By LINDA SCHAEFER, Special to the Bulletin | Published January 23, 2020
It was on a most auspicious day on June 12, 1995 that Gretchen Keiser, then-editor of The Georgia Bulletin, and I waited in silent expectation on a private tarmac of Hartsfield Atlanta Airport for the arrival of Mother Teresa. I recalled an earlier occasion in 1993 when Archbishop John Donoghue said Mass at the women’s AIDS hospice newly opened by the Missionaries of Charity on St. Charles Avenue located in the city’s Virginia Highlands area. We had all hoped and prayed that one day Mother Teresa herself would grace us with her presence in Atlanta. And now, that moment had arrived.
When her tiny jet could be seen descending from the sky, I ran out on the tarmac. I was poised and ready with my camera when she exited the aircraft clothed in the distinctive blue and white sari. I caught a few frames of her diminutive figure through the lens of my camera. Archbishop Donoghue was all smiles as he held out his hand to hers. She grasped his hand and kissed his bishop’s ring and greeted other priests. And then to my utter surprise, I saw her turn and look directly at me. She walked slowly towards me and then took both my hands, and with a look I could only describe as saintly, gazed deeply into my eyes. My heart felt an invitation to “come and see.” My immediate and joyful inner response was, “Yes.”
However, I did not know at that moment, my response would turn into a lifelong calling.
Two months later, I was on a flight to India, not knowing if Mother Teresa was actually in Calcutta (today known as Kolkata). However, when I did reach the city, within minutes of arriving at the Missionaries of Charity motherhouse, Mother Teresa greeted me in the hallway. I asked her permission to document their work in the city, but instead she said, “I don’t need photographers, I need volunteers.” She sent me to volunteer at the orphanage, and that is how I spent my second day in Calcutta. Ultimately, Mother Teresa did give me permission to photograph their homes for the dying and abandoned and that body of work was published in time for her beatification in 2003 in my first book “Come and See: A photojournalist’s journey into the world of Mother Teresa.”
I appeared live on CNN as Pope John Paul II described the newly beatified Mother Teresa as an “icon of the Good Samaritan.” After my interview on the network, I stood on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, and as I gazed at the image of the new Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, it was the instant that I also felt called to join the church. Upon my return to Atlanta, I entered the RCIA program at All Saints Church in Dunwoody and in 2004 my son Paul and I were brought into full communion with the Catholic Church.
I thought that this would be the end of my journey with Mother Teresa. However, it appeared she had other plans for me. After all, in one of our conversations, she asked for my commitment. On my flight back from Rome after the beatification, I met Father James McCurry, minister provincial for the Franciscan Friars Conventual Our Lady of the Angels Province. Within months, I was flying to Ellicott City, Maryland, to meet with the kindly priest, and our three-hour taped interview about his two-decade friendship with Mother Teresa would become instrumental to my future book. He revealed how Mother Teresa had consecrated the newly founded order of the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 to Mother Mary and relied on her assistance in “satiating the thirst of Jesus on the cross.” These encounters would become a pattern over the next 16 years and I recognized that Mother Teresa had invited me to become acquainted with many who had worked with her in the vineyard of Christ.
After a presentation in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I learned of Msgr. John Esseff, who first met Mother Teresa through his position as director of the Pontifical Mission in Lebanon in the 1980s. He led retreats for Mother Teresa and stories of his firsthand witness of the impact she made in the poorest regions of the world are included in my new book, “Encountering Mother Teresa.”
In 2007 I accepted a teaching position at a university in Oklahoma. Within a year, I was planning a trip to Calcutta with three students. It was during that week that I met the 18th sister to join the Missionaries of Charity. Sister Tarcisia had also been a student of Mother Teresa at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Calcutta, before her call from Christ to leave teaching and serve the poor. Portions of my interview with the elderly sister are also included in my new publication.
My life has continued to evolve in ways that would have been unimaginable when I first met now St. Teresa of Calcutta. In 2014 I accepted another teaching position at a woman’s university in Saudi Arabia. From there, I was able to travel to Calcutta two more times and in November 2018 Sister Prema, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, gave me permission to take up-to-date photographs of the homes I photographed in 1995.
Since “Encountering Mother Teresa” was released by Our Sunday Visitor Nov. 11, 2019, I have already begun to research my next book. Again, I have no idea of where these journeys will take me, but I suspect a tiny saint in heaven has my mission planned out perfectly.