A week from today, Mother Teresa will be canonized at the Vatican. But she was already known as “a living saint” when on a bright summer’s day — June 26, 1986 — she made her first visit to St. Agnes Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre.
I had read in Newsday then that she was coming to pray with clergy for more vocations to the religious life. I vowed not to miss her visit. When would I have this chance again? I wanted to see what was so special about the little nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize for serving people in the gutters of Calcutta.
When I arrived that day with my 6-year-old son, Erik, more than 1,100 people filled the pews of the cathedral. Since I hate sitting in the back and not seeing what goes on, I tried a side door near the altar. When I entered, I nearly tripped over TV-camera wires on the floor.
Luckily, some of the priests sitting on the side of the main altar took pity and asked me to sit with them! I took a deep breath and climbed a step while carrying Erik.
After some waiting, our special guest in the white sari trimmed with blue stripes walked onto the altar. We all rose to greet her.
There were songs and talks by others. From where Mother Teresa sat, just a few feet away, she surveyed the crowd. For a moment, she caught my eye and looked straight at me.Time stood still, and I felt humbled in her presence.
Before she spoke, I sent my son over to her a few steps away with an envelope. It contained a small donation and an article I had written in the local Pennysaver about how my local charity, the Make A Wish Foundation, needed funds. I hoped she might pray for us. Mother Teresa stooped, looked Erik in the eye and patted his head. My heart raced.
Mother Teresa told the congregation about her experiences serving the poor.
“God doesn’t expect great things,” the nun said. “What He expects from us is small things with great love . . . ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
I felt she was a passionate woman, not at all stiff, formal or cold. I felt she was an ecumenical figure who embraced all people and left a mark on each individual.
It amazed me that a woman could love God and humanity so much. Her unabashed devotion was evident. Although 75 years old and wrinkled, she seemed like a beauty queen. She defied the Madison Avenue-Hollywood versions of beauty. I felt like I was in a sisterhood with her and should be helping her.
Later that year, I went to the South Bronx, where she was visiting one of her Missionaries of Charity homes. This time, I went with my husband and both sons, Erik and Ryan. We attended Mass with her early in the morning, and she blessed my boys and hugged them. Today I have a statue of her hugging a little boy.
When she died in 1997, I said a few words at a memorial Mass for her at Our Holy Redeemer Church in Freeport. I ended my eulogy for Mother Teresa by telling the congregation that my own mother had just died a day earlier. I said I believed Mother Teresa was welcoming her to heaven, and that it certainly helped to have friends in high places.
Meeting Mother Teresa remains a highlight of my life. I told my sons that someday they would sit in a church and see stained-glass windows with her image and remember that they met one of the most renowned people of the 20th century — a true saint.
Reader Gloria Schramm lives in North Bellmore.