AS I REJOICE in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and mourn her death, I remember with awe her visit to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. She came to contribute to our celebration of International Women's Year, 1975. She had dinner with us, gave an evening lecture and spent the night. This is how it happened.
In the early '70s, many women's colleges joined the nationwide movement to coeducation. Notre Dame had renewed its strong commitment to the education of women when I became president in 1971. To demonstrate our focus on women, we decided to bring a distinguished group of women to the campus for a public lecture series for International Women's Year. First on our choice list was Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
At this time, she was well known among Roman Catholics, but she did not have the world recognition that she soon attained. Even so, to get her to our campus was a challenge.
I turned to the general superior of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Rome, who spoke to Mother Teresa and asked her to come to Notre Dame during 1975. We would plan our year's lecture series after she gave us the date that she could come.
A short time later we were placed in her itinerary for a trip to Washington and Baltimore on Oct. 26 and 27, 1975. Once we had this information, we called other distinguished women to invite them to help us celebrate our commitment to women. When each heard that Mother Teresa would be on the year's program, we received affirmative responses.
Mother Teresa's presence on Notre Dame's campus gave me a deeper understanding of three of her personal qualities.
God-centered: When Mother Teresa arrived on campus for a small dinner before the lecture, she said to me as we approached the dining room: "Is there a chapel in this building?" I took her to a small chapel, where she dropped to her knees and spent about three minutes absorbed in prayer. We then returned to the dining room.
She spent the night with us, and the next morning I arrived in the large convent chapel about 6: 30 for 7 a.m. Mass, but she was not present. About 6: 50, I began to worry that she had overslept. As I walked to the front of the chapel to go to the guest room, I saw her sitting on the floor in front of the first bench, completely out of sight. I sensed that she had been there for some time.
'Do We Know the Poor?'
Other-centered: The theme of her evening lecture was stated in the question: "Do we know the poor?" She challenged her audience: "You and I will be judged by what we have been to the poor." At the close of the talk, she agreed to answer questions. I sat on the stage and watched her respond directly and thoughtfully to questioners. After about 20 minutes of questions and answers, I expected her to draw the questioning to a close, but she did not. Another five minutes passed. I realized that she would never stop responding to the hands of the questioners. It simply would not occur to her to do so. I brought the question period to an end.
At the reception following the lecture, she shook hands with and spoke to every person who lined up to meet her. Once again, I had to call a halt. That willingness to give beyond the normal bounds showed me what it meant "to give and not to count the cost."
Balance: In her lecture, she illuminated her belief that Christ dwells in each of us, especially in the poor and suffering. Her message stressed direct service to the poor. One of the questioners, a teacher, expressed concern that she was continuing to teach in school, while many of her companions were moving into social work. Mother Teresa then extolled the mission of teaching. Her gentle voice became firm as she encouraged the questioner, and many other teachers in the audience, to continue in the work to which they had been called.
Twenty-seven years later, I recall the chill I experienced when Mother Teresa and I reached the back door of a noisy auditorium, crowded with 1,000 people. A deep silence immediately enveloped the room. We had not even entered; yet the waiting crowd sensed that she had arrived.
Now we can only rejoice that she has arrived where her God-centeredness kept drawing her. She has left to her congregation, and to the world, a legacy of concern for the poor. We will be impoverished if we fail to make it our own.
Kathleen Feeley, S.S.N.D., is executive director of the Caroline Center and visiting professor at UMBC.
Pub Date: 9/10/97