Once, 30 years ago, Father Peter Grace learned something about Mother Teresa that few people would have expected: The septuagenarian Nobel Peace Prize winner and world-famous champion of the poor was quite spry, able to tackle a flight of stairs in a flash.
Two months ago, Grace, pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church in Johnston County, stood among the thousands of Catholics and admirers drawn to the Vatican for the canonization of Mother Teresa. In the eyes of the world, the saint of Calcutta embodied ideals, difficult ones like endless compassion and charity.
But in Rome, Grace recalled someone he used to know, an elderly woman who sat with him while he ate lunch, who prayed with him for a month and offered kindnesses big and small.
“It was a little weird being there, because it was someone you knew as a person, maybe like your grandmother or somebody,” Grace said of the canonization. “I mean, she was pretty famous, but to be declared a saint. ... It’s like we’re on earth and that’s in heaven ... It makes your relationship with that person ... more important than you thought, or that you realized at the time.”
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In 1985, Grace went to India at the behest of the higher-ups in his Catholic sect the Passionists, a three-century-old order that emphasizes the suffering of Jesus. The group had sent a dozen priests from around the world to India four years earlier to train priests and set up churches, but eventually, each one left the country, driven out by malaria or cultural differences or by the Indian government itself.
Grace went in to try to keep the effort alive. Initially told he’d be back in the United States in six months, he ended up in India and East Africa for five years. The India of the mid-1980s, Grace said, pushed back against Western influence and Christianity, making things challenging for missionaries.
“The country was kind of closed off and skeptical of foreigners,” Grace said. “When I first got there, my superiors in Rome told me to act like a tourist. They said if you go straight to the seminary, they’ll know right off you’re not a tourist, so I had to do tourist things.”
Grace made his way to Calcutta, now called Kolkata, and, through a confluence of timing and circumstance, had a chance to meet the most famous nun in the world.
“By then she had already won the Nobel Peace Prize,” Grace said. “I didn’t think she’d have any time for me; I didn’t even know she was in town. The bishop in New Delhi asked if I wanted to meet her and said to go to morning mass, that she’ll be there.”
So he did. At that mass he found a curious Mother Teresa asking questions about why he was in the country.
“I told her about the situation with the Passionists,” Grace said. “She said, ‘I’ll put it on the altar.’ I asked the bishop what she meant by that, and he said, ‘She’s going to pray about it, and she’ll tell you tomorrow if she’ll help you.’ I really wasn’t asking for her help; she just presumed I was there to ask for help.”
The next day Mother Teresa wrote a sort of “they’re with me” letter to the Indian government asking that it tolerate the Passionists and arguing there was love to be found in human suffering. In turn, Grace spent the next month in Calcutta working with Mother Teresa, visiting the houses of babies and the dying, offering up mass for the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity and sometimes sitting for a late lunch of curry, while the saint sat and watched him eat.
Grace said he knew the woman, not the persona beloved by millions, that he knew her to be generous and kind but not from a different planet.
“Even at that time, she was regarded as a saint, as a special human being,” Grace said. “She didn’t seem extraordinary. It wasn’t like she glowed in the dark or she floated or she kept saying pious things every two minutes and you’d write them down.”
Grace said the work Mother Teresa did in India is sometimes hard for Westerners to understand, acknowledging those critics who argue that her methods of feeding and providing for the poorest of the poor actually perpetuated poverty. Grace said her work reflected Indian culture.
“She fits into that culture; she doesn’t fit into this culture,” he said. “The Missionaries of Charity, you don’t see them starting universities, hospitals. She was more, how does a poor person help another poor person? A poor person isn’t going to come at you with money. They might, if they have it, they would share it, but they come more as a human being, with compassion and the willingness to help in any way.”
“Of course you get criticized because that’s not a very efficient approach to poverty,” Grace said. “But her goal was to be with these people as one poor person to another, not as social workers saying we’re going to straighten out your life for you. No, we’re going to share your life with you.”
When Grace left Calcutta for a different part of the country, Mother Teresa asked him to remember her and the sisters whenever he performed mass, specifically when priests put a drop of water in a chalice of wine.
“That’s a minor part of the mass,” Grace said. “A lot of Catholics wouldn’t know that’s a part of the mass because that’s a thing the priest does. But it struck me because she was that drop of water. She was just one woman, not that she had a great education or was the smartest person on the planet, she was a humble woman used by God to do a great service.”
“The priest says, ‘By the mystery of this water mixed with wine, may we share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity,’ ” Grace said. “It kind of reminds you who you are, little drops of water, trying not to get evaporated.”
Drew Jackson; 919-836-5758; @jdrewjackson