It was Christmas Day 1979, another steamy hot day working in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes in Calcutta.
I had travelled to India at 19 to work in the slums of Calcutta and in the Kalighat Home for the Dying Destitutes or as it is now known, Nirmal Hriday, the Home of the Pure Heart. It was in one of the oldest and at the time most impoverished areas of inner South Calcutta.
My first day at work was as shocking as it was confronting. I arrived at the Home to discover around 50 men and women lined up on stretchers in a large tiled room. They were in varying states of disrepair and impoverishment. They had been brought in by the brothers and sisters of Charity, either to recover or to die. My jobs were to wash or wipe them down, dress wounds and infections, provide the most basic medicines that had been donated and generally make them feel comfortable and cared for. And I had to clean the toilets.
If they got well again the sisters send them back to the streets with our love and blessings, but nothing more.
Several times a week we would drive around Calcutta in a three wheel motor buggy. Our job was to visit the slums and see if anyone had collapsed in the streets or lanes and repatriate them to the House. We would look under threadbare blankets, discarded tarpaulins or pieces of cardboard. Those with a chance of life, no matter how fleeting, were our primary responsibility. We would carry them to our buggy and head back to the House.
At the House I would bathe bedsores the size of pizzas and tend to wounds that had burst open as a result of infection or the searing heat. We performed urgent albeit minor surgery on a few people without anaesthetics. My job was to hold them down. It was amateurish and, to a casual observer, probably heartless. But when you have nothing available to you, to do nothing is not an option. In hindsight it was caring and necessary.
On this particular day I was tending to a man who had been brought in from the streets with a massive stomach tumour that had burst open inside his abdomen. I was wiping him down, trying to give him some respite from the relentless heat, when a pair of hands appeared from nowhere to help me cradle his head. I turned around to offer my thanks and it was Mother Teresa.
We spent Christmas morning together, the two of us moving from stretcher to stretcher tending to the residents.
We talked easily about the House. What did we talk about? Everyday things, just as two work colleagues or friends who are bound by a common interest would do. She was a determined woman who was clear about the role of the Home and the care that was being offered to the residents. She spoke in matter-of-fact sometimes stern terms on her uncompromising service to the poor.
I asked her if there was more we could do for these people, particularly when our chosen course was to send them back to the streets, back to their impoverished circumstances, back to the place that was the cause of their distress.
I felt we could potentially improve their circumstances, although in hindsight it was a wish that I knew could never be granted given the size of the problem. Mother Teresa said that the greatest gift we could give was to serve the poorest of the poor in the best way we could. It was not about the outcomes as much as the service to the poor that mattered.
To bring emphasis to this she had introduced a fourth vow to her Order, in addition to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. It was also expected to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor” and to live like them.
Whilst she was unwavering in her devotion to the poor and has been criticised for some of her approaches, this was also a woman who was turning the tables on the way we viewed the world. She said that the poor not just mattered but mattered the most. It was, in effect, asking us to take an upside down approach to the world. We begin with the worst off, as this is the measure by which we all are judged.
Maybe the methods were not to everyone’s taste and maybe the vision for the poor was not as ambitious as it could be, but she was defiant in our conversation that what we did with the poor is to serve them, and never to be above them.
Her reputation and work grew as did her message: that a world cannot be comfortable until it serves first the forgotten, the downtrodden, the broken and the helpless
Now she is being canonised for her legacy. Whilst I am not sure about the methods and miracles that followed in making a Saint, I think the message of this canonisation is that there is something to be gained from viewing the world upside down, that is from the poor first. Here in Australia some of our indigenous communities, our young in state care, the plight of our asylum seekers, or our homeless would all benefit from us, the lucky and affluent country we are, looking through the window by which Mother Teresa viewed the world.
To see Mother Teresa being made a saint, is something many can share in it as it is a reminder that our impact on this planet counts most not just when we do the large things but when we do the small things. These are the things that can make the difference to what may seem insurmountable problems that overwhelm us.
And as many of the volunteers and staff of welfare services around the country who place themselves amongst the needy would attest, working with those struck down by poverty may be seen as a losing battle against a wall of poverty and disadvantage experienced by many around the world, but for the person on the end of that care, the message in Mother Teresa’s canonisation is that it can also make a world of difference.
CEO of Anglicare Victoria