Fourteen years after the Missionaries of Charity were established, Mother Teresa went to the 1964 Eucharistic Congress presided by Pope Paul VI. Her work had reached the Vatican. Pope Paul VI donated the gift he received, a Lincoln Continental limousine to Mother Teresa. It took almost three years to raffle the gift to have sufficient funds to construct the Shantinagar Leprosy Rehabilitation Center. The land given by the Government was over 20 miles from the closest city, bus depot, train station and shopping bazaar. The dry land was considered jungle deforested.
After a few years Shantinagar was filled with 8 Sisters close to 200 patients, approximately 70 children and no Priest for daily Mass. After the Calcutta orientation, Mother with profound eye contact, asked if I would be willing to go to Shantinagar. The response was positive. The following day accompanied by a Brother two young ladies and two young men volunteers we arrived without the Shantinagar Sister Superior knowing of Mother’s decision to send us. There was a large guest room with 6 beds, a table with 6 chairs, two soft chairs and a coffee table. I felt like an experienced missionary as I shared the instructions first given to me, don’t unpack, there is no place to put your belongings, everyone will have a plastic bucket for the daily bath and for washing clothes. This resulted sometimes with volunteers not staying too long. In those days we had erratic electricity, no running water, lack of privacy, a diet of rice, lentil, vegetables bread, the occasional egg or chicken and miniature bananas three times a day along with plenty of mosquitoes. I concluded that you could only be happy and fulfilled if you were truly meant to be in Shantinagar. For me, the whole Shantinagar world with the patients, Sisters, children and neighboring villagers was heavenly. I would have to return to the United States in two months time, but I thought like all my assignments, I could take a vow of stability here. There was a profound blessing when I returned to Shantinagar.
Although Mother Teresa was Macedonian an ethnic minority in Albania, her country became part of what what was to be called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until 1992. At 16,when Mother departed Skokie,Albania to enter the Irish Sisters of Loreto another young girl from Yugoslavia was to follow. They went through the Sisters formation in Ireland and both became missionaries to India. They were friends as young adults, teachers at Loreto English medium schools and when Mother Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity she was to follow a few years later. This person was Shantinagar Sister Superior. During my almost 4 years at Shantinagar I was privileged to hear stories of their acquaintance, and religious life in Loreto. Mother Teresa did not talk about those years and were never covered by authors or journalists. There was nothing spectacular to share, but hearing tidbits of those twenty hidden years gave me another bond in knowing a saint.
Returning to Calcutta Mother Teresa wanted to know about my experience especially with Shantinagar Sister Superior. We had a good few laughs. Mother gave interest in one event. The contractors who built the facility were making an assessment. In the guest room they asked how I as a person from the USA could stay there without a wife, children and all the material things that would be available elsewhere. They stated that none of them could do it. While reflecting on the question for a moment, Sahantinagar Sister Superior spoke out: “He can do it because God loves him.” Mother Teresa shared that once a person realizes they are loved by God, it is true you can do the unbelievable. She said that in her life one miracle takes place after another not because of her, but being an instrument like a pencil in God’s hands. Although Mother Teresa did not feel it, during her period of darkness, she believed it with her heart and soul. (To be continued)
Fraternally in the Sacred Hearts,
Fr. Bill Petrie, ss.cc.