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Baltimoreans remember Mother Teresa: 'She outloved you at every turn'

The nuns who live at the Gift of Hope convent in East Baltimore have little time for frivolity.

They care for hospice residents, many of them seriously ill. They scrub floors, call on shut-ins, visit prisoners.

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They pray four hours every day.

But on Sunday, they're making time for an extravagance.

These four sisters of the Missionaries of Charity plan to gather around a borrowed television early in the day to watch as Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata — the Nobel Prize-winning poverty worker, the beloved founder of their order and a woman they knew — is recognized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to crowd St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City on Sunday as Pope Francis celebrates a Mass to canonize the little Albanian nun who spent nearly 70 years serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India, and beyond. Millions more will see it broadcast live.

In Baltimore, Archbishop William E. Lori will celebrate a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of several commemorative events to take place in the city.

All of which has the sisters eager for their rare bit of TV time.

"This is a joy for us," said Sister Christea, a native of India. "We all know Mother was a saint. But recognition of that by the church will make her even more of a model for everyone to follow. She's for everybody now."

Mother Teresa visited Baltimore three times, in 1975, 1992 and 1996, leaving what many here remember as a deep and lasting impression.

Some local residents aided her in distant places.

Those who knew her speak of the striking contrast between her tiny frame — she stood a mere 4 feet, 10 inches — and the immensity of her spiritual presence and worldly clout.

Lori worked with her often during the early 1990s, when he was priest-secretary for Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington.

"She was always meek," he said. "She was short of stature and never raised her voice. She simply spoke with such utter love and integrity that she outloved you at every turn. You just recognized that and thought, 'I can only benefit by going along with her.'"

Her mission, of course, began a world away.

She was born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to an Albanian family in what is now Macedonia, in 1910. As a teen, she became fascinated with the writings of Jesuit missionaries in Bengal, India, and joined the Sisters of Loreto, a community of Irish nuns with a mission in Calcutta — now Kolkata.

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The young nun took the name Teresa after St. Teresa of Lisieux, the patroness of missionaries, and taught for 17 years at the mission's girls school.

At age 36, her calling changed.

While riding a train to a retreat in Darjeeling, she said, she had a mystical experience of Jesus being with her and communicating a powerful message.

"I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them," she told a journalist years later.

"It was an order," she said. "To fail would have been to break the faith."

She left the Sisters of Loreto to establish the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation dedicated to feeding, clothing and caring for the world's poorest and sickest people.

The mission grew from a handful of former pupils in Kolkata in 1950 to some 4,500 sisters now operating schools, soup kitchens, dispensaries and hospitals in 136 countries. And Mother Teresa gained worldwide fame as a "living saint," earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and became a global symbol of charity.

After she died in 1997, Pope John Paul II waived the traditional five-year waiting period for commencing her candidacy for sainthood.

John Paul II recognized a miracle attributed to her intercession in 2002. Pope Francis recognized a second miracle in 2015, clearing the way for canonization.

Francis set her canonization for Sept. 4, the 19th anniversary of her death and a day that falls within the Jubilee Year of Mercy that Francis declared last year.

That decision struck Sean Callahan as fitting.

"The Holy Father is very entwined with putting others before ourselves, and that was Mother Teresa's life," the Ellicott City man said.

Callahan — now the chief operating officer for Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church in the United States — labored side by side with the saint-to-be for years.

He was working in Sierra Leone when he got a call informing him he was being moved to Kolkata to become the regional director for East India.

Friends told him to be prepared for the conditions in Kolkata, including 3 million homeless people and widespread disease. He also admits that the idea of working with the world figure seemed a little daunting.

But her soft voice and welcoming manner put him right at ease. Callahan recalls her using her surprisingly large hands to enfold his. And he soon realized she used this radiant gentleness as a powerful beacon of hope.

The work included bathing the sick, tending their wounds, even carrying the bodies of the dead. After one patient died in his presence, he consulted Mother Teresa.

She listened to his account, smiled and finally told him it was a blessing.

"It was so important for you to be there at that moment before this man saw the face of God," she said.

"She saw life on earth as her opportunity to relieve others' suffering," Callahan said. "And she really took to it with joy."

He saw that Mother Teresa prayed with unusual depth, had a lively sense of humor, loved to sing, and had a world-class gift for cutting through red tape.

Lori saw that quality during his time in Washington — at times to his chagrin.

Mother Teresa traveled frequently to the capital. And when she did, it often fell to Lori to handle the logistics.

Hickey loved her, Lori said, and when she came in the mid-1990s to found a new hospice, the cardinal "basically gave her her choice of several buildings."

Lori confesses that he and others hoped she would pick a logistically simple site. But "Mother chose the one that would cause the most upheaval": the headquarters of Catholic Charities in Washington.

The archdiocese moved the whole operation to make room for a few nuns and people in need. The center survives, and Lori said the experience expanded his point of view.

"In her calculus, serving homeless people who were suffering from HIV and AIDS, and who had nowhere else to turn, was of greater value than a headquarters even for a wonderful charity," he said. "It's hard to argue with. It was a great lesson in 'Give, and you shall receive.'"

Mother Teresa's influence also came across in smaller moments.

Patti Murphy Dohn was teaching school in Bel Air in May 1996 during Mother Teresa's third and last visit to Baltimore. Dohn decided at the last moment to cancel her classes, gather up her three school-age children and drive into the city, where Mother Teresa was to take part in a 3 p.m. Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption.

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She had come to lead a ceremony at which 35 Missionaries of Charity sisters renewed their vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and charity, as they do every five years.

To Dohn's amazement, the traffic she expected on Interstate 95 never materialized. They found a spot to stand in the packed cathedral, and they saw the whole Mass.

Afterward, on her way to the exit, Mother Teresa approached them, her hands folded, smiling broadly.

"She made eye contact [with me] and bowed her head down gracefully three times, once toward each of my children," Dohn said.

"There are no words to describe the joy we all felt and still feel."

Dohn, who taught religion at the John Carroll School for 33 years, said she always remembered the power of that smile.

"Mother Teresa once said, 'Peace begins with a smile,' and she's right: It's a great way to show compassion and build relationships," Dohn said. "I've tried to share mine whenever I can."

Catholics believe that affirmation as a saint means the servant is present in heaven, and believers can pray to her or him to intercede with God.

Baltimoreans can mark the occasion by attending the Mass at 10:45 a.m. at the Basilica, or a second one Lori is to celebrate at St. Wenceslaus at 11 a.m. Sept. 10.

They can also attend screenings of a documentary about Mother Teresa at several local churches.

Mother Teresa came to Baltimore in 1992 to dedicate Gift of Hope as an AIDS hospice.

The sisters who work there now say the celebrations of her canonization can inspire anyone, of any faith or no faith — just as "Mother" inspires them every day.

The four gathered in a small parlor one recent morning to discuss their lives and work. Residents' average stay at Gift of Hope is shorter now, thanks to medical advances, but many of the handful of men who live there struggle with other illnesses, including addiction.

Sister Christea showed a visitor a display case full of Mother Teresa artifacts, including a cup, bowl and silverware she used during a visit.

Sounding almost apologetic, she said the nuns almost never watch TV — and they plan to return the set right after the ceremony.

At that point, she said, they'll return to what they really love to do.

"Mother is not alive now," she said, smiling, "but her spirit is still among us. We'll continue to do God's work. The work carries on."

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