Mary, Martha, and Mother’s Message

By Concetta Anne Bencivenga  |  Photos courtesy of Concetta Anne Bencivenga

Concetta Anne Bencivenga, ’91, wrote this piece about meeting Mother Teresa and volunteering alongside her for a parish bulletin in September 1997. The photos were taken during her time serving in the Peace Corps, including a few from her time volunteering with Mother Teresa.

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In April if 1993 I decided along with some friends to take a trip to Calcutta to work for Mother Teresa. I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village in the Northeast portion of Thailand and the school summer break extends from late March until early May. I suppose the three weeks I lived and worked in Calcutta might qualify me for the Olympics of “What I did on my summer vacation.” It ended up being one of the most profound experiences of my life.

We arrived in Calcutta at dusk on a hot April evening. April in most of India is hot. April in Calcutta is oppressively hot. We were a bit nervous as none of us had ever been to India before and all we had to guide us was a Lonely Planet tour book and our Peace Corps learned survival skills. We hooked up with some other foreigners and engaged in a lively price setting conversation with a taxi driver. Three hours and four hotels later we finally found a hotel that was out of our price range but looked safe for the night. We all piled into one room and within minutes were fast asleep. The next morning I woke up to my friend standing by the window and laughing with relief. We had unknowingly ended up directly across the street from Xavier University of Calcutta. She had graduated from Marquette University and I from Loyola College. Needless to say, we took this as a sign that things would be all right. We got directions to the Mother House from a kind old Jesuit at the university, fetched the rest of our gang and headed out to 25 Lower Circular Road, the worldwide headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity. Outside the Mother House front door there was a weathered wooden sign which simply read Mother with a sliding wood slot for In or Out. To our delight we were informed that Mother Teresa was in. We were greeted by a young nun who brought us to the outer waiting room. She went to get the volunteer coordinator who arrived minutes later to take our information. The sister in charge of registering volunteers then graciously informed us that we were much too late for working that day but she invited us to join them for evening rosary. It was 9 a.m.

The following morning we rose at 5:30 a.m. to wash and walk from our new home, the Hotel Maria which is a de facto hostel for those working with the Missionaries of Charity, to morning Mass. Mother Teresa had not been available for evening rosary the night before, but we had been assured that she would be at morning Mass. I was extremely eager—well, I’d say borderline obsessed—to see Mother Teresa in person. I positioned myself towards the front of the chapel so that I could be nearer to her. The Mass was conducted by Father Abello, a gifted and wonderful Jesuit in ragtag pants and a threadbare top. The chapel is a large room with no chairs and no kneelers. Some people opted for burlap sacks to kneel on. I could never figure out if this was for comfort or penance. The Mass proceeded and I was becoming distraught. Mother was not in the first row, nor the second or the third. She wasn’t on the right or the left side of the alrar. Then I saw her. In the last row of the chapel, sitting on the floor with the rest of us. Her eyes were closed in quiet contemplation. I was mortified and could only think, “Well, so much for my pious effort to work for Mother Teresa.” It was to be the first in a long string of humbling experiences.

My friends and I were assigned to work at Prem Dam which is one of many homes for the dying and destitute scattered throughout Calcutta. Khaligut is the most famous home and having spent a day there I can attest to the fact that it is a place for people to die with dignity. Prem Dam on the other hand is for those individuals who are mentally incapacitated. I loved working there because it was a place of life and somethings death and to be sure there was never a dull moment. There was an immediate sense of camaraderie among all the volunteers combined with an occasional sense of conspiracy among some of the patients. Each morning we would arrive at 7 a.m. and we would divide up into different groups. Some of us would bathe the patients, others would start on the laundry, others would scrub down the ward and a few would help with lunch. The work was hard but fun. For five hours we’d wash people, clothing, and floors, and then we’d serve lunch. At noon we would depart and walk back to our hotel where on most days we would collapse from heat and exhaustion and sleep till late afternoon.

We would eat around 4 p.m. and then go to evening rosary which was also held in the chapel. I loved evening rosary because it was time to share a common bond with Catholics from Spain, Mexico, Japan, Australia, South Africa. And also present each evening were Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims who were not praying with us but were involved in their own sense of meditation and contemplation. It was a very powerful reminder that spirituality is universal.

The day that I met Mother Teresa was atypical for one reason. I brought my camera. Taking photographs while working was strictly prohibited unless you had a written consent letter from Mother. I was not expecting to take pictures inside Prem Dam but was hoping to catch some snapshots of life along the walk to work, so at the last second I tossed my camera into my bag. I was working with a patient who was visibly upset over something when I heard the commotion outside. All around me the volunteers were heading out towards the car park area and then I heard a loud exclamation that Mother Teresa was there. She had come to bring a wealthy Canadian couple to show them all that their generosity had provided. As they were taking pictures of the site, one of the nuns informed everyone that it would be okay to take pictures too. I can remember looking into the eyes of the patient that I was working with and thinking to myself, “No, I won’t go. I’ll keep working.” My little friend was now smiling up at me and when I walked her over to the bench and sat her down, I was struck with thoughts of Mary and Martha. Martha’s slaving away in the kitchen, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening, and when Martha goes to yell at Mary, she gets chastised by Jesus. I walked out the door into the sunlight of the courtyard and instantly was grabbed by three of my new friends who admonished me in Spanish, “Where have you been? We’ve been looking for you. Go now. Mother is blessing people.” They shoved me into the middle of the small circle that had formed around Mother, and I stood before her looking into her eyes. They were the deepest eyes I have ever seen. I bent down and Mother placed her hands on my head and blessed me with a smile. I stepped out of the throng of people, walked over to the curb, sank down, put my head between my knees, and cried. I will live my life believing that that moment is the closest I will ever get to looking into the eyes of God.

In typical Mother Teresa style, minutes later she was walking around inspecting the ward, admonishing a friend for not wearing gloves and speaking lovingly to the patients. And so it went for the rest of my days in Calcutta. Sharing morning Mass with Mother Teresa, working all morning, sharing evening prayer with anyone who felt like praying, and learning all the while.

I have never written about this before, and in fact I am a bit reluctant to write about it now. I am doing so because, well, first of all my Mom asked and she’s a hard lady to say no to. Aside from that, I’ve been troubled by much of the talk that has revolved around Mother Teresa’s death. So many people, from pundits to politicians to priests have spoken to Mother Teresa’s life as something we all need to live “up to.” If we use her life and work as some sort of “bench mark” that communities and individuals should do, then we lost sight of approaching what each person can do. I’m reminded of a story that we were told by one of the nuns. Mother had received some rice, not much but enough to help out a woman with five children who were all rumored to be starving to death. She went out to visit the woman and presented her with the rice. This woman, a Hindu, promptly took out half the rice and walked toward the door. Mother asked her where she was going and the woman replied, “I’m giving half to my neighbors (a Muslim family). They’re starving too.” That’s a bench mark.

There is a fourth postulate that makes the vows of the Missionaries of Charity different from other religious orders. It is a vow of Joy and therein lies what I believe is the essence of Mother Teresa. Raise your children. Teach one another tolerance. Appreciate what you have and give that which you can give. Show one another love. Laugh. In each of these and all of your endeavors look for the joy that life brings. I learned these things from a woman in a four-dollar sari who lived an extraordinary life. If we teach them to love one another, the memory of Mother Teresa and her message will live on for a very long time indeed.

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