In life, Mother Teresa reached out from the Calcutta slums to embrace the world. In death, her spirit lives on in the thousands of people who served with her.
“What she started will surely endure,” said the Rev. Armand Nigro, a Jesuit priest at Gonzaga University and personal friend of the famed nun.
At least three people from Spokane traveled to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.
When they left, she told them the same thing: “Go back to your home and serve the poor.”
Peggy Orth, 61, had never done volunteer work and never traveled out of the country. She was divorced and living on a disability income.
While watching a slide show about Mother Teresa, the retired South Hill woman felt inspired and went to talk to her priest.
“My pastor said, ‘If it’s a true calling from God, doors will be opened to you.”’ She sat down and wrote to Mother Teresa. The reply came from the nun herself: “Come, with your heart to love and your hands to serve the poorest of the poor.”
By saving for more than a year and getting assistance from her six children and fellow parishioners, Orth scrimped together the $5,000 needed to spend four months working with the dying and the orphans of Calcutta.
She left in September 1995, returning in January 1996.
While working with the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, she scrub bed floors and beds, helped bathe the She worked first in the orphanage, then in Kaligut, the home for the dying.
“That was truly amazing and inspiring,” said Orth, who now volunteers with Hospice.
The sisters pick the dying up off the streets of Calcutta. Sometimes they arrive at Kaligut after spending days on the ground without water or food.
“They’re really a mess when they come in. They’re filthy, the first thing we would do is give them a shower, scrub them down,” she said.
“Then we would get them into bed, make them comfortable and feed them what they could eat.”
Day after day, the routine was repeated, beginning in the early morning, after 6 a.m. Mass. Occasionally someone would die. The next day, the bed would be filled.
“It was very hard work, but it was very gratifying,” Orth said. “You could tell in their eyes that they were very appreciative.
“And when we left after feeding them lunch, we knew they were set for the day. They had their dignity.”
Orth said she has mixed feelings about Mother Teresa’s death. The tiny woman was obviously frail when Orth last saw her. Hunched over, she looked up to everyone, including Orth, who is only 5-foot-2.
“She has lived her life on this earth and it’s time for her reward and her freedom from pain and suffering,” Orth said during an interview last year, when Mother Teresa was hospitalized and not expected to live.
“On the other hand, she is such a role model, such an inspiration to so many people who have compassion for the poor, that is going to be missing in this world.”
“She’s changed my life in so many ways,” said Bruno Kensok. “You don’t learn religion by preaching it.”
Kensok worshipped Mother Teresa as the closest person on Earth to God. He refers to her affectionately as “Mother” and devoted his life to helping the poor.
Kensok, 76, grew up in a staunchly Catholic family on the Dakota plains. In the winter, the weekly trip to Mass was made by horse-drawn sleigh.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Kensok joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic organization that cares for the poor.
“I learned from my mom and dad to be charitable and compassionate,” he said. “And then I have also heard about Mother Teresa for what seems to be my entire life.”
She founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1948, just a few years before Kensok joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
While she and her sisters were taking in the dying, the lepers and the orphans of Calcutta, Kensok was delivering free furniture to the poor of Spokane and teaching classes to the developmentally disabled.
When he finally met his idol in 1994, he fulfilled a life-long dream - and rededicated himself to his life-long commitment.
“You cannot love in truth, even if you exclude just one,”’ he said. “That’s my goal, to love in truth. But Mother Teresa has been doing that for years.”
Like most Westerners, Kensok’s first reaction to Calcutta was one of revulsion.
“When I saw how bad the poverty was, I cried, because I didn’t feel that any human being should have to live that way.”
Calcutta is a city of 7 million people - one third living in the streets, another third in slums and shantytowns. The pollution is so bad, the airborne illnesses so common, it is considered a health hazard to simply breathe.
“But after I got used to it, then I wanted to be a part of it,” Kensok said. “They had something that we didn’t have: joy, spirituality.”
Kensok waited in line to speak to Mother Teresa every morning and every night of his visit. He talked to her four times, tape-recording her once.
“You look in her eyes and you can just see a total love for everyone, a total love for God and his people.”
Suzan Bonacum prayed about meeting Mother Teresa since childhood, growing up in a large Catholic family in Pennsylvania. Five years ago, she was sitting on her living room couch in Spokane when she heard a voice saying, “Go.”
“I didn’t even have to ask, ‘Go where?’ she said. “Doors just started opening for me.”
She took three weeks’ leave from her job as a recovery room nurse at Deaconess Medical Center, withdrew $2,000 from her savings account and traveled to India.
“The one thing I didn’t prepare myself for was the stench,” she said. “It took me about five days before I could eat a meal.”
After working in the orphanage, the home for the dying and the lepers colony, Bonacum, 44, said she rediscovered the power of prayer.
“Lacking antibiotics, lacking the medications they need, people over there are so desperately sick,” she said. “Yet what I learned is that God honors the work, he honors the prayers. He has shown me that he is indeed a healing God.”
One day, the sisters brought in an 8-year-old boy who had been hit by a car and left in the street to die. He was so bloated, his eyes were swollen shut, his legs were twice their normal size.
Nurses immediately began working on the boy, trying to insert IV needles and alleviate his pain. Bonacum was asking questions about their procedures, but no one was answering. When the day was over, she asked why they were so quiet while they worked.
“You can’t prattle and pray at the same time,” one sister explained.
Within a few days the boy’s eyes were open and he was walking around.
“I really felt that they knew what they were doing was going to work through prayer - and it did,” she said.
After returning to Spokane, Bonacum left the Catholic Church and joined a small Pentecostal church, where she says she is better able to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the same feeling she encountered while attending Mass in the barren chapel at the Mother House in Calcutta.
“I felt like I was on holy ground there,” she said. “She is very close to God. Her whole life is a moving prayer.”
Bonacum’s final impression of Mother Teresa, as she shook her hand before returning to the United States, is of the tiny woman’s big hands.
“Her hands are much bigger, almost disproportionate to the size of her body. They are servants’ hands,” she said. “The thing that came to mind is, ‘This is the hand of God.”’
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