The Bridgeville Area Historical Society provides the community with many valuable services, the most popular of which may well be its monthly series of historical programs. Most of these are “one-shot” deals, a speaker with specific knowledge on a particular event or subject; others are return visits by versatile presenters whom we know will excel regardless of their subject.
Dr. John Aupperle is such a presenter; his annual visit is always eagerly anticipated and he never fails to meet our expectations. He is an accomplished Methodist minister, as well as being a professor of comparative theology at Saint Vincent College. His talks have featured an Honor Roll of his favorite historical characters, most recently Barbara Bush and John McCain.
This year his subject was Mother Teresa. It is not surprising that his presentation on such a subject came very close to being a sermon. That isn’t intended to be a criticism; I am sure his sermons are much more interesting than those of most Methodist preachers.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta was born as Anjeze Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje in the Balkans at a time when the region now comprising Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire. Her family was part of a small Roman Catholic community in an area that was ninety percent Muslim. As a child she was greatly influenced by her parents. Her father’s sudden death when she was eight years old left the family in financial difficulty; her mother’s example coping with it had a profound effect on her.
When she was eighteen, she determined that her destiny was to become a missionary. She left home, never to see her family again, and made her way to Loreto Abbey, home of the Sisters of Loreto in Rathfamham, Ireland, where she learned English preparatory to an assignment in India. A year later she began her novitiate in Darjeeling in the lower Himalayas. There she learned Bengali and began to teach at St. Teresa’s School.
She took her solemn vows in 1937, as well as the name Teresa, in honor of Therese of Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries. By then she was in Calcutta, teaching at the Loreto convent school in Entally. She served there for nearly twenty years, eventually being named headmistress in 1944.
In 1946 while on a train trip to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, she had an experience that she described as “a call within the call”. She realized that she must “leave the convent and help the poor while living among them.” According to Dr. Aupperle, when her request was turned down by the ailing Calcutta archbishop, she vowed to pray for his recovery. When it miraculously occurred, he changed his mind and allowed her request.
In 1948 she traded her traditional Loreto habit for a white sari with a blue border, adopted Indian citizenship, received medical training, and moved into the slums. She begged for food and supplies while resisting the temptation to return to the security of convent life. Eventually she was joined by a group of inspired young women and, in 1950, obtained Vatican permission to organize what ultimately became known as the “Missionaries of Charity”.
Her organization cared for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers … people who have become a burden to society”. In 1952 they opened a hospice where dying people of every faith received medical attention and the opportunity to die with dignity, in accordance to their faith. Next came orphanages and leprosy-outreach clinics throughout India.
The program soon spread throughout the world, with eventually 450 brothers and 5,000 sisters operating 600 shelters, schools, and missions in well over 100 countries. In 1969 Mother Teresa became famous thanks to a documentary produced by Malcolm Muggeridge entitled “Something Beautiful for God”, followed by a book with the same title.
Mother Teresa soon became an international celebrity, a role with which she was quite uncomfortable. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she refused to attend the ceremonial banquet for laureates, suggesting instead that the money it cost ($192,000) be donated to the poor in India. Despite heart attacks in 1983 and 1989, she continued to be active until her death in 1997.
Canonization of Teresa as a Saint turned out to be a difficult situation. There was no question regarding the massive body of her good works – finding the requisite miracle was a different matter. The first candidate – an Indian lady with an abdominal tumor – turned out to be controversial when her family attributed her recovery to medical treatment. Eventually Pope Francis learned of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors and a recovery that was confirmed miraculous by the postulation. Saint Teresa of Calcutta was canonized in 2016.
For those of us who are not Roman Catholic, it is convenient to refer to the dictionary for a definition of the term saint. According to Merriam-Webster a saint is “one eminent for piety or virtue”. Mother Teresa certainly fits that definition perfectly; in an illustrated dictionary a picture of her would be the appropriate example.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta was indeed a remarkable human being. We are grateful to Dr. Aupperle for reminding us of her unselfish commitment to serving the unwanted. Our special thanks to Tim McNellie for filming this presentation and posting it on “Bridgeville.org” for the benefit of those of us unable to attend in person.
The Society’s next program meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 22, 2021, at 7:30, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. Another of our favorite speakers, Jack Puglisi, will discuss “The Life and Times of Andrew Jackson”. The Society’s Annual Meeting will precede it at 6:45.
Previous columns in this series may be accessed on the Bridgeville Area Historical Society website under the masthead designation “Water Under the Bridge” or on the “Bridgeville.org” website.