On the occasion of Mother Teresa’s canonisation, Shrabasti Mallik speaks to friends and confidantes of the blessed soul
On September 4, as Pope Francis declares Mother Teresa a saint at St Peter’s Square in Vatican City, a lady in her seventies will be cheering the loudest, in Kolkata, Mother’s work-land. Unknown to many, Sunita Kumar, an author and one of the most prolific artists to have captured Mother on canvas, was a confidante of the noble soul for almost three decades. She is also the official spokesperson for the Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata, that was set up by Mother Teresa.
In the 1960s, Kumar was part of a group that was volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity to help those suffering from leprosy and poverty. “I first met her in 1967 and, since then, she has been my role model,” says Kumar, one of Kolkata’s most prominent social figures.
The artist often says the first thing that struck her about the genteel lady was her frailness. “She was so tiny. I’d never imagined her like that, because her work seemed so enormous. But her grip, when we shook hands, was so strong yet warm. I can never forget that,” she says. And the other was Mother’s gaze. “She looked into your heart. And that look changed my life,” she adds. Even Kumar’s affluent background did not concern Mother. “She would simply say ‘this is the way you are destined to live. You do not have to sacrifice anything in order to come and work with me and the poor people I care for.’ Mother Teresa believed our first duty is towards our family. She would say, ‘Only when you have given sufficient time to that duty and have some time to spare, should you come to me,'” says Kumar.
Along with Kumar, many others who were fortunate enough to have met Mother Teresa, recall her serenity and warmth. Sean Callahan, COO of Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, the US, who has worked with Mother, has been quoted saying, “She was very petite and spoke in a soft voice so I was always leaning in to hear what she was saying.” Adding, “Often, she would wrap her hands around your hands while she spoke.”
Magnum photographer Raghu Rai too recalls having been touched by her aura, as he photographed Mother extensively. He says, “I followed her around the city as she worked among the poor, sick and dying. Though Mother did not like having photographers around her, she saw my commitment and let me be.”
Says the Archbishop of Calcutta, Thomas D’Souza, “The canonisation of Mother Teresa has a lot of significance for Kolkata because it is the recognition of Mother, her conviction of passion, her effort to build peace through service and her effort to restore the dignity of those downtrodden in society. She was a person who had the power to unify and reach out to everybody.”
Agrees Kumar, “She was a very loving person, full of affection for everyone she met. It was a wonderful experience just being around her and watching her pray.” The spokesperson adds, “The canonisation will be the most exciting experience of my life, though I will not be able to attend it. Mother was my inspiration and a dear friend. She was a living saint and it is wonderful that this is being officially recognised.”
Canonisation to be held on September 4, a day before her 19th death anniversary
What is Sainthood?
Official confirmation by the Church that someone is “in heaven” and is “worthy of veneration as a model of sanctity by the faithful on earth”.
Road to Sainthood
- The process of documenting “life, virtues of a holy man/ woman” cannot begin until five years of death.
- The waiting period ensures that the person has an enduring reputation for sanctity.
- The Pope can waive off this waiting period as Pope John Paul II did in Mother Teresa’s case, waiving three years off the period.
- After five years, the local bishop petitions the Holy See at Vatican City to begin the process for beatification.
- The meeting of cardinals and promoters of the sainthood causes, also known as an “ordinary public consistory,” formally ends the process of approving a new saint.
The two miracles attributed to Mother
- A woman from Bengal was cured of abdominal tumour.
- She cured a Brazilian man of eight brain abscesses that required an operation.
Sister Alphonsa was declared a saint in 2008. Father Kuriakose Chavara and Sister Euphrasia were both conferred sainthood by Pope Francis at the Vatican in November 2014. All three belonged to a centuries-old Syro Malabar Church in Kerala.
How many saints are there anyway?
More than 10,000. During the Church’s first 1,000 years, saints were proclaimed by popular demand. So it is impossible to quantify how many saints there are. Thirty per cent of all Popes are saints.
Life & Times
- Aug 26,1910 Born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu in Skopje (present- day Macedonia). At age 12, she feels the first call to a religious life, after which she leaves home in September 1928 to become a Roman Catholic Loreto nun. Her training starts in Dublin, where she takes the name Sister Teresa.
- She arrives in Kolkata – then Calcutta – in 1929, and becomes a teacher in St Mary’s School.
- October 7, 1950: Founds the Missionaries of Charity with 12 sisters after getting the Vatican’s green signal and becomes an Indian citizen a year later.
- She gradually becomes globally known for her order’s work with lepers. Opens her first mission outside India in Venezuela in 1965.
- 1971: Receives Pope John XXIII Peace Prize and uses the money to build a leper colony. In 1979, she is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1980, the Bharat Ratna.
- 1982: Visits Pope John Paul II. Hospitalised with heart attack, the first of several. Steps down as head of order in March in 1997. Dies September 5 the same year, aged 87.
- 2003: Is beatified by Pope John Paul II, placing her one step away from sainthood.
Photographs: Raghu Rai