Toronto memories of Mother Teresa
With the recent centenary anniversary of Mother Theresa's birth in mind, we have reprinted Sr. Gwen Smith's recollection of some very special visits.
In the early 70s, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a relative unknown. Father Tom McKillop, the founder of Youth Corps, sought leaders like Jean Vanier, John Howard Griffin and Mother Teresa, who could inspire youth to become active disciples of Jesus.
The Youth Corps team to which I belonged had been seeking a new voice. Someone had read of this Mother Teresa of Calcutta who was serving the poor. We wondered if the nun, a formidable doer, was a speaker. Providentially, another Sister of St. Joseph, Sue Mosteller, who worked with L'Arche, told me that she was going to the U.S. to receive the Kennedy award for outstanding humanitarian service, along with Jean Vanier.
Sister Sue asked Jean to ask Mother Teresa if she would speak at our next Toronto event. Mother Teresa said that she wanted to stay at a small, poor convent. Sister Sue thought our house on McGee St. in South Riverdale would fill the bill. Her housemates agreed, needless to say. It was a privilege for the Youth Corps team to join them for a meal and Eucharist.
To accommodate Mother Teresa's schedule, we had to move the event to Massey Hall. We worried that the larger venue would be intimidating for her. We needn't have worried. Mother Teresa was so centered on Jesus and Jesus in the "distressing disguise of the poor" that she was totally unselfconscious. She held the audience spellbound with stories of her Sisters in the House for the Dying in Calcutta and in the outback of Australia. With the same simplicity, she delighted in the songs of Bob Carty and the stories of Jean Vanier.
A few years later, we were able to book Mother Teresa for another event at Massey Hall. I think we could have filled Downsview! Mother Teresa again requested to stay in a small convent. I was happy to be living in a small, humble house on Dundas Street. Sister Joanne gladly gave up her bed for Mother Teresa. We laugh today that perhaps we should put up plaques: "Mother Teresa slept here"! Actually, we think she spent more time praying than sleeping.
When Tom Harpur wrote of her upcoming visit mid-March in the Toronto Star, the Youth Corps office was deluged. We were sold out in under an hour. We asked Mother Teresa to speak at 5 p.m. mass at St. Michael's Cathedral.
Mother Teresa wanted her honorarium to be used to rebuild poor peoples' homes destroyed in a recent earthquake in Guatemala. Sr. Betty Lou Knox CSJ, recently returned from Guatemala, set up a contact to see that the money reached the poor for whom it was intended.
Mother Teresa had a good sense of humour. I had given up my ticket and was ushering to be able to attend. I said I hoped she had a ticket; otherwise she might not get in. Mother Teresa laughed, and told the following story, "Once I went to Rome to receive an honour from the Pope. His Holiness had sent all of our Sisters in Rome an invitation. As the Sisters passed the Swiss Guard, he took their tickets. I was the last one in. I had no ticket. The guard shook his head and blocked my way. Meanwhile, the Sisters had gone ahead with the Monsignor who had come for us. I thought that day I might not have gotten in. Finally, they looked around and came to my rescue!"
As Mother Teresa's renown grew, her accessibility to small groups decreased. Youth Corps did manage one last visit, this time for a Peace Rally at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. I was out west at the time, but etched in my memory is the photo of Mother Teresa at prayer beside a Japanese woman as mime artist Robert Morgan released real live doves of peace. Robert has gone on to develop young missionaries of peace through his Children's Peace Theatre.
Now that Mother Teresa is recognized by the universal church, we pray that she will remember her friends in Toronto who have such beautiful memories of her.
By Gwen Smith CSJ
Reprinted with permission of Catholic New Times, Nov. 2, 2003