Editor’s note: As we celebrate the feast day of St. Teresa of Calcutta, we’d like to share with you this interview, originally published under the headline “The private woman: humor and observations” with the subhead: “Private moments reveal humor, dedication.” The interview was conducted with her when she visited Phoenix Feb. 1-2, 1989 by then associate editor P.J. Zapor, and they were accompanied by then staff writer/photographer Nancy Wiechec.
When Mother Teresa stopped in Phoenix Feb. 1 and 2, much of her time was spent in a cluster of escorts and media. As those who heard her speak at the coliseum or Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral can verify, the 78-year-old missionary is witty and sharp. She keenly observes everything around her and isn’t hesitant to gently poke fun at those around her or put people of authority on the spot with pointed questions and requests.
One thing she revealed is her discomfort with the media spotlight, saying that she realized good came of the attention to herself, but that she’d rather the reporters and photographers spend their time feeding the poor and helping the homeless. The following is a transcript of the interview:
SUN: What did you see yesterday when you walked the streets of Phoenix?
Mother Teresa: I went to that place where they have the house. They all stay there at night and then they have to go out. There were lots of people just lying in the street — fast asleep some of them. It was terrible. I was tempted to go up and take them and bring them to … I was afraid to bring them … and leave them at the bishop’s house. (laughter) So I didn’t have that courage. But once I did that to our governor in Calcutta. I was looking for a house for our people. I couldn’t get it, couldn’t get it. So I went to him and I said, ‘If I don’t get the house from the government, I will bring all my people to your house’ — a big government house. He said ‘Mother, please don’t do that, I’ll find them a place.’
(The people on the Phoenix streets) looked healthy, I don’t know, but they were all lying flat on the ground, no cover, no nothing, just like that. But, some were fast asleep, some must have been after drinking. I thought that maybe some were drunk. There were many, quite a lot, as we went down the street, all around.
SUN: That’s something you don’t see in other cities as much?
Mother Teresa: Not during the day. At night, yes. In London, the sisters go from 9-12 at night and will bring sandwiches and something hot to drink. They go to six different streets. Many (people) are in the streets. And now I’m trying to go to the prime minister to get a house there.
SUN: Does all the attention to you personally make it harder for you to do your work? Or does it help in the long run?
Mother Teresa: All for Jesus, all for Jesus.
SUN: Would you rather the media weren’t there?
Mother Teresa: I would rather they would come and be with, wash or shave somebody. Or I’d rather that they come and cook for them. But anyway, this brings people together. (The media) do it with a good intention.
SUN: Does anything discourage you?
Mother Teresa: I do it with Jesus. I do I for Jesus. I do it to Jesus. That’s why we meet and have Communion every day at Mass.
SUN: Where do you get your strength?
Mother Teresa: Jesus made Himself Bread of Life, to give us strength.
SUN: In Phoenix especially, as well as in San Francisco and New York (where the Missionaries of Charity have foundations) there are very wealthy people in addition to the very poor people. What does this say to you about the situation in the United States? Does that bother you?
Mother Teresa: I find the poverty of the rich countries much more difficult than the poverty of the poor countries. But you see I’ve picked up many people, dying of hunger. There are people unwanted, unloved, all through society. That’s what we’re having now with AIDS. It’s so difficult to relate to actions that would say no, to give them that (love). They are hungry for love. We would bring them to the house, sit down and talk, take them to the chapel and pray with them. And then, immediately, once they have received that (attention), the answer is so beautiful. Not one has died unwanted or unloved.
And now in Washington, we are struggling with AIDS. That seems to be the hard thing to do.
SUN: When will you feel like you’ve accomplished your mission?
Mother Teresa: (Looking up toward the ceiling) You’ll have to ask Him. That I don’t know. It is His job. The work is His.
SUN: If you didn’t have to do the traveling would you rather be at home working?
Mother Teresa: I would rather be with the sick and the dying, the lepers and these people. But I think God wants it this way.
As she was driven around the city after stopping at the city shelter for the homeless, here are some of the comments Mother Teresa made:
- “This is the most press, media, I’ve seen, ever,” she said after the press overwhelmed both her and the residents at the shelter.
- To one of the men who went to the van and recognized her: He said he was struggling with his life, but he knew things would get better, she said. “Pray to Jesus. He will give you strength …. I will pray for you.”
- Responding to a local priest who said “Mother, some people don’t believe we have a homeless problem here,” she commented, “That is the sad part when they don’t want to acknowledge the poor.”
- Passing by the St. Vincent de Paul Dining room, where people camp out along the street: “I’ve never seen people like this lying in the street. Even in Calcutta they have at least a roof in small shacks. “We will take care of them, these lonely, the mental ones, the sick and those with no home … the sisters will take care of them. As soon as possible we must find a home (shelter).”
- Driving down Washington Street toward the state capitol: “The city is wealthy there are so many cars. No?”
— By P.J. Zapor, The Catholic Sun.