Teresa of Calcutta: Our Model, Our Friend, Our Mother

Photos by CRS Staff

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As an unabashed fan of Mother Teresa—soon to be Saint Teresa—I’ve marveled at the many photos of her stored in our CRS archives. We have a long history of working with this great woman and her order, the Missionaries of Charity. Many of us knew her as a friend, particularly longtime staffer Eileen Egan, who lived her life with some saintly doggedness in her own right.

Together with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries, we tackled some of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century. Often on joint projects, she would arrive first and send a message back saying, “I need food.” Food wasn’t always easy to find in the places she needed it—simply getting trucks across borders was politically problematic—but who were we to say no to such a woman?

Photo by Kent Kobersteen/CRS
Photo by Kent Kobersteen/CRS

And so, I delight in finding our archives filled with decades of images of this person the world knew as Mother Teresa. Perusing through, I see her in one photo leading the plans for a lifesaving mission. Beside her, tall, stocky and seemingly important men make no argument as to who is in charge. In another photo, she appears in prayer, her sisters surrounding her as together they seek to know God’s will. Over here, she is tending to elderly, emaciated, dying figures, giving them a saint’s blessing to hold close as they confront their mortality, finding in her caring a dignity that they too rarely knew in life. And then, there she is with her hands tenderly cradling a hungry, suffering infant, her eyes looking up with a steely, scandalized gaze, seemingly asking all on Earth and in heaven, “Why must this be?”

But two shots stayed with me longest. One is of Mother Teresa’s face buried in her hands—hands riven and scored with the effects of her work, weathered and gnarled, but never stopped from answering God’s call. It was only a moment our photographer captured, but a moment heavy with significance.

The other photo shows something of a flip side. It was captured on the airport tarmac in the city of Jijiga, Ethiopia, 1984. Mother Teresa has arrived to help confront one of the great humanitarian crises of our time, the Ethiopian famine. She is met by longtime CRS staffer and acquiantance Larry Bourassa, who attempts to greet her with a kiss, and instead gets a face full of her hand as she turns away with a mix of playfulness and seriousness. Silly as it is, it was also a moment filled with meaning.

Photo by CRS Staff
Photo by CRS Staff

We are called to take up the cross for each other—a profound theology of suffering. But we are also called to bring the joy of God’s message of mercy to every dark corner of the world. These two messages can be hard to balance in one human heart. But we have these people among us we call saints, who embody Christ in all his compassionate suffering, and in all his tender joy as well.

CRS rejoices—and we invite you to rejoice with us—at the elevation of our holy model, our blessed friend and our dear mother, Teresa of Calcutta, to the canon of saints. Her life stands as a shining beacon for all who seek to follow God’s will, and so allows the light of Christ to shine anew.

She belongs to heaven now. May we on Earth continue act as saints for one another.

Mother Teresa is joined in prayer by her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, in their chapel in Calcutta. Photo by CRS staff
The Missionaries of Charity pray in their same chapel in 2006. Behind them, a statue of Mother Teresa sits in prayer with her sisters. Photo by Karl Grobl for CRS
Mother Teresa is joined by longtime CRS staffer Eileen Egan and former CRS Executive Director Bishop Edward Swanstrom as they plan overseas food shipments.  Photo by CRS staff
An infant finds comfort in Mother Teresa’s arms in India.  Photo by CRS staff
Mother Teresa joins CRS on a visit to Cambodia amidst a refugee crisis in 1968. She is flanked by CRS’ Father Robert Charlebois and Julie Villaume.  Photo by CRS staff
At a home for orphaned and abandoned children in Shishu Bavan, India, Mother Teresa watches over infants who would otherwise have been left to die. Photographed in 1975, these children would be 42-year-olds today. Photo by CRS staff
Mother Teresa takes a moment to shield her eyes with the hands she has used to hold so many people in need. Photo by Kent Kobersteen/CRS
Photographed in 1979, the letter in Mother Teresa’s hand has just informed her she would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Photo by Pranab Mukerjee/CRS
Mother Teresa arrives in Ethiopia in 1984, joining international efforts to combat East Africa’s crippling drought. Here, she playfully rejects a kiss from CRS’ Larry Barassa. Photo by CRS staff
Our senior staff ((then-President Ken Hackett, Chief Operating Officer Sean Callahan—who served with her in India—and then-Board Chair Bishop John Rica) listen attentively to Mother Teresa as she visits CRS headquarters in 1996. Photo by CRS staff