As Mother Teresa becomes Saint, her followers serve the poorest in USA

New York: While hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world came to Rome on September 4th to be part of the historic event, the canonization of Mother Teresa, as Pope Francis declared her Saint Teresa of Calcutta on the world famous St Peter’s Square, her followers around the world continued to serve the poor, the needy, the unwanted, the unloved and those with terminal and other illnesses.

The making of Teresa of Calcutta did not stop them from “doing God’s work.” Saint Teresa may be adored across borders, but there were several pockets in St Peter’s Square where India let the world know that the Macedonia-born nun belonged a little more to Kolkata and India. Hundreds of Indians came armed with the Tricolour, and the flags were held higher and got an extra wave each time Pope Francis mentioned the places on the Indian map that had been blessed by Saint Teresa’s presence and work. “She may belong to the world but we are celebrating the fact that destiny brought her to India,” said Shanti from Kerala as she helped her friends unfurl a huge Tricolour.

Mother Teresa, who was declared a saint by Pope Francis on Sunday, has been hailed as the “Saint of the Gutters of Kolkata”. But her sisters find they are needed as much in New York, the richest city of the US. Suffering and want know no national boundaries. And neither do compassion and charity as the international brigade of Mother Teresa’s sisters bear witness here.

Barely five miles from New York’s fabled “Billionaire’s Row” overlooking Central Park, sits the nation’s poorest area, the South Bronx where Park Avenue sheds its glitz for grit. Clad in blue-bordered white cotton saris, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity toil there tending to New York’s poorest. Considered the poorest area in the US, census figures have pegged the percentage of people below the poverty line in the South Bronx at 38 per cent — and it rises to 49 per cent for children.

“We do feel Mother Teresa’s presence here in these sisters,” Nancy Rivera, who grew up in the area, told the media. Rivera has since moved up and now lives in a well-off area, but still returns to her childhood neighborhood to volunteer at a church near Mother Teresa’s sisters.

She said that when she sees them pick homeless people off benches on the streets to clean and feed them, she senses “the invaluable presence of Mother Teresa. I am one of the lucky ones to have met her in person.”

Sister Regipaul, the head of the convent in the South Bronx, said that 20 sisters from the US, Canada, Poland, France, Argentina, the Netherlands and India work there running a shelter for 18 homeless men, a soup kitchen that provides ready meals for the needy and a service that distributes food supplies to about 200 poor families, many of them immigrants adrift in an alien land.

Another convent in Manhattan’s Harlem has a shelter for homeless women with a soup kitchen, and in Brooklyn the sisters provide a home for unwed mothers, she said. A more remarkable service is the home run by the sisters for AIDS patients in downtown Manhattan. The sisters were among the first to step in to care for AIDS patients in the early 1980s when the newly-discovered disease spawned fear and prejudice. The sisters clean, feed and provide for the patients at the centre, Regipaul said.

The Missionaries of Charity are organised into three regions in the US. In the East Coast province headed by a Korean, Sister Rose Clara Lee, over 100 sisters work in 17 centres, three in Canada. Mother Teresa began the New York mission in 1971 and the late Sister Nirmala, who succeeded her, worked here for a while. As in India, the sisters say they do not work to convert people and only see Jesus “in the broken body” they help as Mother Teresa once said.

Regipaul, who hails from Thrissur in Kerala, worked in Kolkata and Mumbai before coming to the US 35 years ago. A difference between India and here is that the poverty of the spirit is greater in the US, she was quoted to have said.

The sisters work in “little ways” to help alleviate this malaise of a fragmented society, Regipaul said. They organise group activities for them to socialise, visit the isolated and shut-in people to talk to them and cook for them, she said.

But like in Kolkata, here also they come across people marked by the deepest stigmata of physical suffering. Like in India, the sisters follow an austere regimen that includes not watching television. But on Sunday they have a special dispensation to watch a live telecast of Mother Teresa being sainted, Regipaul said. “It will remind us that our mother waiting for us in heaven.”

“The rich people are very generous and they volunteer to work with us” at the soup kitchen and the shelter, she said. “They humbly do all the work, they sweep the floor, wash dishes, they clean. Americans are great people,” she said. “And the Americans volunteering to work with us are White, Black, Latino, Indian, Chinese, Korean, African — people of all ethnicities who make America.”

“In India, it is easier,” she said, adding “If the people are hungry you give them bread to eat, and it satisfies the need. Here the poverty is greater; they need food, but they are also very lonely. The loneliness is greater suffering than poverty.”

 

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