Sister Jesusla ladles out hot stew at the soup kitchen that the sisters run in a building behind St. Malachy Church on Chicago’s Near West Side. The soup kitchen serves food six days a week.Odette Yousef/WBEZ
Sunday, the tiny Albanian-born woman known as Mother Teresa becomes a saint of the Catholic Church. Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, was known for her work among the poor and sick in Calcutta, India. But her mission expanded globally through a religious order she founded, called Missionaries of Charity. In Chicago, a small group of nuns have quietly been carrying on her work, in areas that have been riven by violence, drugs and the challenges of poverty.
The connection began 33 years ago, when a Chicago priest wrote to Mother Teresa, asking her to send some of her nuns to one of the poorest and most violent parts of Chicago. Her response came by mail: “God bless you, Father. As soon as I can, I will send you four nuns.” In 1983, they arrived, setting up in a spare brick building behind St. Malachy church. Mother Teresa herself visited the building to mark its opening.
The garlanded bronze statue of Mother Teresa after it was unveiled by Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal state at Archbishop's House in Kolkata, India, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016. Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa, born on this day at Skopje, Macedonia, Slovenia in 1910, was a Catholic nun who spent 45-years serving the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the dying. Mother Teresa will be made a saint on Sept. 4 by Pope Francis.Bikas Das/AP
“She was just a different person, and a lot of people respected it,” remembered Ricky Austin, who met her during that trip and now volunteers at the soup kitchen the sisters continue to run from that building. Austin recalled that, at the time, the building was sandwiched between high rises of the Henry Horner Homes public housing complex on the near West Side. The complex had become notorious as a hotbed of violence and hopelessness. Mother Teresa’s visit, said Austin, changed things.
“They put their guns down,” Austin said, intimating that he, too, left a violent life. “Maybe that’s what changed my life. By me meeting her.”
“The condition there was really bad at that time,” recalled Sister Julian Paul, a diminutive nun whose first placement was in Chicago after she completed her training in Calcutta. “Every day at three o’clock they (had) shootings next door. And the bullets, we picked up bullets from our own house.”
Sister Julian Paul said the bullets would sometimes pierce the windows of the building where the nuns slept.