It was a cold winter morning of 1921. Agnes was only 11 years old. She accompanied her mother for the Sunday mass in the church as usual. After the prayers were over she helped her mother by distributing the bread among the poor. She looked at each one of them, sitting with the folded arms gripping their shivering legs; covering themselves with the torn, ragged coats & blouses; rubbing their dishevelled palms; holding their scruffy meal bowls and flashing their crooked black teeth whenever someone dropped a piece of bread in their bowl. Every Sunday she looked forward to meeting these strange people.
Agnes used to ask multiple questions to her mother about them. ‘Where do they live?’, ‘What do they do?’, ‘In which school do their kids go?’, ‘How do they mend their torn clothes?’, ‘How do they fetch & store water?’, ‘How do they fight if someone has cholera, smallpox, yellow fever in the family?’ ‘How do they survive in snowstorms & heavy rains?’
Her mother used to patiently answer all her questions without sugaring any truth. ‘Their lives are much different than ours, their battles are tougher than we can imagine but their strength is much greater than ours’, she always used to say.
One day her mother collected all the old clothes & some torn bed sheets from the wardrobe. In one big white cloth, she mounted this bunch & tied a knot on the top of the cloth. Curious Agnes asked her mother what she was up to. Mother said, she can tag her along. They walked out of their tiled roof house. Mother rubbed her arm while walking as her chattering teeth worried her mother. They walked for a mile on the snow-covered street. They managed to hold the heavy sack together.
After turning at the corner of the street they reached a small hut. Her mother knocked & an old lady opened the door smiling. Agnes heard a cheer from many voices inside. The kids started dancing around, the elders hugged each other & the ladies in the house welcomed them with 2 stale pieces of bread on the plate. The man of the house took the sack from her mother & said, “Faleminderit”. It meant ‘thank you’ in Albania. The mother-daughter nibbled on the stale bread & bid them goodbye in a few minutes.
After returning home in the evening Agnes asked her mother lighting up the hearth, “I have always admired you helping these people in some or the other way. Forgive me, mother, but your today’s gesture of offering old, ragged clothes & sheets to them has confused me. I know it can be useful to them but….”
“My child,” her mother walked towards her & sat by her side. The orange fire from the hearth illuminated their faces. “Even I wouldn’t like offering something which wouldn’t be of any greater use to them. But do you know why we still carried such a heavy sack for them?”
“Because the winter is going to worsen day by day. A bunch of old clothes & sheets can be used to knit blankets & quilts to warm up against this chilly wind. The old woman loves knitting. She has saved her kit from last 3 years” Her mother smiled.
“That’s a wonderful idea, mother. So we have just given them a missing piece to fix their problem”, Agnes’s eyes sparkled.
“Yes, my child. We don’t do any miracle. All we try to offer is such missing pieces to someone who already has the hope & willingness to build their shelter.”
A few days later mother observed Agnes collecting sticks & placing them by the window every morning. 2 weeks passed & Agnes continued with this routine.
Intrigued with her new task her mother inquired, “Why have you been gathering & keeping these sticks at the window from past few days, dear?”
“It’s winter, mother. And the sparrows have a hard time finding dry sticks in this snowy weather. They have the willingness to search hard for the dry sticks but it’s challenging. The other Sunday afternoon I was fascinated seeing this sparrow chirping around. On the tree, in front of the window I saw she was looking after something, I went closer & realised she had just hatched eggs, but her nest was filling up with snow. Hence I decided to collect the dry sticks to help her build her new nest.” Agnes was excited to tell this story. Mother had tears in her eyes; she hugged her daughter praising her noble work.
The Sparrow’s cosy nest was ready by next week and her chicks were also going to be ready to fly soon.
It was her last Christmas with her family. Due to their financial crisis that year Agnes’s mother managed to get only milk and cookies for each member of the family. While celebrating that evening Agnes sneaked out of the house from the back door. Her mother noticed she has disappeared along with her glass of milk and cookies. She returned in an hour with a wide grin on her face. Her mother was waiting at the door. She didn’t ask her where she had been as she knew Agnes was coming back from the hut of that poor family. She just said, “After so many months we had got milk, didn’t you want to savour it with some tasty cookies, my child?”
“I remember the taste mother; I had just missed it from last few months. But looking at the satisfaction in the eyes of those children made my day. I am as full as any other Christmas,” everyone sang the carols happily that evening.
By the age of 12, Agnes realized her true calling. She was inspired by reports of work being done in India by Yugoslav Jesuit missionaries (groups that travel to foreign countries to spread their religious beliefs) serving in Bengal. She left home when she was 18 to join a community of Irish nuns, the Sisters of Loreto. Her mother wouldn’t have stopped her. But Agnes had no clue that she won’t ever meet her mother after that.
She received training in Dublin, Ireland, and in Darjeeling, India, taking her first religious vows in 1931. One of her first assignments was to teach and eventually to serve as principal, in a girl’s high school in Calcutta. A few years later she experienced a “call within a call”. She felt an inner urging to leave convent life and work directly with the poor.
She began missionary work with the poor in 1948, when she changed her attire from Loreto to white cotton sari with a blue border. By this time she had adopted the Indian citizenship. She spent several months in Patna to receive basic medical training at the Holy family hospital and ventured into the slums. Within the next one year, she was joined in her effort by a group of young women, that’s when she laid a new religious community helping the “poorest among the poor”. She gathered the children from the slums & began teaching.
But it wasn’t so easy. It was much beyond offering few sticks. She along with her community had to beg for food and supplies in the beginning. She walked and walked till her arms & legs ached. Just to experience the ache in body & soul of the poor, she lived just like them. Without much hope or willingness from the poor, there came a time when she was being tempted by the comfort of Loreto.
A young representative from the convent (Loreto) came to visit her with some food and supplies for her missionary. She thanked him, accepting his help. The food was distributed among the poor. The representative said to her, “You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again.”
Of course, the convent school wanted their teacher, principal back. But she refused politely. The representative didn’t leave immediately. Astonished with her determination & her eternal compassion for the poor he asked her, “May I ask you a question, Mother Teresa?”
“Of course,” she smiled as she continued praying with the rosary in one hand.
“Why have you chosen this path? You can easily come back to the convent where people are eagerly waiting to welcome you, so why do you want to suffer here?”
“I appreciate your courage and curiosity both, my child. Suffering is not a punishment, nor a fruit nor a sin; it is a gift from God. He allows us to share in His suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.”
“But isn’t it tiring? I mean how far it is possible to empathize with them?”
“Patience is the key. Without patience, we will learn less in life. We will see less. We will feel less. We will hear less. Anyone can go on till the time they believe they can.”
“And do you think it will be possible to really bring change in the lives of these people?”
“God doesn’t require us to succeed, my child. He only requires that you try.”
“What happens when it goes beyond your patience? How do you find the strength then?”
“By trusting God. All that you have given to others in the form of love & care, regaining it back in your empty soul, by praying & meditating. That is how the more you give the more you get. I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” She smiled.
The young representative overwhelmed with this conversation bowed to touch Mother Teresa’s feet.
“God bless you, my child” She blessed him raising him by his hands.
Slowly her efforts with the poorest were noted and appreciated by the local community and Indian politicians. In 1952 she opened her first home for the dying, which allowed people to die with dignity.
Mother Teresa often spent time with those who were dying. In one of such incidents she was called by one of the women dying of Malaria, in her last breathing hours as her body was quivering she called Mother Teresa closer and said in her ears, “He says, thank you so much, Mother Teresa,” In few seconds the woman passed away. Mother Teresa thought to herself it was a message from God.
The woman’s soul passing through the bright tunnel met her late husband’s soul somewhere on the way,
He Said, “I have been waiting all these years thinking about your last moments. Did you thank the angel who saved you from dying on the street like me a few years back?”
She said, “Yes, I did”.