As mom tends to holy woman — and holey sweater — meeting with Mother Teresa evolves into friendship

    Listen

    Many of us think of Mother Teresa for her charitable work worldwide. But a Bucks County woman got to know the Nobel Peace Prize winner before she was a household name.

    Ahead of Mother’s Day, reporter Monica Miller recently revisited this story about her mom.

    My mother, Diane Hudson Harris has a diverse resume. Her outgoing, type-A personality drew her to careers in real estate, public relations, fundraising and politics.

    “I have a background in marketing and sales,” she said when I asked her about it recently. “I’ve been told that I can sell ice to Eskimos.”

    She even had a stint in show business. But there’s one job that seems disjointed from the rest. It had the suburbanite raised by Methodists leading the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s emergency food program in the mid-1970s.

    Less than a year into the job, she got an assignment our family would never forget.

    “I was asked to go and meet Mother Teresa at 30th Street Station. She was coming to town to lead a pilgrimage of hope on the Parkway,” she recalled.

    And so, my mom and dad picked up Mother Teresa. The little woman in her signature sari was traveling alone. No popemobile. No entourage.

    “First of all, it was before the Nobel Prize, so people didn’t really know who she was,” my mother recalled. “I, not being a Catholic, even more so.”

    But my dad, Ed Miller, is a devout Catholic, and he filled my mother in.

    ‘An unlikely pair’

    “I was very nervous about driving her,” dad recalled. “I knew I was in the presence of a saint, any way a very holy woman.”

    Mom was captivated by the petite woman with a such a large presence.

    “I was very taken at the time with her simplicity. She had that famous white sari with the blue stripe,” Mom said. “And I guess I’m personalizing this, I couldn’t help but notice, she had a gray sweater with little holes in her sweater.”

    The former Bensalem High School cheerleader ushered the Saint of the Gutters to her different events throughout Philadelphia in our family’s tan station wagon.

    “And we were such an unlikely pair.”

    She discovered Mother Teresa had a sense of humor. For example, for a woman consumed with feeding starving people, Mother Teresa was amused by the commercials selling low-fat foods and weight-loss products.

    The two talked shop and visited some of the food pantries my mom helped organize around the city. Anne Healy Ayella, at the time an intern at the archdiocese and now the assistant director of nutritional development services, recalled that my mother thought “outside of the box.”

    “I always felt like Diane was trying to take us to the next level. You know, she tried to connect the food cupboards with Hahnemann Hospital so that there could be nutrition lessons. She tried to hook food cupboards with the local city government so there could be support that way,” Ayella said. “She tried to get more press and publicity around these events.”

    An invitation to Calcutta

    After this tour around Philadelphia Mother Teresa invited my mother to India for a look at her social service programs. Two years later, they met in Calcutta.

    “It was so much more than I could ever imagine,” my mother said. “You can see on television, you know, people hungry. But when you see it face-to-face, it’s overwhelming.”

    Mother Teresa took my mother to a leper colony and the house for the destitute and dying. They even attended a meeting with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

    But the one memory that still gets to Mom is the time she spent in a nursery where the Sisters of Charity cared for babies who had been left on trashcans.

    “It wasn’t done out of like a throwaway baby. My thought was that the parents were hoping for a better life, you know, for their children,” she told me. “Of course, you at the time were back home. You were about 2 or 3 years old, and I would always relate back to you…If that had been our situation, what would I have done?”

    Asked what she thought about poverty in the U.S., Mother Teresa said the problems here were worse than they are in India. You can make a dent in poverty, she told my mother, but the U.S. warehouses the elderly and sick.

    “Do we really know our poor, in our own house, in our own family?” Mother Teresa said in a speech found on YouTube. “Maybe we are not hungry for a piece of bread. Maybe our children, our husband, our wife are not hungry. Are not naked. Are not homeless. But are you sure there is no one there who feels unwanted, unloved.”

    Mother Teresa returned to Philadelphia in August of 1976 to speak at the Eucharistic Congress.  At her request, my mother took care of her, and my dad once again drove her to different events. They remained in touch until 1979 around the time Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize.

    I’ve heard these stories at least a hundred times. My only recollection of these events is of Mother Teresa’s wrinkled hands holding my young face. “I’m saving a sari for you,” she told me.

    While it wouldn’t have been a good fit, I still have a healthy dose of Catholic guilt turning down her offer.

    At times, my mother and I have had a challenging relationship. The battles over control and independence over the years sometimes overshadow who we really are.

    For the first time in a long time, I looked at the yellowed pictures of my mother in Calcutta — her wash-and-go Dorothy Hamill hair cut and the pantyhose she wore that people sitting on the streets repeatedly snapped for a laugh.

    Now I see a woman younger than I am today who stepped out of her comfort zone to take risks and used her talents to help others. And while many people may have treated Mother Teresa as fragile, my mother saw her as an older woman traveling alone in a strange city who needed a companion. Mother Teresa even let Mom sew the holes in her sweater.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.