“Mother changed my life”: Friends remember Mother Teresa

Ahead of her canonization this weekend, three Americans who knew and worked with Mother Teresa discuss her life and legacy.

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.

“We all 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 five days.

I met her on August 20, 1985, the week she turned 75. I was captivated by her. She was so cheerful and alive in Christ. 

CWR: What was Kolkata like?

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 business—a “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 humanity.

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 Communion.

CWR: India is mostly Hindu. How did Mother blend with those of other religions?

Towey: She loved everyone—Christians, 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?

Towey: The 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 Clintons react?

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 being bedlam.

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 laughable.

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 our differences.

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.

“A 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?

Michael 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 pious person?

Nabicht: I’d 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 dignity.

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.

“An oasis 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?

Father Pat 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 opportunity—I guess he assumed we Americans were wealthy—to 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 some peace.

CWR: What did you observe of Mother Teresa’s spiritual life?

Father Delahanty: 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?

Father Delahanty: 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?

Father Delahanty: 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.

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About Jim Graves 236 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.