Born in Albania on August 26, 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, later known as Mother Teresa, devoted the majority of her life to serving India as a teacher, nurse, missionary and head of a major charitable organization. After joining the Sisters of Loreto as a young woman, Sister Teresa traveled to India and worked as a teacher at a convent school for twenty years. Grieved by the continuous religious violence, rampant poverty and widespread starvation of India, Sister Teresa left the school for the Calcutta slums, where she vowed to care for the poorest of the poor.
During the first year, Mother Teresa and her small group of followers struggled to find food and supplies and were often forced to beg for basic necessities. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity and, fifty years later, was operating more than 500 charities, hospitals and orphanages in over 100 countries. Throughout her long life, Mother Teresa brokered cease-fires, ventured into Communist countries, met with Pope John Paul II and rescued thousands of Indians from poverty, sickness and starvation. She passed away in 1997, mourned by secular and religious groups alike, especially in India, her adopted home.
She was the recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and in 2003, was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.” A second miracle was credited to her intercession and Pope Francis announced in December 2015 that she would be canonized by the Catholic Church on September 4, 2016.
In an interview with Hope Meyers beginning June 1987, Leila Wilson, whose husband Evan Wilson was a Foreign Service Officer stationed in Calcutta, describes organizing the first public fundraiser for Mother Teresa back in 1952. The second interview, beginning September 1991 and conducted by Jewell Fenzi and Priscilla Becker, records Alice Pickering’s recollections of an uncomfortable meeting between her husband, who was serving as Ambassador to India, and Mother Teresa, who needed visas for her fellow nuns.
Yetta Weisz reminisces about a memorable flight with her. Her interview was conducted by Mary Louise Weiss beginning May 1992. Kenneth C. Brill, who served in Calcutta in the mid-1980s and later in New Delhi as the Charge d’Affaires, describes his meetings with Mother Teresa, including a memorable Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the embassy. He was interviewed by Mark Tauber on April 11, 2016
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“She could at least give them love and hope”
Leila Wilson, 1951-53
WILSON: It turns out that we were the first people who raised money publicly for Mother Teresa in 1952. We had an American Women’s Club. There weren’t very many members. Most of us belonged to Indian groups that we spent more time with than with the Americans.
But it was a way to draw together Americans who otherwise felt excluded from the activities of the Consulate General. Similarly, my husband made a great point of playing golf with the American businessmen, so there was a sense of community and cooperation between them.
That small women’s club sponsored our group that went to the orphanage and did other things as we saw necessary. We decided at one point that we really should do something to raise money for Mother Teresa.
We were there from 1951 to 1953 and we put on a bazaar to raise money for Mother Teresa in 1952. The important point was that it was the first time that anyone ever had raised money for her publicly. She had been supported by the church and communicants before that. It was through a Roman Catholic friend that I had met Mother Teresa and gone around with her on her rounds through the backstreet busti, the worst slum areas, of Calcutta…. a view that gave me nightmares for a week….
But it was that that convinced me that here was something we could do, no matter how little money. We only raised about $3,000, but it was a fortune as far as she was concerned.
We thought we’d done pretty well, because it was a bazaar participated in basically by Indians. We had silly games of chance, we had dancing, we had people who sang and people who ran booths of entertainment so that there was something for everybody to do, and of course food.
I was the head of the club, and there was a group of us who kind of fought our way through. There were those who thought we should not support Mother Teresa, because she was not Hindu. Anyway, it was argued out, and we decided to do it, because it was Hindus, Moslems — anybody who was dying and in terrible shape, leprosy and cholera and typhoid and tuberculosis patients — that she was ministering to day-by-day and running little schools of sorts for their children.
Q: Did she already have a reputation beyond the people for whom she cared?
WILSON: No, really she didn’t. The Indians were a bit embarrassed, because she was taking care of people they knew in their hearts they should be taking care of, and she was not one of them. She’s an Albanian. She’s a Roman Catholic and she had been teaching in a sophisticated school for Indian girls in Calcutta.
She decided she had to leave that way of life and devote herself to those who were totally poverty stricken and totally helpless and hopeless. She could at least give them love and hope, and it was a pretty emotional thing to go around and see what she was doing and accomplishing with just plain nothing….
[I]t was in 1952 that they talked about her starting her mission. She must have been working at it for a year or so preparing something, and they had a very simple house, minimal rooms, minimal equipment, just running water. I think they had electricity, but nothing elaborate whatsoever. But it was organized, and she had six or seven nuns working with her in 1952. All the reports describe her as having begun her mission in 1952, so we were really in there on the ground floor.….
It was a wonderful experience to be in on the ground floor with her and one of the most worthwhile things that I was able to do in the Foreign Service. That and working with the orphans really made a difference.
It certainly [made] a difference to them and it [made] a difference to the thinking of our driver who took us out each week. He was as interested in what we were achieving with the children as we were and he was able to pat them on the back and tell them to stand up straighter or help them coordinate enough to catch a big ball. He became a part of it, but the day that he drank water from the great jug that we always took with us, water that we participated in, too, was a real crossroads. He had come to feel that we were not untouchable after all. He was a Brahman himself and he drank from our container.
“She didn’t exude an aura of spirituality”
Alice Pickering, 1992-93
PICKERING: We did get a chance to meet and see Mother Teresa in Calcutta, where she lived, when we visited the consulate in Calcutta. I was very impressed with her because she didn’t, to me, exude an aura of spirituality as much as she looked like a very efficient, very practical, down to earth, little, old lady who accomplished all these things.
My husband knew that, when he went in, she was going to go after him because she wanted the United States to grant special visas to her nuns who were traveling to the States. And she couldn’t understand why we had to charge her money for them. She wanted to have free visas, to which, of course, our State Department said no, because, if we did it for every charity that was visiting, this would be very difficult.
Nevertheless, as soon as we sat down, she looked at him with bright eyes and she said, “Mr. Ambassador, I have a problem with you!” [laughter]
And he explained the situation. He said, “I’m very sorry, but this is my government’s point of view,” and she attacked him again! [laughter]
I was just quite amazed. Somehow along the line she said, “I never accept any money from governments. Never!” Even though we had seen in the courtyard some bags of food. She accepts food, but she never accepts any monetary gifts, anything that would limit her ability to do what she thought was important.
And we said to her, “How do you get money?” And she said, “I never ask for money. I never ask for money, it just comes.”
She said that, two days before we had been there, a young Hindu couple had come in after their marriage and they wanted to donate the money from the marriage to her, and just gave it to her. And she said, “The money just comes.” So I was quite impressed with her.
“A woman everybody is in awe of”
Yetta Weisz, 1965-71
WEISZ: On a trip from Delhi to Calcutta, the plane—one of those little two-engine things with only one propeller—was completely occupied. In the front seat sits a woman everybody is in awe of, Mother Teresa, and she’s sitting alone.
As we overfly many, many miles of India, I thought how I would love to sit with her. She said she’d be happy to have some conversation, and we talked about the many things that Indian nuns were doing in Delhi, because I could talk of nothing else but Delhi. I had not lived in any other city.
And then, after lunch had been served, Mother Teresa said to the steward, “Do you have any food left over?”
He said, “Oh, of course, Mother, if you’re still hungry you may have some more food.”
She said, “Oh no, not for me, I’m not hungry any longer; I just want some food so when I get off the plane and the Sisters in Calcutta greet me, I will have a gift for them.”
The steward said, “But we haven’t any packing materials.”
And Mother Teresa said, “Never mind, I have this” (laughing), and she produces some empty boxes that were crushed, and bags, and the steward fills them with food.
The plane lands in Calcutta and—you know how eager you are to get off an airplane after you’ve been sitting for hours—people had jumped out of their seats before landing. I got up, stood in the aisles, and I’m no little woman, so I blocked the aisle, and I wouldn’t allow anybody to rush ahead.
I said, “Mother Teresa, will you please leave so that the passengers could leave?”
She said, “Oh, I thought I would wait until they all left, because I can only walk slowly.” I said, “You walk as slowly as you wish and I will not allow anyone to stampede you.”
She laughed and she blessed me and off she went.
“She almost always had a twinkle in her eye, which reflected her general joie de vivre”
Kenneth Brill, Consulate General Calcutta, 1986-87
BRILL: I met Mother Teresa for the first time in either late 1986 or early 1987. My wife and my daughter — my son was at that time only about two months old, so he wasn’t going around making calls much — but my daughter was at that point almost four, so we took her along.
We went over just to pay a brief courtesy call and to see the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. She was very sweet. We probably met with her for 15 or 20 minutes and chit-chatted about one thing or another. She blessed my wife and my daughter. She gave a little medal to my daughter and one for my son, who wasn’t there. So they’ve got a straight shot to heaven. (Laughter)
After our first meeting, she would call on me once or twice a year. It usually had to do with a trip she was making to the United States and she was taking someone with her who didn’t have a visa, so she’d come in to get a visa. I would offer her tea while the consul interviewed the nun who would be accompanying her. The main consulate compound consisted of the CG’s [Consul General] residence, the consulate office building, and an apartment house, which housed some of the senior staff, such as the Branch Public Affairs Officer.
The staff from the CG’s residence would bring us tea and they delighted in being able to serve her and did so with great care and formality. We would chat about things while we had tea and a sweet of some sort.
I said to her once or twice, “It is always nice to see you, but you don’t need to call on me. The consul will always interview your people and we know your travelers always return, so you don’t have to trouble yourself to come to my office.” Whenever I would say that, she would look at me with a twinkle in her eye and reply, “No, no, it’s always nice to see you and it is pleasant to talk over your nice tea and cookies.”
Mother Teresa was very small, probably about five feet tall, and at that point in her life she was also a little hunched, and she got more hunched as time went on, so she looked even smaller. Of course, she always wore her habit, which had the effect of making her look smaller still. But she almost always had a twinkle in her eye, which I think reflected her general joie de vivre.
She could look stern when the occasion warranted, but she was generally very warm and open to people, particularly when she was dealing with them one-on-one. She didn’t have a Shirley Temple smile, but she had a nice smile and a quiet voice.
During the course of the almost three years I was in Calcutta I probably had five or six of these sessions with her….
Just think of all the steps the White House staff had to go through to get the two of them together — and in such a short time. It was definitely a miracle!
She was clearly very much in charge of day-to-day operations of her global network. From that conversation and others, and also from talking to people around her, it was pretty clear she was a detail-oriented manager. She was very much on top of things in her order.
On another visit, Mother Teresa said she was going to the United States, and was planning to stop in Washington. I asked whether I could help with any appointments with officials in Washington, saying, “I’d be happy to send a note to the India desk, which would be delighted to be helpful.”
She thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t want to trouble you. The last time I was in Washington, I realized I needed to see the President, so I called the White House from a phone booth and I saw him that afternoon.”
I thought to myself, she’s going to be canonized someday because that’s a true miracle. I had been the head of Egyptian affairs in an earlier assignment in the Department and at one point spent the better part of two months convincing the White House the President should meet with Hosni Mubarak, the then President of Egypt.
The relationship with Egypt was important to the U.S. and the Administration. Egypt was at peace with Israel because of the Camp David Agreement and we provided over a billion dollars in economic assistance and an additional billion plus dollars in military assistance.
Nonetheless, it took me weeks to get an appointment for the President of Egypt with President Reagan. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, picks up the phone and — BOOM! — she is in that afternoon. Can you imagine the White House operator who took her call initially? Just think of all the steps the White House staff had to go through to get the two of them together — and in such a short time. It was definitely a miracle!
I said, “You know, Mother Teresa, it’s really kind of hard to see the President, so I think you’re probably going to do better than I could do; I’ll leave your appointments to you.”
She smile and said, “Thank you, for offering.”
“’She doesn’t care who you are; if you’re there to work, you’re there to work’”
Mother Teresa was a really nice person, but she put people to work. I only had one CODEL [Congressional delegation] my whole time in Calcutta. It was led by Congressman Mike Synar, who’s now dead, who was a Democrat from Muskogee, Oklahoma. He liked to present himself as “a redneck, an Okie from Muskogee,” but he was a very, very bright guy, with a sly sense of humor. He was also as Protestant as they came.
Congressman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, was his partner in the CODEL; they traveled without any staffers. Durbin was an urban Catholic. They had been in Bangladesh and were on their way to New Delhi, but Durbin insisted on a stop in Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa and spend a day working in one of her facilities.
But as their staffs were planning the trip, I made clear that they would need to meet with some officials and visit a USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] project, not just meet with Mother Teresa. In other words, they had to have a proper CODEL schedule. We had some cables back and forth on the subject and worked it out.
Congressmen Synar and Durbin spent a day with me making official calls and visits. I also hosted them for a representational dinner with some local businessmen and other movers and shakers. The next day they went off to work with Mother Teresa. We’d arranged it so they’d come back to my place for a family dinner afterwards. They went to the hotel after they spent the day working at Mother Teresa’s, cleaned up and came to the residence for dinner.
They were kind of shell-shocked when they arrived; clearly emotionally drained from the experiences they had that day. Synar said, “I guess I’ve seen dead people, but I’ve never carried one before.”
Durbin said, “Yeah, me too. She doesn’t care who you are; if you’re there to work, you’re there to work.”
I think it is fair to say both Congressmen found the experience of working in one of Mother Teresa’s homes for the sick and dying to be humbling and rewarding and when I took them to the plane the next morning, they said it would be the highlight of the trip.
Jerry Brown, who was then a former [and now current] governor of California and a former presidential candidate, was subsequently in Calcutta. I heard that he was around and tracked him down to Mother Teresa’s. I sent him a note and asked if I could meet with him. He agreed and stopped by my office in the Consulate General. When he came in and my secretary swooned and was quite nervous in bringing us tea.
He had been student in a Jesuit seminary for a time. The reason I wanted to see him was to ask him if he would give a talk at the USIS [U.S. Information Service] library on U.S. presidential elections and the primary process. The primaries for the 1988 election were then underway and I thought having him speak would be a useful counterpoint to the constant anti-American rhetoric of the elected, but hard-line Communist government of West Bengal and much of the Calcutta press.
After I made the pitch, he replied, “I’m here to work with Mother Teresa.” He’d already been in town for a week or ten days. “And I really don’t want to do anything like that.”
I talked about all the reasons why it would be a good thing to do and he finally said, “OK, I’ll do this one thing for you.” So, a few days later he gave a talk, we had huge turnout. He was brilliant speaker, connected with his audience, and spoke extemporaneously for some 45 minutes and then answered questions for another half-hour or so. He had competed relatively well in the presidential primary process, so knew what he was talking about and was both candid and self-deprecating.
He clearly was a very skillful politician, a very smart guy, and he did a really great job explaining the American presidential selection process to an audience that had arrived with a lot of negative preconceptions.
Afterwards I said, “Maybe we could do a lunch or a dinner with a few people?”
He said, “No! That’s it! I’m here to work with Mother Teresa. She doesn’t want me running around. She’s got work for me and that’s what I am going to do.”
She attracted people like that. When they came they didn’t get a photo op with her. They were put to work. She was very good about that. She was happy to take help from anybody, but it had to be real work.
“Every person in that waiting area, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, it didn’t matter, all went up to Mother Teresa“
During my assignment in Calcutta, I had to go to New Delhi from time to time for meetings at the embassy. On one such trip to New Delhi, I arrived at the airport for my return to Calcutta just as an official looking car pulled up, and out popped Mother Teresa and one or two nuns.
I walked into the domestic terminal, while she was ushered off to the VVIP (Very, Very Important Person) lounge. (Photo of Mother Teresa Airport, Tirana, Albania)
She didn’t like VVIP lounges, but the government of India people who were helping her classified her as a VVIP and so they took her to the VVIP lounge. I checked in for my flight and went to the decidedly un-VIP area where everybody’s waiting for their flights. This took place in the 1980s before economic reforms had begun in India. There was just one domestic airline, India Airlines and it was always late, so I had a lot of time to sit in the waiting area.
Eventually, Mother Teresa and the nuns accompanying her came in to the regular waiting area. She’d broken out of the VVIP lounge. She sat down maybe 40 feet from me. Then, over the next hour or so, as we all waited for delayed flights, every person in that waiting area, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, it didn’t matter, all went up to Mother Teresa.
Most tried to touch her feet, as a sign of deep respect, as they said, “Namaste” (a Hindi greeting). Everyone showed such great respect. She would always try to stop people from touching her feet, but would greet them in return in Hindi and add, “Oh, thank you.”
I took two things away from that experience. First, she wasn’t just well known in Calcutta, she was well known throughout India and people respected her, they liked her, they weren’t “Oh, that woman coming from the West, that foreigner coming in here telling us we don’t know how to deal with our problems…” The people of India respected her.
There might be some politicians who would occasionally go after her, but the general public respected her for what she was doing and the way she did it, not just what she was doing, but how she did it.
The second takeaway, which reflects the more cynical side of me, was that while everyone who greeted her did so as a sign of respect, they were also hedging their bets. India Airlines did not have a good safety record and it did not hurt people waiting to get on one of its flights to show respect to such a sainted person just in case their Indian Airline flight did not have a happy ending.
Mother Teresa Lights the Christmas Tree
I returned to India two years after leaving Calcutta to be the DCM and ultimately the long-term CDA [Charge d’Affaires] in the embassy in New Delhi.
I did not expect to meet Mother Teresa again after I left Calcutta so I was surprised to receive a call late one morning in December 1993 saying Mother Teresa is in New Delhi and would like to stop by the embassy for a brief meeting few that afternoon. I agreed, had my schedule shifted around a bit, and arranged for tea to be ready when she arrived.
I told her we planned to have a ceremonial lighting of the embassy Christmas tree later that afternoon
We were into the Christmas season and that afternoon I was going to light the embassy Christmas tree. The embassy in Delhi was designed by the same architect as the Kennedy Center and looks like it but the embassy was built first.
The Chancery is built around a rectangular fountain and pool and then there’re two stories of offices around it — charming to look at, not that charming to work in because everybody was behind a closed door, making informal interaction difficult.
The Christmas tree was going to be set up and lighted on the first floor, right by the pool and below the stairs that came down from the front office on the one side and the economic section on the other. The plan was for me to say a few words, push a button to light the tree and then some kids from the American school would sing some carols.
Mother Teresa arrived about 2:30 p.m.. I can’t really remember the substance of her call, but she wanted to relay something that came out of a meeting she had attended in New Delhi.
Of course, I gave her tea and we chit-chatted a little bit. She didn’t know that I was there, but she remembered me from Calcutta and we talked a little bit about Calcutta and she asked about my family. I told her we planned to have a ceremonial lighting of the embassy Christmas tree later that afternoon, but that I would be pleased to do it earlier if she would be willing to participate in the ceremony and actually light the tree.
“Oh!” she replied, “That would be so nice. Yes, I’d like to do that.” She added, “You know there are more Christmas trees in Calcutta than there are in New Delhi.” And that’s true, although there were Christmas trees in New Delhi, but Calcutta went in for Christmas in a pretty big way. In Calcutta they like a party, so any puja [Sanskrit for the act of showing reverence to the divine through prayers, songs, and rituals] is good and Christmas is definitely a puja a lot of people in Calcutta enjoy.
The Community Liaison Officer sent an e-mail announcement to the embassy staff that we were going to do the Christmas tree lighting ceremony just a few minutes early with a special guest.
I gave a look to the embassy electrician who was mortified.
As the time for the tree lighting approached, my secretary looked out of the glass wall in the front office that overlooked the pool and the ground floor to see if people were gathering. She reported there were enough people there for us to start.
As Mother Teresa and I came onto the second floor landing to walk down the stairs and came into view of people gathered on one side of the building, there was this “Ahhh!” sort of gasp, along with quiet exclamations of “Mother Teresa!” Suddenly people were dashing back in their offices to let people know who weren’t there who the special guest at the tree lighting was.
Mother Teresa and I came down the stairs and went to the microphone that was set up for the ceremony. I introduced Mother Teresa, mentioned we had known each other a little bit in Calcutta, noted she had dropped by the embassy for a short-notice meeting and thanked her for graciously agreeing to help with our Christmas tree lighting ceremony. I then asked if she would please light the embassy Christmas tree.
Mother Teresa stepped up near the microphone and said a few words about the joy of Christmas and how nice it was to be able to help the embassy with its Christmas tree ceremony. There was a real hush among those who were there, which was good because Mother Teresa spoke very quietly and not directly into the microphone, so people strained to hear her.
I then walked her to the ceremonial button that was to be pushed to light the Christmas tree, but when she pushed the button nothing happened.
I gave a look to the embassy electrician who was mortified. Mother Teresa just smiled. She’d been living in India for a long time at that point and Calcutta had more load-shedding, which is what power blackouts were called in India, than even New Delhi did. And then pushed the button again and another miracle occurred. It worked and the tree was lit!
Everybody applauded and Mother Teresa beamed and some people came down and the USIS photographer took photographs of them with her. Then I escorted her out of the embassy to her car and she left.
They have a saying in India that no good deed goes unpunished. After the tree lighting ceremony, I received some complaints, Principally, “Why didn’t you let us know Mother Teresa was coming? We’d have been there if we had known Mother Teresa was coming.”
My reply was, “You never know in New Delhi what’s going to happen; it pays to show up.” It was very sweet and generous of Mother Teresa to attend our very modest Christmas season opener and the people who were there came away with some really nice memories.
“She didn’t leave in a blaze of media”
I was in Cyprus when Mother Teresa died. Princess Di died a few days before. It was striking to me that Princess Di’s death and the circumstances around it received so much more press attention than did Mother Teresa’s.
Princess Di’s story and face were everywhere. There was extensive coverage in the international media, particularly CNN and BBC, as well as the electronic and print media on Cyprus.
Mother Teresa’s death seemed like it was relegated to being almost a footnote. Every life has value, but the juxtaposition of those two deaths made it clear the media and the public were more attracted to youth, beauty and flash, than they were to a quiet life of giving to others on a global scale.
Nonetheless, CNN’s and BBC’s international services did a nice job of covering Mother Teresa’s funeral in Calcutta. The level and caliber of the international delegations in Calcutta for the funeral reflected ultimately the global impact Mother Teresa’s life and example had. Hillary Clinton led the U.S. delegation, I believe, and other governments sent a variety of eminent people to demonstrate their respect.
She didn’t leave in a blaze of media, but she left with people in all walks of life paying tribute to her and the good in humanity that she represented. She led an exemplary life, accomplished a great deal in the day-to-day world and set a positive spiritual example that was, in essence, non-sectarian in its relevance.