An undated file picture shows Mother Teresa holding a child during a visit to Warsaw, Poland. Mother Teresa will be canonized by Pope Francis Sept. 4 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Tomasz Gzell, EPA)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 therean altar, a tabernacle, a crucifix, a statue of the Blessed
Mother, and the words, “I Thirst” painted on the wall beside the tabernacledrew
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.
the Saint of the Gutters
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!
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 childbut there was more to come.
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 meshe 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
the baby who was singing at Mass?”
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.
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.
with the homeless women at Mother Teresa’s shelter
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.
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.
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.
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 kitchenmaking 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.
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.
born out of a precarious pregnancy
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.
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 motheralways 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.”
later I found myself in another women’s shelterthis 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.
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.
dishes of rice
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.
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
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.”
seems like light years ago when I met that tiny womanbeautiful 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