St. Teresa of Calcutta, known affectionately as “Mother Teresa,” joins her fellow Missionaries of Charity at a Rosary prayer service at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in this Feb. 2, 1989, file photo. (Nancy Wiechec/CATHOLIC SUN)

Editor’s note: As we celebrate the feast day of St. Teresa of Calcutta, we’d like to share with you this article covering her historic visit to Phoenix Feb. 1-2, 1989, originally published under the headline: “Co-workers ready to assist sisters’ ministry.” It was written by then staff writer and photographer Nancy Wiechec, with contribution from then editor Christopher Gunty.

Mother Teresa’s visit and the formation of a mission house here resulted in many calls from people wanting to assist the Missionaries of Charity.

Merl Parker, regional link (chairwoman) of the Co-workers of Mother Teresa, expects the number of co-workers here, now 200, to double. She said some parishes have called wanting to assist the missionary sisters in various ways.

“We’re going to have an increase in co-workers here in Phoenix, which is wonderful, because that will spread the message of Mother Teresa,” she said.

The response to the sisters’ Phoenix home though will in no way hinder the work of Phoenix volunteers at the foundation homes in New Mexico, Parker said.

For three years, co-workers in Arizona have supported the sisters in New Mexico. The nuns operate a soup kitchen and shelter in Gallup, and they assist Native American families in Chichiltah on the Navajo Indian Reservation outside Gallup.

PARKER SAID co-workers will “definitely” continue helping the sisters in New Mexico. “Mother Teresa said to me when we were talking ‘You must continue to minister to the sisters in Gallup. They need you,’” she said.

During a gathering with the woman they affectionately call “Mother,” the co-workers assured the nun and her sisters from Gallup, Chichiltah and Phoenix that they will continue serving the New Mexico missions as well as the new-founded Phoenix home.

Parker said co-workers from St. Timothy Parish and others from westside parishes will continue holding children’s summer Bible camps with the sisters in Gallup and on the reservation. She said co-workers in Sun City and Sedona are already knitting caps, scarves and blankets the sisters distribute for Christmas presents to people in New Mexico.

For the next couple of weeks, the needs of and assistance to the sisters in Phoenix will be minimal. Parker said until the four missionary sisters decide where they will concentrate their efforts, not much help is needed.

Sr. Anthony Poerio, IBVM, shakes hands with Mother Teresa in this archived photo from 1989. (Nancy Wiechec/CATHOLIC SUN)

DURING THE SISTERS’ first days in Phoenix they toured the central Phoenix area for a closer look at the situation of the poor and homeless and also began to take several neighborhood children to Mass at St. Matthew Parish.

“There will be a lot to do once they find the exact ministry they will be working in,” Parker said. “Right now, we have no place to store anything and don’t know exactly what will be needed, but when we do, we will let the word out.”

In the meantime, Parker encourages people who want to become co-workers to try and form a group at their parish and “know the missionaries’ spirituality and how we work with the sisters.” She said through parish groups the coworkers will be kept up to date on what the sisters in Phoenix are doing.

Parker emphasizes that there is never any pressure as a co-worker. “You do what you can do whether you’re out working or at home praying.”

MOTHER TERESA TOLD a group of co-workers from the Phoenix area, Sedona and Flagstaff gathered at St. Matthew Feb. 1, “Actually, you are coworkers of Jesus Himself. He is calling you to be His instruments of compassion and forgiveness. As co-workers, you have been chosen to become so close to the poorest of the poor.”

And she said in helping her sisters help the poor: “It is not how much we do, but it is how much love we put in our work, in our action.”

She also told them that their first priority in serving others is their own family because “love begins at home.”

“If we do great things outside, but inside our own family we do not have peace and harmony, then we cannot serve.”

The diminutive nun reminded the coworkers that, shortly after the Annunciation, Mary went “in haste” when she heard that her cousin, Elizabeth was pregnant. “She, having become the mother of God, her first thought was to serve.

“PEOPLE ASK ME, ‘Why are you always running? Why are you always in a hurry?’ I tell them I am only imitating Our Lady.”

Mother Teresa urged those gathered to put their “tender love in action” and to “share the joy of loving” with the poor.

Reflecting on her visit hours before to Central Arizona Shelter Services and a walking/driving tour of the poorer areas of Phoenix, she said, “I felt so bad to see so many people lying in the streets. As soon as possible, we will have a place to bring them to, especially the crippled, the (mentally ill), the sick, the old.

“The sisters will find a place for you to work together. I have no orders to give you, but I give you my sisters. I’m sure together you are going to do something beautiful for God,” she said.

“We must pray very hard to get a house as soon as possible,” she urged the co-workers. And then, smiling, she added, “If I don’t get a house, I will blame you.”

After listening to the nun speak at St. Matthew, Maria Elena Lopez, a co-worker from St. Jerome Parish, said the spirit of Mother Teresa carries with her is what fuels the co-worker movement.

She’s is a very powerful person and a great example to our people, especially to our young people, Lopez said.

— By Nancy Wiechec, The Catholic Sun. Christopher Gunty contributed to this story. At the time Wiechec was a staff writer and photographer for THE CATHOLIC SUN, and Gunty was the editor. Wiechec is currently the editor of the ARIZONA DAILY SUN in Flagstaff, and Gunty is currently associate publisher and editor of the CATHOLIC REVIEW, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Boston.