On a recent Tuesday morning, three Missionaries of Charity and a handful of volunteers buzzed around the kitchen, preparing pots of mostaccioli and green beans, trays of bread, boxes of donuts and jugs of beverages.
It was almost time to serve the 10 a.m. meal. But first, they slipped into the small chapel off the soup kitchen’s dining room to kneel before Jesus in the tabernacle and pray.
“Without the Eucharist, we wouldn’t be able to do anything,” said Sister M. Justus, the order’s local superior. “Whatever we are doing here, it has to flow from the Eucharist. It is everything for us. Without Jesus — no way.”
Sept. 5 marks the feast day of St. Teresa of Kolkata, the founder of the Missionaries of the Charity, who died on that day in 1997. For Mother Teresa and her sisters, love for the Eucharist and care for the poor are inseparable.
In 1976, Mother Teresa spoke at the National Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. “We need the Body of Christ to be able to love His Father, to be able to love one another,” she told those gathered. “…Our sisters and brothers, the Missionaries of Charity, are not social workers. They are contemplatives in the heart of the world, for their lives are woven with the Eucharist, by touching Him in the appearance of bread and then finding Him in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
The Bread of Life
Inside their small convent on Cottage Street in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood of north St. Louis, the Missionaries of Charity rise at 4:40 a.m. each day. They pray from 5-6 a.m., then return after household chores for 7 a.m. Mass before dispersing to serve in the soup kitchen and around the community.
This order of events is essential, said Sister M. Mercina. “When we receive Jesus, it sustains us to then be His living presence in the world,” she said.
Sister M. Mercina came to St. Louis in February after many years at the order’s motherhouse in Kolkata, living and working alongside Mother Teresa for a while.
“Mother always said that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and she said it with such conviction,” she said. “The work we do, we believe we are doing it to Jesus, and we are doing it with Jesus. And this makes me really content.”
In addition to the soup kitchen, the sisters run an emergency overnight shelter for women and their children, after-school and summer children’s programs, and visit families in need in the surrounding community. Although their work keeps them very busy, they make time for about five hours of prayer throughout the day, Sister M. Mercina said.
“Without Jesus, I would not be able to do this work. It is very difficult!” she said with a laugh.
On Aug. 29, Demonte Whitehead came to the soup kitchen for a hot meal. He lives in the neighborhood and has known the sisters for about two years.
“I love coming here because they don’t just feed us, they also encourage us, support us getting jobs and housing, and things like that,” he said. Every time he comes, the sisters remember him and ask how specific things in his life are going — and really listen.
“They’re interested in people and remember our names,” he said. “They’ll personally, one-on-one, pray with you and talk with you. They really care.”
Patricia Hudson likes showing up to the soup kitchen a little early so she can join one of the sisters for prayer and discussion about faith before the meal service begins. That morning, they prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet together. “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world,” Hudson recited. “(The sisters) get my spirits up. They’ve got a glow that keeps you smiling and gives you joy.”
The source and summit
The charism of the Missionaries of Charity is shared by many volunteers and vowed members of the lay Missionaries of Charity. Dee Leahy, a parishioner at Mary Queen of Peace in Webster Groves and a lay Missionary of Charity, has been part of the sisters’ mission for more than 30 years after being introduced to the order on a mission trip in Haiti. For many years, she spent up to six months out of the year living and serving alongside them in the Caribbean nation.
The sisters’ robust prayer life was one of the things that attracted her to the order and then making her vows as a laywoman. “You cannot have this kind of life without God being the center of it,” she said. “We start the day with morning prayers, and then Mass, and then noon prayers, evening prayer and Holy Hour. It centers your life: It’s around prayer and the love that you see in the poor. You feel like it’s Jesus that you’re serving.”
A nurse by trade, she saw immense suffering in Haiti’s poorest of the poor, including during the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people and devastated the country’s infrastructure. When you’re cleaning maggots out of an open wound, “The sacramental life gives you not only the desire but the physical ability to rise above all the physical discomforts that you’re going through to serve Him,” she said.
Fellow lay Missionary of Charity Pam Hacker still remembers reading about Mother Teresa for the first time in an article in Good Housekeeping magazine. Hacker wasn’t Catholic then, but the saint’s witness moved her so much that she called up the Archdiocese of St. Louis to see if the Missionaries of Charity had sisters in St. Louis. She started volunteering immediately.
“The first day I went to the sisters’ house, on Maffitt, the little chapel was in the front of the house, and the Blessed Sacrament was there,” she recalled. “There were two entrances to the room, and every time they walked past that entrance, they genuflected. And that was really powerful — to see their devotion and love. You could just feel God’s presence in the room. And that’s how you always feel — you feel God’s presence there.”
She continued to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity, and when Mother Teresa visited St. Louis in the late 1980s, Hacker met the saint after Mass St. Teresa of Avila Church (now Sts. Teresa and Bridget).
Soon after, Hacker converted to the Catholic faith. “How could you not become Catholic after being with the sisters and working with the people, the poorest of the poor?” she said. “…My life is not the same. Every day is different because of being Catholic. I can’t even express how powerful it is, becoming Catholic, and then also having such a great model in St. Teresa of Kolkata, a saint who was in our midst.”
Since lay Missionaries of Charity are often married with children, one key part of their charism is working for the salvation of their own families first, Hacker said.
“When you’re living in the heart of the world, it’s difficult — it’s difficult to bring your family to holiness because of everything around us,” she said. Just like the sisters, the lay members’ commitment to daily prayer and receiving the Eucharist sustains them to serve first their families, then the poor.
“Mother (Teresa) always said, Jesus isn’t far from us. He’s right there in the heart,” Hacker said. “And then when you receive His body, that’s everything. That’s the source and summit. That gives you the strength to go on.”
“We have to love and suffer to save souls. It’s not easy,” she said. “Mother always said, without Him, we couldn’t do it. That’s the bottom line.”
>> History of Missionaries of Charity in St. Louis
Cardinal John J. Carberry requested that Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Kolkata) send some members of her order to work in St. Louis. During a meeting for inner-city priests at a forum in Minnesota in 1976, Cardinal Carberry said he invited Mother Teresa to visit St. Louis and “if she could see a way for it, to establish a convent of her sisters in the north St. Louis area.”
In April 1978, Mother Teresa visited St. Louis to participate in the Congress of the Institute on Religious Life. At the time, she took a tour of north St. Louis with Cardinal Carberry, searching for what she described as “the poorest of the poor.”
Cardinal Carberry repeated his request to her at that time, and the tour was intended to convince the nun that the sisters were needed in St. Louis. Mother Teeresa was born in Skopje, now in North Macedonia, and worked in Kolkata among the poor, lepers, homeless and starving. Her work was recognized worldwide, including a nomination for the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize.
Lay Missionaries of Charity
The first group of Lay Missionaries of Charity made private vows in the presence of Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Kolkata) in 1984. The movement was approved by Rome in 1987. A chapter was started in St. Louis in 1991.
The group is open to single and married people. Members make a private act of consecration by vowing to live lives of poverty, chastity, obedience and service of the poorest of the poor. Vows are renewed yearly. Lay missionaries take on a personal responsibility to their families and Church first, and their patron is the Holy Family of Nazareth, a model of life and source of inspiration. The group also is contemplative in nature, with a focus on prayer.
There are currently 10 lay Missionaries of Charity in St. Louis. Father John Paul Hopping is spiritual director of the group, which meets twice a month for Mass, confession, Holy Hour and spiritual direction. To learn more about the St. Louis chapter, contact Pam Hacker, LMC, at (573) 484-3650.
>> Mother Teresa Feast Day Mass
In conjunction with the ongoing Eucharistic Revival, Archbishop Emeritus Robert J. Carlson will celebrate a Mass in honor of the feast of St. Teresa of Kolkota at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, at Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church, 3636 N. Market St. For more information, visit archstl.org/eucharistic-revival/events.