Mother Teresa

The Story of a Photograph


I traveled to India in early 1993 with a group of Buddhist monks and a good friend who is a student of Tibetan Buddhism. I knew little of Buddhism but I was anxious for adventure and travel. I had been photographing for many years, and felt thrilled at the thought of being able to work in India. It is a vast and ancient land of deep spiritual traditions, so very different than the America I grew up in.

From the squalor and intensity of Calcutta, where we arrived, north through the plains to Siliguri, and on up to Darjeeling we traveled. At this time, the Buddhist monks accompanying us were involved in the Enthronement ceremonies of Kalu Rinpoche at nearby Sonada Monastery. Lama Lodu, a prominent Buddhist teacher from San Francisco, was a consistent help and guide to us through our sometimes difficult travels. Lama Lodru was born in Sikkim, and his help with navigating the language and physical barriers was invaluable.

A second enthronement soon followed, that of the Karmapa, at the Rumtek Monastery near Gangtok. Our group traveled by car through Kalimpong and various small villages in the misty Himalayan foothills of Sikkim. From Rumtek I traveled on by jeep to more remote areas of Sikkim with a group of Europeans I met at Rumtek monastery.

Eventually I returned to Calcutta, where a traveler I encountered asked me for a favor. “Can you deliver some children’s clothing to Mother House? I’m catching the train tomorrow, so I can’t get there. Or, if you just leave it in the streets, the kids will surely find it,” and I saw the sadness dim her smile. The next day, when I heard that she was gone, I made my way to Mother House and knocked on the alley entrance. When a Sister answered, I gave her the box of children’s clothing and turned back towards the teeming streets of the city.

An instant later, a Sister touched my sleeve, “Do you want to meet Mother?” I was stunned… I had never expected to meet Mother Teresa, but my heart leapt to think of it! “Yes…” I stammered to the Sister, as I struggled to find more words that would not come. Guided through an interior courtyard and up a set of stairs, I found myself waiting anxiously on a second-floor balcony. Below, on the courtyard tiles, the young Sisters quietly washed their cotton saris by hand. The gentle sounds of rinsing and wringing in the open air, and the soft murmuring of the Sisters at their washing, began to bring me a long-gone sense of calm and peace. This Sanctuary seemed to me like an island of tranquility amidst the chaos and the turmoil of the Calcutta streets.

At that moment, Mother Teresa appeared, smiling and surprisingly small! She addressed me in perfect English, “And where are you from? In the Bible we are told, “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and Mother Teresa was proof positive of this great truism. She was a woman whose joy and faith were plain to see. She radiated an energy and enthusiasm for the service of the Missionaries of Charity and the work of God. She was truly a demonstration of love in action. She spoke warmly, as if she had always known me. As she approached, she asked, “Are you Catholic?”

“Uh, no…” Flustered, I told her of my 12 Step Program (of which she was quite well aware). “Oh,” she said, “that’s very good! Now, don’t you drink anymore; and if you get the desire to drink, just send the money you would have spent and we’ll give it to the poor!” Yes Mother! I thought.

Another humorous moment came for me when I asked if she wished me to photograph for her in the slums of Calcutta. “Oh,” she smiled ingenuously, “we have no need for photography; we have the reality!”

To meet Mother Teresa was an amazing blessing in my life, and is a most precious memory. It is fitting that it was something I could never have planned. (I discovered later that Mother Teresa and I share the same birthday,which just seemed to add another layer of magic to the experience.) When our brief meeting was over that day she said to me, “Now, Mass is at 6 AM tomorrow, and you will be here…” Oh, yes, Mother, I’ll be here…

I made these photographs the next morning, after Mass at Mother House in Calcutta, March 15, 1993. My flight back to the U.S. was due to depart in just a couple of hours. My heart was heavy with my impressions of India: the beauty of the land and the kindness and dignity of its people. And the crowning experience, so totally unexpected in the 13th hour, was meeting Mother Teresa… a gift so precious to me, that I had never even considered asking for it; and yet it was given to me simply for performing a service for a stranger.

I sincerely hope that these glimpses from that time in the daily lives of the Missionaries of Charity may bring you some measure of the serenity of that beautiful place, where love and charity are so freely given to those “in the distressing guise of the Poorest of the Poor.”

Peter Canclini
Arcata, California

Mother Poster

I  offer a personally signed Commemorative Poster of this Photograph. It is printed on 100 lb. acid-free paper with organic soy inks by Lane Strope and the Crew at Times Printing Company of Eureka, California. I am indebted to them for their skill and suggestions.