Sonia Chopra is a WCPO.com contributor.
I grew up in Kolkata, India. I went to a Christian school and as part of our curriculum, we were required to do “social work.” It was the 1980s and I was a 13-year-old when I first stepped into Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
I had read about the “Saint of the Gutters” who served the “poorest of the poor” and I wanted to be like her. I imagined the many stories I would tell my friends over lemonade about how I changed the lives of the poor.
The truth is I was changed forever. Nothing prepared me to deal with the hundreds who lined up daily. These were the sick, the poor, the dying and the diseased. The suffering, the pain and the sadness are hard to describe.
The first time I was sorting out old clothes in the courtyard, I saw this man, a leper, so thin that you could count his ribs, with sores oozing with pus and blood.
I watched Mother Teresa, a petite, tiny woman, wash his wounds. Nuns rushed to help her. I am ashamed to say I retreated to the bathroom to throw up.
Often these people wore rags, they were filthy, and sometimes they had lice, open wounds, missing limbs, amputated legs or arms.
The destitute who lined up daily to receive food, milk packets, medicine, clothes, shelter and assistance of any kind were all people who had been abandoned by our government and rejected by all social organizations.
Mother Teresa was their last hope. Their salvation. And while pictures of her tending to these lost souls always made for good press, here’s the awful truth no one will ever say out loud. These people from the slums smelled bad. It was difficult to stand near them, let alone touch them.
But Mother did it daily, faithfully, lovingly and with humility, grace and dignity. She wore a smile with her simple blue and white sari.
Her order was completely dependent on donations of money, clothes and food. She owned nothing, no real estate, no money or investments. She died in poverty.
There are many who have questioned the Albanian nun’s commitment to the poor and accused her of using her social work as a façade to convert people to Christianity, but that’s not true.
I volunteered there for many years but I always felt inadequate and in awe of her. I never saw her tell anyone to become a Christian. She simply asked them to be good human beings.
When she died on Sept. 5, 1997 at the age of 87, I was one of the few journalists who were allowed to view her body. I looked at her face, calm and peaceful in death, and touched her feet as a gesture of respect.
Last weekend, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa at the Vatican.
He said she was a saint. We who were born and raised in Kolkata already knew that. It’s just official now.