On Sept. 5, in a special ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Postal Service issued a 44-cent stamp to honor Mother Teresa for her global humanitarian work.
"Often, stamps are referred to as a nation's 'calling card' because they reach a national and even an international audience," remarked Postmaster General John Potter in dedicating the stamp. "They focus attention on subjects our country regards with respect and affection, and that is certainly true of Mother Teresa, who believed so deeply in the innate worth and dignity of humankind and worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. That's why today I am so very proud that our country, after making her an honorary citizen in 1996, is honoring Mother Teresa with such a lasting memorial."
The stamp features a portrait of Mother Teresa painted by award-winning artist Thomas Blackshear II of Colorado Springs, Colo. There is no conflict with the Postal Service's stamp selection criteria. Mother Teresa is being honored for her work on behalf of the poor – not her religion.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton and the U. S. Congress awarded Mother Teresa honorary U. S. citizenship. The honor has only been bestowed on six others.
When Mother Teresa accepted the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize – one of her numerous honors and distinctions – she did so "in the name of the poor, the hungry, the sick and the lonely," and convinced the organizers to donate to the needy the money normally used to fund the awards banquet.
Respected worldwide, she successfully urged many of the world's business and political leaders to give their time and resources to help those in need. President Ronald Reagan presented Mother Teresa with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, the same year she began work on behalf of AIDS sufferers in the U.S. and other countries. In 1997, Congress awarded Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal for her "outstanding and enduring contributions through humanitarian and charitable activities."
Flashback to June 22, 1985. At 20 minutes past 11 on that memorable day, I watched the tiny figure of Mother Teresa come down the steps of a jet plane that had just landed at Westover Air Force Base. In that moment, the months of planning, organizing and uncertainty I had experienced to bring her to Western Massachusetts faded into a brief but emotional introduction. "Mother, my name is Larry Pelland." "Yes, Larry, I know," the Nobel Peace Prize-winner grinned. She took my hands and squeezed them, and then the she bowed in the traditional Indian manner before me. At that point I was overwhelmed, and simply had to hug her.
I spent a day by the side of this humble woman, beloved and recognized worldwide as "The Saint of the Gutters," as she came to the University of Massachusetts stadium in Amherst, by invitation of the Newman Center, the Fatima Apostolate and the Apostolate of the Suffering and Handicapped, with Bob Letasz serving as national director.
In the early afternoon, the scene at the stadium was moving and memorable. People of all ages, color and creed, including many disabled, waited patiently for the arrival of their honored guest. Acclaimed by popes, presidents and nations, her most gratifying recognition came from the poor who were foremost in her concern and affection. Dressed in sandals, a simple garb of blue and white, her smile radiated kindness and won over the throngs of people immediately.
Among those in the crowd in the handicapped section was Hao Wang Lee, who said he was imprisoned for seven years by the Communists in Vietnam. He said the experience had left him crippled and he had come to pray with Mother Teresa for the use of his legs once again, and for his wife and children who were still in Vietnam.
Several times while she sat on the raised stage with the dignitaries, Mother Teresa went unexpectedly among the handicapped in wheelchairs in the front rows at the stadium, comforting, caressing, and giving each one a blessed medal as a reminder of their being suffering souls. Bob Letasz recounted her asking him to offer each of these special handicapped persons to one of her Missionaries of Charity sisters, who would in turn pray for a particular individual. It was only a short time later when he received a letter from her with a listing of names of her sisters who would be assigned to one of his handicapped people. He was overwhelmed by her love and sincerity for the suffering and handicapped.
Mother Teresa praised Americans for their generous financial assistance to fight hunger in Africa, saying, "Much food has come to Ethiopia from your country." She reminded Americans that to be homeless was not only to be without a "home made of bricks." She said people here may not be dying of hunger as they are in Ethiopia, but that many Americans have "a terrible hunger to have somebody to love and to be loved."
She recounted how one day two young people came to the Missionaries of Charity home in Calcutta, India, to give her a large sum of money. "I reluctantly took it because we feed about 9,000 homeless people every day and if we don't cook, they don't eat, and so we cook for them and they eat." She asked them, "Where did you get so much money?" And they replied: "Two days ago we got married. Before marriage, we decided we would not buy wedding clothes, nor would we have a wedding feast. Instead we would give you that money to feed the hungry." "Such a sacrifice," Mother Teresa said. They loved one another so tenderly that they wanted to share the joy of loving with the people she served.
She thanked parents for their children, saying, "Let us thank our parents for wanting us. They could have destroyed us, but they gave us the joy of living and to be loved." Referring to God's love, Mother Teresa reminded the audience that "He made himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one …"
At the conclusion of the event, which had been sponsored by the Apostolate of Our Lady of Fatima in the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., people attempted to move in closer to her to hopefully touch her, or get a glimpse of her, eye contact, anything that would connect them with her in a personal way.
Bishop Maguire said, "It was easy to feel at home in the presence of this gracious lady. She who has been mother to the poor is now mother to the world. No one is excluded from the warmth and the welcome of her love. It is the awareness of this dignity that impels her to embrace the rejected and the abandoned. It is unpardonable that, in a world of abundance, even one person should die of hunger, or thirst, or human indifference." Bishop Leo O'Neil, who accompanied Bishop Maguire to the stadium, subsequently went on to become the Ordinary of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., where he served as bishop for many years with distinction, honor, and great reverence by the clergy and laity.
Both local bishops (Bishop Joseph Maguire and Bishop Leo O'Neil), myself, and several aides rode up to Amherst together in the car with Mother Teresa. And though Bishop Maguire could not make the return trip to Westover Air Force Base, Bishop O'Neil commented that Mother Teresa had a unique way of penetrating the deepest feelings of those around her. "It's almost as if she discerns the hurts and healing that needs to be done," he recalled.
The motorcade arrived back at Westover Air Force Base at around 3:30 p.m. It was there that Mother Teresa and her security guards saluted one another in the only way they could. As she and her aides were about to board the plane, her cordon of security officers gave her a state police commander's cap, making her their honorary commander. She in turn gave each one of the state police guards a prayer card, which she held in her hands and kissed before handing over to them. She then bowed before each man, who in turn bowed back in the Indian manner. The state troopers were extremely tender to her and awed by her presence. They felt privileged to be assigned as her security team.
For me, Mother Teresa saved another embrace as well as an invitation to come visit her in India. She also remembered a comment I had made upon her arrival that my parents were great admirers of her. She said as she was boarding the plane for a flight back to the South Bronx of New York, the first Missionaries of Charity Home in the United States, "Tell your parents I love them." I in turn said my goodbyes. I felt as if I was saying my last farewell to an old friend. The smile goes and she's left you.
To the many thousands in attendance who braved 90-degree temperatures, it was a memorable and historic day, as Mother Teresa bowed, smiled, and prayed with the faithful. To those who were blessed to be present, she appeared to be small, bent over, and seemingly weightless, noticeably from decades of bending down to the poor, homeless and dying in the streets of poverty throughout the world.
It was a life-changing event for me, as I watched and listened intently to her as she addressed the crowd. The 74-year-old, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Missionaries of Charity, passionately pleaded to the needs of the poor who permeate our society. She emphasized the great need for compassion and respect for all human life from the moment of conception to end of natural life, noting that we are all created in the image of God. Most everyone agreed that the Nobel laureate's visit served as an inspiration for peace, life, and personal salvation.
Mother Teresa died in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), India, on Sept. 5, 1997. On Sept. 13, 1997, her body was borne through the streets of that city on a gun carriage that had once carried the body of India's beloved Gandhi. Over 15,000 people attended a full state funeral granted by the government of India, with dignitaries from more than 23 countries on hand. A large section of the seats in the stadium were reserved for the "poorest of the poor," people that Mother Teresa served during her lifetime. They affectionately referred to her simply as "Mother." After the state service, she was buried beneath a plain stone at the mother house in Calcutta.
During her lifetime and after her passing, Mother Teresa was frequently ranked on Gallup's Most Admired People list as the single most widely admired person. In 1999, she was listed as the most admired person of the 20th century. Her lifelong devotion to the care of the poor, the sick, and the dying was considered to be the highest example of service to humanity the world over.
On October 19, 2003, more than 250,000 people traveled from all over the world to Saint Peter's Square in Rome to attend a mass in honor of Mother Teresa. She was formally beatified by John Paul II with the title "Blessed Teresa of Calcutta." At the time of her death, the Missionaries of Charity had well over 4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers who oversaw 610 missions in 123 countries. These missions included soup kitchens, orphanages, schools, hospices and resident homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis.
It should be noted that shortly after her arrival back at the South Bronx Missionaries of Charity home on June 22, 1985, I received a telephone call from her, asking if we would give her permission to use the monetary offerings she received that day at the stadium, for use in building a home for AIDS patients in New York. Our response was that she use the money wherever she felt the greatest need.
The world may never see another person like her again in time and circumstances. Race, color, or creed were never an issue in serving the "poorest of the poor." Rest in peace, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Most assuredly there has to be a special place in Heaven for you.