Posted on September 1, 2016 By Fada Herbert in Interviews
Like many persons who never met Mother Teresa, the most I knew about her
was obtained from books and
documentaries. I still remember watching her funeral in 1999, and the inspiring homilies and quotes that
became rife at the time. Ten years after, I read her inspiring biography Something Beautiful for God, by
BBC Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. I was moved as Muggeridge recounted the series of events that led a
young Balkan girl to become a nun, found a new religious order, and become a heroic servant of the poor
and dying, first in the streets of Calcultta, then all over the world. The fact that this biographer was
a former atheist, made me know for sure, that Mother Teresa was not a saint for Catholics only! But my
enthusiasm was nearly shattered when I watched another documentary in 2015, that tried to discredit
Mother Teresa’s reputation, and her very love for the poor. One could almost ask a question: “Could the
real Mother Teresa please speak up?” Then I secretly nursed the intention to meet someone who personally
knew Mother Teresa, not for curiosity’s sake, nor to debunk the documentary which however, has largely
been proven unreliable, but as some part of a faith journey.
By some holy coincidence, the opportunity came last 17th July 2016, while on a short trip abroad. After
celebrating Sunday Mass at St Margaret Mary Parish, Winter Park, Orlando Florida, Fr. Jarek…the
assistant Pastor told me there was a sister in the neighbourhood who had served as Mother Teresa’s
personal assistant. She was an Indian by name Kalyani Annamraju. Many things about Kalyani Annamraju
liken her to Mother Teresa. In the mid 1970’s Annamraju was a privileged young Indian intellectual
pursuing a doctorate in international political science in New Delhi. Then the writings of St Francis of
Assissi and the life of Gandhi inspired her to give up her comfortable life. Speaking in another
context, Kalyani recalls the beginning of her journey with Mother Teresa. “I saw Mother Teresa as a
kindred soul to Gandhi. I read about her life. I wrote to her. I began to question my education. She
responded. Her response was to come to Calcutta”. That was Kalyani’s call within a call, which made her
drop everything, like over 5000 young people have done after her, to join the Missionaries of Charity in
1976, at the age of 25. She soon became Mother Teresa’s personal assistant, helping her manage
Driving with Fr. Jarek to Kalyani’s apartment felt like a short pilgrimage. Then one surprise led to the
other. Kalyani relies on a wheelchair because of childhood polio and spinal injuries from a 1998
accident. This physical condition made her work in Calcutta’s steep slopes a difficult, and a
scholarship offer brought her to the Orlando, USA. Her radiant smile that welcomed me was expressive of
a certain inner joy, and the simplicity of her living room spoke volumes of a long life dedicated to
evangelical poverty. Realizing I was from Cameroon, she quickly asked about the Missionary Sisters of
Charity in Yaounde, and was consoled to hear that the terrorists attacks at the borders were under
control. Though confined to a chair, her mind and prayers reached out to distant places. Lost in
admiration, I had to be reminded that I had requested to interview her. I quickly picked out the first
five questions. Her answers seemed to anticipate my next questions….
Fr Herbert: How are you awaiting the Canonization of Mother Teresa?
Kalyani: I want to prepare for the event in prayer, and make it an opportunity for a spiritual renewal. I will make a retreat, to begin with, because Mother Teresa’s example is so concrete and real for day to day life, especially the aspect of seeing and serving Jesus in every person we meet. Fr. Herbert: What will this canonization mean for the Missionary sisters of Charity? Kalyani: It is a call for Spiritual renewal. It is a chance for us all to look at our lives and to realize the example of Mother Teresa is an authentic way to live our christian calling, to belong to Jesus and be available to him, especially those who are suffering, spiritually and physically.
Fr. Herbert: While she was alive, Mother Teresa was careful about receiving awards, or receiving public recognition for the work she was doing. How do you think Mother Teresa (if she were alive) would have received this canonization?
Kalyani: To begin with, Mother Teresa she did not seek publicity or the centre stage. I remember especially that when was given the Noble Peace Prize. She publicly acknowledged that the award was not for her, but for who she represented – the poor. She took the award because she realized that it will help the cause of the poor, revealing them as examples of patience and fortitude. Besides, if Jesus in the poor was made better known, better loved, and better served, then she would take the award, despite the personal sacrifice it meant.
Fr. Herbert: Do you have some memoirs that can give more insight about this saint?
Kalyani: Mother Teresa and I had the same spiritual director, Fr. Vanixton, a Belgian missionary. When we were young novices, Fr. Vanixton used to tell us of Mother Teresa’s transforming call. Thinking of those days make me begin to miss her again. She used to be a very nervous or shy person. As a young novice, she sometimes had the duty to light candles on the altar before mass, and when everyone had gathered before Mass, she would be nervous or shy in doing that. Also, she didn’t like to be in the spotlight or take photos. When she allowed her pictures to be taken, she made a pact with our Lord to release a soul from purgatory for each photo taken! (smiling) This goes to show she was a very shy and humble person.
Fr. Herbert: How have things changed in the community since the death of Mother Teresa?
Kalyani: I believe they continue to live their lives as before, trying to be as very authentic and having as little for themselves as possible, so that they can give the most for the poor. But in terms of numbers, I won’t know if the recent world trends in drop of priestly vocations have also affected them, since I have not actively been in the community for a while.
Fr. Herbert Niba: Recently a whole community of Missionary sisters was wiped out by terrorists in Yemen.
What would Mother Teresa say to missionaries who live in a world that is increasingly more violent? Kalyani: “Continue to be faithful, continue to be with the people”. One of Mother Teresa’s priorities was being with people and suffering with them. She was not shy in taking risks like going to environments that were unsafe. Similarly, the sisters who were persecuted have not left that territory. That is why Pope Francis referred to the sisters who died as “martyrs”.
I used to think the Stations of the Cross were a devotion for lent only; but reading the lives of the saints totally changed my mind. In "The Way of the Cross in the footsteps of St John Paul II", discover how everyday life events can be an invitation to follow Christ more closely and love him more dearly. It's a rich spiritual meal served with touching stories. It will be released soon!!