matters. My experience was different from that of priests
and religious, who were more connected with her spirituality. Although, I would
drive her around, and if we went on a longer drive she’d say the Rosary and I’d
say it with her.
She was the chief executive officer of a huge,
worldwide missionary order. And she had exceptional judgement. As good as
anyone I’ve ever known.
She knew what she wanted, and she was
single-minded in getting things done. She’d put people to work, and have
confidence in you that you’d get things done. One time, for example, she wanted
five travel visas, including one to Cuba. She said she wanted them the next
day. I told her that was impossible. She told me, “I’ll do the praying, and you
do the working.”
We got the visas. It was miraculous, although everyone
respected Mother Teresa.
For 12 years I was one of the people who gave
her legal counsel. I did all of her governmental-relations work in the US, I
did her immigration work, and I protected the use of her name. I was living
much of that time in Washington, DC. For two years I worked full-time for the
Missionaries of Charity. I lived in the AIDS home in Washington, DC for most of
1990, taking care of AIDS patients. I also lived with a community of priests in
an MC home in Mexico, discerning the priesthood.
I wasn’t in Mother’s inner circle, but perhaps
the next ring out after that. I drove her all around the US and Mexico, and
followed her like a puppy dog.
CWR: What was
her spirituality like?
Towey: It was a
beautiful blend of mysticism and pragmatism. Mystical, as Jesus called her to
be his light in the darkness of the slums; pragmatic because she really did
what it took to make her community work. She started as a young woman with a
high school education with the audacity to build a worldwide missionary order. She
did it without the use of a computer, and depending mostly on volunteers to do
the work. Look what is in place today. There is no mistaking Mother Teresa’s
holiness, but don’t turn her into a little plastic statue. She is a saint
because of her beautiful
Mother cleaved to Jesus Christ all her life. She
wanted others to know the joy that she knew; Jesus was always there with her. I
recall one time when Mother was sick in the hospital. She had a tube down her
throat and couldn’t talk. She asked for pen and paper, and wrote down a phone
number. It was to one of her community’s homes; she wanted them to bring her
CWR: India is
mostly Hindu. How did Mother blend with those of other religions?
Towey: She loved
everyoneChristians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and people of no faith. She didn’t
feel it was her job to convert people. Her job was to love them and serve them.
She went to encounter Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.
CWR: Did many
convert to Catholicism through her influence?
conversions were as numerous as stars in the sky. I include myself among the
converted, as I was a lukewarm Catholic with no personal relationship with
Jesus. Now I couldn’t live without my Catholic faith.
My interactions with Mother changed my life. I hear her words
echoing in my head all the time: love until it hurts, love people and do not
judge them, stand up for the truth and stand up for life.
CWR: She was
also very pro-life. In 1994, with President and Mrs. Clinton present, she said
“the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
Towey: Only Mother
Teresa could have stood there in the grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in
Washington, DC, with the president and first lady at her right, and all the
leaders of Washington assembled, and decry the evil of abortion. But, she did
it in a loving way, without any politics involved.
She met with the Clintons afterward and Mrs.
Clinton wanted to open an adoption home with her. It did open in 1995, but
eventually closed due to “adoption politics.”
It was the beauty of Mother. She saw herself as
a pencil in the hand of God. God used her to write love letters to the world,
including to Mrs. Clinton.
CWR: Were you at
the 1994 speech? What happened?
Towey: I was
there. The ballroom erupted in a standing ovation. Some no doubt wanted to
humiliate the Clintons, but Mother was not interested in politics. She was
delivering a message she knew needed to be heard.
CWR: How did the
Towey: I watched
the president keep bringing an empty coffee cup to his lips as if to drink. It
was an awkward moment. But only Mother Teresa could have done it without there
I think the Clintons respected her. Mrs. Clinton
and I were representatives of the United States at Mother’s funeral.
CWR: Was Mother
Teresa close to Pope John Paul II?
Towey: They were
kindred spirits, like brother and sister. Mother loved him, and he loved her.
When he was sick, Mother would reach out to him. When she was sick, he would
reach out to her.
CWR: What were
your thoughts on Mother Teresa’s canonization?
Towey: We all knew
she was a saint. We all expected the Vatican to come to that conclusion one day.
CWR: What is
your response to those who have criticized Mother Teresa and her community?
Towey: I [was] in
touch with Christopher Hitchens, who was her most famous critic, and I have
heard all the other stuff. My response is that they don’t know Mother, they
don’t know Calcutta and they completely misunderstand why she did what she did.
Let me respond to one specific criticism. Hitchens
made a big deal about Mother flying first class. The poor are suffering while
she flies in luxury, he said. But what he didn’t know was that the airlines
begged her to fly first class. When she flew coach, the people in that section
would cause such a commotion that it disrupted the smooth operation of the
airplane. It made it impossible, for example, to serve food or drinks.
For decades before she became famous, Mother
rode in the poorest compartments of India’s trains, going about the country
serving the poor. Attacking her by saying she was attached to luxury is
CWR: Tell me
about the Mother Teresa Project at Ave Maria University.
Towey: It was
authorized by the Missionaries of Charity, and is the only one of its kind in
America. The project honors Mother Teresa by continuing her legacy of deep spirituality
and service to the poor.
College kids today were in diapers when Mother
Teresa died. So unless they learned from their parents, they may not know
anything about her.
Our students enter the Mother Teresa Project
voluntarily, and receive no class credits for their participation. They learn
about Mother’s life and spirituality. They volunteer to help the needy at
nearby facilities, and go on mission trips to MC homes throughout the US, as
well as in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Calcutta, and Mexico City.
I believe that Mother Teresa’s impact will be
far greater in the 21st century than the 20th. She has a lesson the world needs
to hear about loving one another, lifting up those in our midst and respecting
CWR: What do you
tell Ave Maria students about Mother Teresa?
Towey: I emphasize
how unlikely it was that this Albanian 18-year-old left Macedonia, got on a
ship, and went to India to teach privileged Indian school children, and wound
up becoming a revered figure throughout the world. It shows us that nothing is
impossible with God.
contemplative in the heart of the world”
Michael Nabicht is a filmmaker from Louisville,
Kentucky. He was commissioned to make Work of Love, a film about Mother Teresa,
in 1981 (you can view the film here). He connected with Mother through Father
John Hardon, who regularly led retreats for the Missionaries of Charity. He
traveled to Kolkata and filmed at several of her homes in the country.
CWR: What was
Mother Teresa like?
Nabicht: Everything about her impressed me. She is a remarkable person; I like
to say she is an extraordinary ordinary person. She was singleheartedly focused
on serving the poorest of the poor. I recall, for example, how she’d turn off
unneeded lights in the house so as to save money to give to the poor.
She was exactly what you’d hope she would be. She
was the same person behind the scenes as she was in public.
CWR: Was she a
describe her as a typical pious woman. [I’d] stay in a hotel nearby her home,
then come every morning about 5:45 am
when they’d have Mass. She’d be there with about a dozen professed sisters, and
many more postulants. They’d participate in Mass kneeling on a rug on the
floor, which was made of burlap. In the evening we’d come back to film during
their Holy Hour.
CWR: Where would
India’s poor have been without her?
Nabicht: There is no
safety net in India. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. When people get sick
they keep working. When they get too sick to work, they go out on the street
and beg and die.
That was her initial mission: to collect dying
people on the street and take them to a place where they could die with
CWR: Are you
excited about her canonization?
Nabicht: I’m very
pleased. I’m glad the Church is doing this. We live in a materialistic world,
but here is a woman who did not rely on money who became one of the most
admired people in the world.
Everything she did she did in Christ’s name. She’d
be the first to tell you she was not a social worker. She was a contemplative
in the heart of the world living out four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience,
and full, whole-hearted service to the poorest of the poor.
CWR: What do you
say to her critics?
Nabicht: I once asked
her about those who criticize her and her community. She said, with a smile and
a twinkle in her eye, “Everyone has his own way of giving God glory.”
I think some people just can’t believe that
anyone can be that good. Or they expect her to do everything. But she’d simply reply,
“That’s not my calling.”
But, as I said, I found her to be everything
you’d expect her to be. She was a wonderful person.
in the midst of poverty and noise”
Father Pat Delahanty is a retired priest of the
Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky. He is a photographer, and he collaborated
with Nabicht in filming Mother Teresa. He traveled to Kolkata and Rome to meet her.
CWR: What was
your impression of Mother Teresa?
Delahanty: She was like your grandmother. When we first went to film Mother, I
was pretty sick with a cold. But I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. When
we got to Calcutta, there was a lot of smoke in the air, from people cooking
food. It made the cough I had worse.
So when Mother met me, she said to another
sister, “Give him some medicine. He seems to be quite ill.”
I was there to take photographs of her, and
Mother hated to be photographed. So, she liked to say, she made a deal with
Jesus: with every click of a camera, he must release a soul from purgatory.
After I had photographed her for five days, she said to me, “Purgatory must be
empty by now.”
Another time I was concelebrating an early
morning Mass for her and her sisters. But the Calcutta traffic is terrible; it
begins around 4 am. The streets
are jammed with cars, with horns honking. Inside Mother’s chapel, you can’t
hear a word of the liturgy. So, the Indian priest at the altar with me took the
opportunityI guess he assumed we Americans were wealthyto say that the
sisters really needed someone to purchase a sound system for them. But Mother
interjected, saying that any money received would go to the poor.
I took many beautiful photos of her on that
trip; one I recall was of her holding the hand of a dying man. He died there
right in front of me. Mother said, “He’s gone to Jesus.”
Everywhere we went, the sisters’ homes were an
oasis in the midst of poverty and noise. One time we visited a home they had
for ex-prostitutes in Gaza. It was a clean, quiet place where they could enjoy
CWR: What did
you observe of Mother Teresa’s spiritual life?
It was amazing the amount of work she and her sisters accomplished
when you consider all the hours they devoted to prayer. They’d be up at four or
five in the morning to pray.
It helped them keep their focus: to see Christ
in the people they met. And they did. They live it in a way that you don’t often
find. They bring the peace of Christ wherever they go.
CWR: And what
fruits did you see in their work?
The people in their houses for the dying would be dying on the streets
without them. In other places, the children would be without an education. We
visited a house the MCs had for ex-prostitutes in Gaza. People typically have
little respect for prostitutes; there they were treated with respect and as human
beings whom God loved.
Mother Teresa lived out the message that the
poor are human beings, with dignity like everyone else. We can just walk past
them. We have to be Christ to them; we have to see Christ in them.
CWR: What are
thoughts on her being declared a saint?
I love it. She is a saint. She brought the message of love to people
who are outcasts. It’s a beautiful example of how we’re meant to live.