Greg Zingler watched a movie about Mother Teresa six years ago and was awed by the world-famous nun’s compassionate service to the poor. He went to the Basilica of the National Shrine in the District and asked: Is there any chance that any of Mother Teresa’s nuns are here in D.C.?
The Missionaries of Charity keep a low profile — the nuns in the order that Mother Teresa founded refuse interviews, keep to their convent’s grounds at almost all times and don’t even have a website to tell neighbors that they do indeed have a presence here in the District. But Zingler went to the address that the Basilica receptionist gave him, and there a nun agreed to give him a tour of the convent and adjoining nursing home.
“This hallway is where the live-in volunteers stay,” she told Zingler.
He hadn’t even known that living at the convent was an option. Within half an hour, he had a key to his room. Six years on, he hasn’t left.
At the Missionaries of Charity facility in Northeast Washington, he now helps care for 51 ill and aging men and women alongside 34 nuns and nuns-in-training. It is a place apart from the rest of Washington, secluded from curious neighbors by expansive gardens. And it is a place suffused with veneration for Mother Teresa, who will become a saint in the Catholic Church on Sunday.
The nuns speak of Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, as simply “Mother,” a familiar inspiration who beams down from the walls in almost every room. The first thing one sees upon entering the building is a glass-encased wheelchair that she once sat in, followed by a cabinet full of relics — a tiny square cut from a sheet she once used, a bit of leather from her sandal, a piece of tube used to draw her blood.
Mother Teresa, an Albanian nun, founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India (now known as Kolkata), and developed the order into a worldwide network of 4,500 nuns operating nursing homes, orphanages, hospices and other charitable programs. Almost 20 years since her death, the order has maintained its strength, and remains a magnet for both admiration and criticism.
When their founder officially becomes Saint Teresa of Calcutta at a canonization Mass at the Vatican on Sunday, her nuns will celebrate all over the world — including in the District, where they maintain a presence in three locations.
There’s a contemplative order, a few nuns devoted to prayer, not works. There’s a facility the nuns operate for homeless single mothers in Anacostia. And there’s the nursing home, on a hill overlooking Otis Street NE in the Woodridge neighborhood, near the District’s eastern border.
It’s a spartan yet homey facility, with no medical technology in sight and none of the institutional, orderly aura of most other nursing homes, even other homes run by nuns. In the bare-bones dining room, two nuns led 17 mumbling men in prayer one evening this week, then doled out tuna casserole.
“If there wasn’t a place like this, I wouldn’t know where I would be,” Joseph Sam said as he ate his portion. Sam is alone in the District — his children live in his native Ghana, and his wife died 15 years ago, he said. When he was hospitalized due to complications from diabetes a year ago, he said he had to give up his job as a security analyst at the World Bank, and he soon had nowhere to go. Social workers placed him at Christ House for people who are homeless and ill, then sent him here to the Missionaries of Charity.
“I find a great serenity. I feel more one with the Lord,” he said of this facility. “Any time I go out to that statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I feel her presence. It calms me from whatever I’m thinking about.”
Nuns and volunteers said that most residents don’t leave this nursing home. Some arrive near the end of their lives; one man with mental disabilities has lived there for more than 25 years. But Sam, 57, has big plans on his mind: He wants to regain his health, find a new job, move into his own apartment, even find a new romantic partner.
Days at the facility include prayer and religious instruction, and one of the many complaints that critics have lodged against Mother Teresa’s order during and after her lifetime is the charge that her institutions proselytize to the needy people they are aiding.
Mohammed Lawal, 56, said he has been reconsidering his Muslim faith since coming to the Missionaries of Charity home suffering from a seizure disorder more than a year ago. “They draw our attention to Jesus,” Lawal said over dinner, as Zingler handed him his handful of pills for the evening. Lawal put them all in his mouth at once and chewed them. “I decided to start learning. So far, so good. I haven’t come yet from Muslim to Christian, but I am thinking about it.”
Even in death, Mother Teresa’s example persuades women around the world to begin the 10-year process of becoming a sister in the Missionaries of Charity, and leads lay people to become volunteers, called co-workers.
Eileen Martin, who lives in Arnold, decided to spend three or four weeks volunteering at the convent recently as a sort of summer vacation. After weeks of night shifts, including changing female patients’ diapers at midnight, 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., Martin says she couldn’t leave. She decided to take a semester off from her job in construction management and the degree she is pursuing in that field, so she could spend months more with the nuns.
Martin, 49, said that watching the sisters at work has taught her: “I really have no idea what selflessness is. Or love, for that matter.”
Michael Aldeguer, too, felt compelled by Mother Teresa’s example to devote himself full-time to her order. As he carefully shaved the face of an 88-year-old resident, Aldeguer said he quit his job managing a hotel gift store 15 years ago and moved into the convent, where he spent seven years. He still volunteers full-time.
“You really do have to have a spiritual life and a life of faith. Otherwise it’s just social work. You might as well get paid,” Aldeguer said. “I was always drawn to Mother. For me, she radiated God’s love in action.”
That’s what Susan Feeley, who coordinates the 50 co-workers who help at the facility, felt about Mother Teresa. Feeley was a professor at Fordham University almost 40 years ago when Mother Teresa enlisted her to teach English to nuns in the order.
“She had me at hello,” Feeley said. “She had this extraordinary charism, gift. She would take both your hands. I never felt anything like it. Love. Love. Pure love. And kindness.”
Feeley remembers Mother Teresa as very human, a friend whom she drove around New York and watched navigate some tough situations. She even remembers laughing with her. Once, when Mother Teresa met an aging celebrity — Feeley still won’t say who it was — she said to Feeley afterward: “Oh my. I thought I had wrinkles. Now I’ve seen wrinkles.”
But since Mother Teresa’s death, Feeley has come to find herself praying to her friend in heaven. That’s what the Catholic church will officially declare Sunday — that Mother Teresa is a saint, whom Catholics can pray to, who will intercede with God on their behalf.
“I know she was a saint. I knew it immediately,” Feeley said. To know Mother Teresa, she said, was to know a loving spirit immersed in the day-to-day business of meeting suffering with dignity — a legacy still pursued every day on this quiet hill in Washington.