Mother Teresa: Doing Small Things with Great Love

Mother Teresa impacted the lives of people around the world, from every walk of life. Here are stories from three Americans who encountered her.

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Mother Teresa

On September 5, 1997, the world lost a true living saint. Mother Teresa touched the lives of millions, often one person at a time. Here are three ordinary Americans who knew her...

It was a fall day in 1968. I had just come off my nursing shift and was on my way to an orphanage in our suburban Dallas neighborhood, where I planned to meet the children I had volunteered to bring home for the holidays. I felt good about what I was doing, but frustrated too. There were so many people who needed help, and I could only do so much.

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When I opened the front door of the orphanage I was stunned. A group of kids and several reporters crowded around a small woman in a nun’s habit. Mother Teresa! I had just read an article about her. She reached out to touch the cheek of a little girl. Now there’s someone who truly makes a difference, I thought.

I moved closer, drawn in by the force of her personality. Just before she left she turned to me and smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “You look like someone I would like to take back to Calcutta to help in my work.”

I laughed and shook my head. “I’d miss my family too much,” I said.

She handed me a small red card. “Then write me,” she said, looking intently in my eyes.

At home, I didn’t even change out of my nurse’s uniform before sitting down at the dining room table with my stationery and a pen. I started a letter several times, only to crumple up the paper and toss it away. What do you say to Mother Teresa? Finally, I began by telling her how she reminded me of my own mother. Then the words flowed.

I wrote about my married daughter, my job, even admitted something I had never really admitted to myself: Though I had gone to church regularly since I was a little girl, I had never really felt God’s presence in my life. I didn’t expect a response from her, but it was good to get those things down on paper. I mailed the letter the next day.

A few weeks later, after an exhausting day at work, I got the mail and listlessly shuffled through the letters. I saw one stamped “air mail” and tore it open. It was a simple note from Mother Teresa, thanking me for my letter and urging me to try to connect to God through prayer. “You can get so close to God that nothing can hurt you,” she wrote.

A short while later I wrote back. And so it went. I babbled on about my joys, my troubles, my questions, and she sent short but powerful replies, always ending with “God bless you.” Gradually I learned to share my thoughts with God as openly and comfortably as I shared them with Mother Teresa—a lesson I hadn’t even known she was teaching me.

I asked what I could give her to show how grateful I was. She wrote that she needed nothing, but she knew some little girls who could use dresses. Oh, how perfect, I thought. One of my earliest memories was of my mother teaching me how to work a sewing machine. I filled several boxes with dresses, and mailed them to Mother Teresa, telling her I wished I could make hundreds more.

Out of her next letter fell a picture of her with two little girls wearing my creations. She wrote, “It’s not how much you do but how much love you put into what you are doing.”

I thought often of those words after giving up nursing and moving back to Alabama. I focused on helping the elderly. I did their shopping, took them to church activities and administered their medication.

Years passed. I grew older; my grandchildren grew up. But Mother Teresa’s letters continued, as dependable as the seasons. Often when I read her letters—typed on gray, grainy paper, with cross-outs and missed punctuation just like mine—it was hard to remember the woman was a larger-than-life figure for people around the world.

One day I needed more from her than words on paper. I felt overwhelmed by tragedy. My sister had recently died of cancer and another family member had just been diagnosed with a serious illness. All afternoon I cried, searching for the reassurance Mother Teresa said could always be found in God.

At last I called her, not even realizing it was four in the morning there. But when she heard me crying Mother Teresa immediately began praying and continued until I calmed down. “Never be upset with God for what he takes away from you,” she wrote me soon after. “There is a reason he takes anything away, and when he does he gives you something to fill that empty place.”

Those words comforted me years later when I realized Mother Teresa’s own health was worsening. In her last letter, a few months before her death, she asked me not to be upset if she didn’t write anymore, saying, “We are all getting old.” I knew that was her way of saying goodbye.

I still carry the card she gave me thirty years ago. Sometimes I open the mailbox expecting to see her familiar handwriting. She was right. The empty place in my heart is filled—by the reassuring words she once wrote me.

“We don’t die. We just get transferred to heaven and go to work there.” I no longer despair over how little I’m able to do for others. I’ve learned that great impact can come from small gestures—like a simple invitation to write a letter.

—Ruby Steed, Birmingham, Alabama

During the summer of 1993, right in the middle of graduate school, I was a volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Home of the Destitute Dying in Calcutta. I never thought it would be easy, but when I awoke in the oppressive heat each morning I wondered how I would get through the day.

First I had to wash the patients’ saronglike garments (called lungis). Then I helped serve meals and clean up. I mopped the ward and helped patients with their personal hygiene. The work was unending. Soon I became sick. This is horrible, I thought. I feel as weak as the patients I’m supposed to take care of.

One morning after Mass, Sister JosMa came up to me. “Wait here,” she said. “Mother will see you today. She likes to meet all of the volunteers herself.” My pulse quickened. I couldn’t believe she could find time for me.

Sitting on a balcony bench overlooking the clinic’s walkways, I watched Mother Teresa as she hurried to her appointments. Finally, not wanting to intrude on her schedule, I got up to leave when suddenly she came over and asked how I was faring.

“I’m not handling India well, Mother,” I confessed.

Reaching up with her strong hands, she pulled my head down to hers. “Yah. Yah. India can be very hard. But you must pray to Jesus for strength and you must come to Mass.” There was compassion but no compromise in her voice. From her robe she pulled out a small metal crucifix, which she kissed. “You must put this on the chain around your neck,” she said. She rested her hand on my chest for an instant, then left.

That cross remained around my neck through the rest of that long, hot summer in India, then through the rest of graduate school, a new career in social work and a bout with cancer. When I say my prayers at night I can still hear Mother’s heavily-accented English: “You must pray to Jesus for strength.” Strength she shared with so many others.

—Richard Dickens, New York, New York

One night I was returning from a business trip, tired and a little homesick. I finished my meeting notes just as the jet touched down in Detroit. Wearily, I stuffed the papers in my briefcase and shuffled off the plane and into the nearly deserted corridor, my footfalls echoing hollowly.

My gaze fell on three nuns coming toward me. As they neared, I recognized Mother Teresa and called her name. She stopped and smiled. I put down my briefcase and walked up to her, my arm outstretched. She took my hand and held it in a friendly way.

“Will you please pray for me?” I asked.

She patted my hand, and surprised me by replying, “You pray for me.”

While driving home, I did. I asked God’s blessing on her ministry and thanked him for the gift of meeting her.

Eight years have passed since Mother Teresa asked me to pray for her. I have pondered her words many times. At first I marveled that she thought I could help her. It occurred to me that not only did Mother Teresa want me to pray for her, but she knew that through prayer I would be closer to God.

—Charles Zech, Grand Rapids, Michigan

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