What it was like to know Mother Teresa
In 1997, I was in Bangladesh involved with an evaluation of the Disaster Management Program of Oxfam Bangladesh when I heard of the news of the death of Mother Teresa on September 5, and I realized how very privileged I was to have known and worked with such a wonderful and very compassionate person.
I first met Mother Teresa in 1968 when I went for a short holiday to Calcutta from Gaya in Bihar, where I was working with the Gandhi Peace Foundation on an Oxfam rural development project. The late and much loved Jim Howard, a very tall Oxfam colleague, based then in New Delhi, had told me that I must visit Mother Teresa if I could, and so, along I went.
I had a wonderful meeting with Mother Teresa and her Sisters, and they told me how much they thought of Oxfam and “that big man,” Jim, who would have towered over the diminutive saintly figure and her Sisters. Mother Teresa told me that on an earlier visit, Jim had told her that she needed more space for her work, another building, and that Oxfam would find 30,000 pounds for her. She had apparently told Jim that there were many other organizations which needed Oxfam’s help, but for her needs, “God will provide.” And He did, of course, very soon after that when a rich Bengali left his property in Calcutta to the Missionaries of Charity.
Three years later, in 1971, I was responsible for the administration of Oxfam’s Bangladesh Refugee Relief Program and was based in Calcutta with the responsibilities for arranging the supplementary needs of about 600,000 people living in over 50 refugee camps right round the border area.
In the early part of the relief work, before we had set up Oxfam’s own relief program, I was in regular contact with Mother Teresa and for a time she, or one of her Sisters, would phone me at the same time every morning and begin the conversation not with “good morning” or “hello” but with “God bless you,” and then proceed with reading out a shopping list mostly of medicine, but also of supplies like bleaching powder and high protein food for children.
For about two or three weeks, our jeeps or even hired taxis would transport the Sisters with the supplies to the camps near Calcutta.
One day in June at the airport, I was having great trouble clearing relief supplies through the Indian customs, when a soft voice behind me said: “Julian, come and pray with me. It is better than losing your temper, which I fear you are going to do.”
Of course, she was right on both counts, because after she had led me through prayers and I had sung for her the Latin version of The Lord’s Prayer and “Cantate Domino” (learned at school), Mother Teresa quickly sliced through the red tape -- for both of us.
It was very difficult for Mother Teresa to speak ill of anyone, even in those dark days of I971 when there was so much death and suffering in Bangladesh and in the refugee camps.
Her attitude was: “For us in India, good has come from the problem because our people have made considerable sacrifices and will continue to make them.”
In early 1972, I drove Oxfam’s first vehicle from Calcutta to Dhaka, with it the trailer laden down with medicines and other supplies for the Missionaries of Charity in Dhaka. We later sent them an imported mobile clinic, which we had used in the refugee camps, but sadly it came back to Calcutta because the streets of Old Dhaka were not wide enough for it.
Years later, in 1988, I was waiting, deep in thought, for my luggage to arrive on the conveyor belt at Calcutta Airport, having just arrived from Delhi, when a hand touched me and a voice said: “God bless you, my son, is it Julian?” What an amazing memory, and our ensuing chat lead to tea with her the next day when I explained the campaigning and other work I was doing in Bangladesh and India among people with disabilities.
She warned me that I would face many setbacks, but that would make me stronger in the long run. She was absolutely correct, as I found her always. Knowing Mother Teresa, however tenuously, enriched my life considerably, and helped me and many others, I am sure, in our attitudes to work.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh Citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the British award of the OBE for ‘services to development in Bangladesh.’