'She's Been A Saint For All Of Us': Friend Remembers Mother Teresa
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
On Sunday, the ranks of Catholic saints will grow when Mother Teresa officially becomes canonized. She lived and worked in the Indian city of Kolkata. Earlier this year, I went to visit the building where her followers still tend to the sick and poor.
In a narrow alley here in Kolkata, there is a sign high up on a wall, embedded into the corner. It says, Missionaries of Charity. This is where Mother Teresa did her work for decades. It's an unassuming building, but thousands of people flock here every year to see where the woman did her work.
We walk up a flight of stairs to the bare room where early-morning worship will take place.
It's about 5:45 in the morning, and maybe 50 or 60 young women, dressed all in white, are sitting in silent meditation.
A priest walks into the room. Some visiting volunteers in street clothes stand off to the side. And the mass begins.
UNIDENTIFIED WORSHIPPERS: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
SHAPIRO: Many of these people never met Mother Teresa. So we went across town to speak with someone who knew her well. More than 50 years ago, Sunita Kumar (ph) was a newly married 18-year-old living in Kolkata. She is wealthy. Her husband was a professional tennis player. And her religion is Sikh, not Catholic. Kumar could easily have spent her life in galas, lunches and society events, but she wanted to do more.
SUNITA KUMAR: So I joined a group of ladies who were considered to be co-workers of Mother Teresa. And we used to get together and roll bandages for the lepers.
SHAPIRO: Do you remember the first time that you met her face to face?
KUMAR: Yes, of course. She was very relaxed and casual. And it's amazing what happened (laughter) to me when I shook hands with her.
SHAPIRO: Tell me.
KUMAR: I just kept looking at her. And I would say it was like love at first sight.
SHAPIRO: Kumar and Mother Teresa worked side by side for the rest of her life. Kumar was also an artist who painted portraits of the future saint.
Now, we're surrounded by many paintings, some of which include your paintings of Mother Teresa. There's one that I'm looking at here that's maybe the size of a sheet of paper, and then there's one behind me that's much larger. They're all different colors and styles. But the one thing they have in common is that framed by her white sari with the blue border around her head is no face at all. There's just - there's nothing.
KUMAR: Yeah, because I somehow felt that there was no need to do her eyes or her lips or anything. She - when you see that blue border and the white sari, I mean, anybody can say that's Mother.
SHAPIRO: Do you remember the first time you showed her one of these paintings that you had done of her?
KUMAR: You know, this one you see over here - these were the first ones I did. And she's even signed them. See there?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, and tell me what it says.
KUMAR: It says, God bless you.
SHAPIRO: Mother Teresa.
KUMAR: Mother Teresa.
SHAPIRO: And these were 1997, it says?
KUMAR: Yes. It was just before she became quite seriously ill. And she passed away in '97. So I did these when she was not well.
SHAPIRO: What would she say about them?
KUMAR: Yeah. Well, the first thing she said was (laughter), where are my eyes?
KUMAR: Exactly what you asked me. But I said, Mother, I don't need to put any details like that. And so she found it very funny. She had a great sense of humor.
SHAPIRO: I understand that to people here in Kolkata, she has been considered a saint for many years already.
KUMAR: For many years. Yeah, yeah, she's been a saint for all of us for many years. We didn't need her to be canonized or beatified or whatever, but, officially, it had to be done. I mean, we - she didn't need miracles. Her whole life was a miracle.
SHAPIRO: As a saint now, people will pray to her and, you know, ask her for blessings.
SHAPIRO: And I wonder, as a Sikh, what your relationship to her beatification is. It's not in your religion to pray to her, but she's a person who you knew and loved so well.
KUMAR: But I do pray to her. I mean, I was not well for a while. I had cancer. And you won't believe, but I really - she came to me. There was something that I got that confidence that I was going to get all right.
SHAPIRO: I don't know if the same is true here in India. But in the United States, if people want to make the point that they are not entirely selfless, generous people, the phrase they use is, I'm no Mother Teresa.
SHAPIRO: Her name has come to mean selflessness...
SHAPIRO: ...And generosity (laughter).
KUMAR: Yes, yes, absolutely. Her room, for instance, was the worst room in the house. There was no fan, nothing. It was above the kitchen, and it was the hottest room. And to think that she worked for so many years without a day's holiday. She would often come home, and I would say, Mother, why don't you relax, you know? She said, I will relax up at - I mean...
KUMAR: Yeah (laughter).
SHAPIRO: Pointing to heaven.
KUMAR: (Laughter) Yes.
SHAPIRO: That was Sunita Kumar, speaking with me, at her home in Kolkata, about her friend, the late Mother Teresa, who officially becomes a saint this Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.