Norfolk priest recalls meeting with Mother Teresa
On the day that Mother Teresa was canonised as a saint by Pope Francis, a Norfolk priest who met her in Calcutta, has spoken of how she found the brief encounter overwhelming. Keith Morris reports.
Born in Albania, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic religious congregation of over 4,500 sisters, which runs run homes for people dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; dispensaries and mobile clinics; children's and family counselling programmes; orphanages; and schools.
She was made a saint by Pope Francis today (September 4) in a ceremony in front of 100,000 people in St Peter’s Square in Rome. Known as “the saint of the gutters”, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and died in September 1997 the age of 87.
Norfolk Anglican priest Rev Pat Atkinson, from Brundall, has devoted the last 25 years of her own life to reaching out to the untouchables in the slums of India. In February 1997, she was invited to Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa who had heard of Pat’s work and was interested in how it had involved.
“I had a fascinating four-day train journey to Calcutta, but when I reached the Mother House, Mother Teresa was too ill to see anyone,” said Pat. “For the next two days I spent time visiting her projects, with trips back to the Mother House in the hope of meeting her. On the third morning Sister Hyacinth, one of her senior staff, told me ‘Mother is very weak, but wait and see, it may be today’.
“After an hour I was taken to Mother's bedroom. The room was about 8 feet by 5 feet, with just her wooden bed on which she was lying, a spotlessly clean stone floor and a wash bucket. She was clearly still very ill. I went in to her room having to walk sideways, to where she was lying on her bed.
“She struggled to sit up and patted the bed to indicate that I could sit. I sat on the bed next to her for about a minute, she held my hand and said ‘don't stop loving’. She was clearly very weak, I put my arm around her shoulder then she lay down again. I felt totally overwhelmed when l left her.
“That was it, I spent time later talking to Sister Hyacinth about our work, which she said she would pass on to Mother Teresa, I don't know if she managed to do so as she remained weak until she died,” said Pat.
“I was in back in the south of India for her funeral, and booked myself in to a hotel for the day so I could see it. The whole country came to a standstill, shops closed, streets were deserted, people staying indoors as a mark of respect. Most of the usual television programmes were cancelled and films of her life, and Christian music was played,” recalled Pat.
Pat, who has received an MBE for her own work in India, now leads the Vidiyal Trust, and will be back in India in November for her 50th trip.
The Vidiyal Trust is a hands-on charity which has built and owns a Boys’ Home, Girls’ Home and Tuition Centre for over 100 children in Mavelikara, North Kerala. The Trust also has a training and development link with the main Regional Cancer Centre in Kerala funding two ambulances to run clinics and to take palliative care to cancer patients who are too poor or weak to reach hospital. It is also developing a sponsorship scheme for children with cancer in rural Dahlit villages.
In Madurai, Tamil Nadu, the Trust has a residential care home for elderly street ladies, and also runs a lunch and care unit in a slum which cares for over 50 elders daily. In the same slum there is a tuition and care centre attended by 150 children. Around 40 people in a nearby leprosy compound are also cared for by The Vidiyal Trust.and a further 130 are helped in a nearby colony. The majority of the work continues to be supported by Norfolk churches and individuals.
Pictured top is Mother, now Saint Teresa. Picture copyright of Manfredo Ferrari. Pictured above is Rev Pat Atkinson