Notes from a Jersey Girl

by Lisa G Westheimer


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The Day I Met Mother Teresa

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“I want to give you a gift and I know you don’t want it,” my friend Father Peter said on the phone.  It was late January, 1994, and a blizzard was on its way.  I was living in Soho in NYC and a parishioner at The Catholic Center at NYU on Washington Square.  I had become good friends with Father Peter Cameron who was a pastor at the church.

In general, life was very very good for me.  I had a wonderful husband, was living in a loft in Soho, had a good job- I could have been Sarah Jessica Parker’s respectable friend in an episode of Sex in the City had it been on the air yet.  But at that time, life was a bit of a trial-  In the span of a week, had lost 4 friends very suddenly to various circumstances, and had to put my dog to sleep.  One of those friends was my best friend’s mother, who was like a second mother to me when I was a teen.  She died fairly young and suddenly, during a routine medical procedure.  Her funeral was the next day.  All of this had me questioning life, and my faith.  The night before that phone call from Fr Peter, I asked God why he took them instead of me, and wondered why in the scheme of things, I should keep going on this path he laid out for me.

“I want to introduce you to Mother Teresa,”  Father Peter said, “that’s my gift to you, I want you to meet her.”

“You’re right,”  I replied, “I don’t want to meet her.”

Meet Mother Teresa?  Me?!  What would I say to her?  What would I do?

“Besides,” he went on, “I have to say mass for her in Harlem, it’s going to snow and you’re the only one I know with 4 wheel drive.”

“Well in that case, ok,”  I said.  I hung up the phone, looked upward and said, “you could have come to me in a dream you know.”

So that is how I happened to be in my car at 6am, slogging up the west side of Manhattan in the driving snow with Father Peter riding shotgun, and in the back seat, another friend Mike, who was a professor at NYU and a boy Fr Peter was mentoring who was in the RCIA program, about to be baptized and confirmed into the church.  We swung by and picked up a Sister of Charity from their convent the West Village then made the trek up to Harlem.  Here we were, 5 pilgrims squeezed in my tiny tin can of a car plowing through the snow heading towards a day of spiritual reckoning.

From what he told me, Father Peter met Mother Teresa quite by accident on a flight from California to New York.  He was wearing his clerical collar, minding his own business in coach when a very nervous steward approached him.  He said that Mother Teresa was on the flight, they put her in first class, no one knew what to say or do with her and would Peter mind moving up and sitting next to her during the flight?  He did, and they spent the entire time talking, became great friends, and before deplaning she made him promise that whenever she was in town, that he’d say mass for her at the Sisters of Charity in Harlem.  Well here she was in town after cataract surgery and her flight back to Calcutta was cancelled due to the storm, so she was in Harlem and needed Fr Peter to say mass.

I figured mass would be in a cathedral, I’d sit in the back row and sneak out right after the blessing and go wait in the car while everyone else lined up and shook her hand.  Mother Teresa would be a little speck in the distance of the cavernous space, and no one would know I gave her the slip until it was too late.  This plan was thwarted when we arrived at a nondescript building in a shabby neighborhood.  We were ushered into a tiny room with a table for an altar and straw mats on the floor for pews with missals on them.

I suppose this is where in the story the readers get separated between the believers and the non believers. I had never felt this before and I don’t think I ever will again.  The minute I crossed the threshold, I knew I was in the presence of someone not of this world.  If someone had blind folded me I would have known exactly where Mother was in the room at all times.  In the corporal she was a tiny, bent over gnarled tree twig of a woman, but in the spiritual she radiated a white hot powerful energy, something that hit me in the chest and radiated to the tips of my toes and fingers.  It was a disturbing feeling.

We walked in and she immediately latched onto the boy who came with us.  She plunked him down on his knees next to her on her mat, picked up the missal and held it for him to follow along.  I thought he would keel over in a dead faint but he remained upright.  Father Peter got ready to say mass and Mike and I settled on mats behind Mother Teresa and the boy.  I was wearing my best Donna Karan go to meeting suit and, behind her radiance, felt like something smelly scraped off the bottom of a shoe.

After mass I got up and made a break for it.  “Please don’t leave,” one of the sisters serenely said touching my arm gently and steering me for the next room, “Mother wants to talk to you.”

Oh my God.

There she was standing next to Father Peter.  She had just talked to Mike.  She grabbed my hand and looked me straight in the eye.

“You must pray for me!”  she declared, squeezing my hand so my bones crunched together, “You must PRAY TO MARY!”  she commanded, “and you must NEVER INTERFERE WITH GOD’S WORK!”  This is about when everything became one big blur.  I don’t remember much about the exchange but Fr Peter laughed afterwards that I kept saying, “yes sister!” after everything she said.  She then said she would kiss miraculous medals for me, how many did I want?  Realizing I had been stricken mute at this point, Father Peter  said that he thought 8 would be enough, so she kissed them and pressed them into my hand and she let me go and I went into the next room.

Mike was there, literally jumping around the room in joy.  The experience transformed him.  The boy was with him looking bewildered.  “Don’t think you’re going to have a private audience with the Pope next,” I said to him, “just cause you met Mother Theresa before your first Holy Communion and all.”  He was still paralyzed by the experience.

So that is how I met Mother Teresa.  Shortly thereafter we all squeezed back into the car to head south in the snow where I would drop everyone off then head through the Holland Tunnel to my friend’s mother’s funeral.  I had 8 medals in my pocket and knew I’d give my friend one, keep one for myself and give one to my mother and grandmother.  Who would get the others?  They were to me like pills that cured cancer.  Who would you give them to if you only had 4?  That story is for another day, but I’ll tell you one thing.  I wear mine daily fastened to my bra over my heart.  It keeps me in good stead except when I forget to take it off before going through security in airports.  It makes for quite a story when the TSA agent wands me.

So you bet I pray to Mother Teresa, now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.  I pray to Mary, and I try really really hard not to interfere with God’s work, but I get confused sometimes.  I do everything Mother told me all those years ago.  Who am I to argue with a saint?

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On this day, Sunday, September 4, 2016, we celebrate with great joy the canonization of Mother Teresa, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, MC.

Hail Mary, full of grace

The Lord is with thee,

Blessed art thou among women

Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God

Pray for us sinners

Now and at the hour of our death, amen.

Blessed Teresa pray for us!