New Light On Mother Teresa

When Pope Francis canonizes Mother Teresa on Sunday, September 4, one man will be smiling more than most in the sea of people in Saint Peter's Square.
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When Pope Francis canonizes Mother Teresa on Sunday, September 4, one man will be smiling more than most in the sea of people in Saint Peter's Square.

His name is Michael Collopy, one of the preeminent portrait photographers of our time. Collophy was Mother Teresa's personal friend and official photographer for fifteen years. His 224 page book of photographs, Works of Love are Works of Peace (Ignatius Press), contain more than 180 fine art quality tri-tone images, along with writings by Mother Teresa. One of Collopy's images of Mother Teresa has been chosen as the Catholic Church's official portrait of the new saint. Collopy's photograph was the basis for a painted portrait of the nun that will be unveiled to the world on September 4.

Collopy, a mostly self taught photographer who was acquainted with Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon, resides in San Francisco with his wife, Alma and their two sons. He has photographed a lot of famous people, including Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, but he says that no subject affected him as much as Mother Teresa. As a personal friend of the saint's, he also spent a lot of time driving her around Calcutta to her various appointments.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of something she said," he tells me by phone from his home. "She was very mystical. She could 'read' you in a way. She had these deep penetrating eyes and she often gave me spiritual advice that was straight on."

Collopy also wants me to know that Mother Teresa "had the ability to see goodness in each person without judgment."

The most extreme example of this is the love that she and her Missionaries of Charity sisters showed to gay men dying of AIDS in the Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s. Collopy's book contains a number of startling images from the sisters' Gift of Love San Francisco AIDS Hospice. These black and white images are images of AIDS patients close to death... Some of the men are photographed as they lay dying. In one striking photograph we see Hospice patient "David" surrounded by sisters and staff as if cocooned in a loving circle. As Collopy wrote: "His name was David. Like the other men whose photographs appear in this section, when David found out about this book project, he wanted to be involved. So we were there at a most intimate and profound--his death."

One image shows David in repose in a small cot, a white sheet up to his neck near an open window with white curtains and a white statue of Our Lady of Fatima looking over the scene.

"I got to know all of these guys quite well," Collopy says. "Mother was one of the first to really have a home for men suffering from AIDS. I met so many men there who were rejected by their families because of who they were, so many beautiful people that I got to know." Collopy adds that David told him that while living in the streets he didn't feel like he had family or friends but that in the hospice he was surrounded by friends.

"Mother had complete trust and confidence that the men in the AIDS hospice were all going to heaven. How intimately God loves each one of us. Mother also made it a point never to judge anyone, and she once told Michael, 'Oh no, I never judge anybody because it doesn't allow me to love them.'"

"Not having this judgment," Collopy adds, "allowed her to love the individuals she cared for. Mother had the ability to see goodness in each person, without judgment. There was a lot of love and laughter in those hospices."

How did Mother Teresa become Mother Teresa?

She was born in Albania as Ganxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu and had an older brother and a sister named Aga. The family was well to do. Her mother, an Orthodox Christian, was very religious while her father was very active politically in the local City Council, a position that probably led to his death, or so Collopy believes, as he may have been poisoned. By age 18, the future Mother Teresa was already leading a devout religious life and reading books on India because she had a desire to work there. She wanted to devote her life to the poor as a nun and the only way to do that was to join the Catholic Sisters of Loreto (there were no Orthodox missionary nuns in India at that time).

Collopy says that Mother Teresa received the call to work with the very poor during a train ride to Darjeeling in 1946. "At that time she had a kind of interior locution, a vision of Jesus and Mary. She was suddenly looking out over a sea of dark faces of the poor and in the foreground was Jesus on the cross," he says. After entering the convent, she became a geography teacher and the principal of a girl's school in Calcutta.

Collopy tells me that Mother never liked to talk about herself and never accepted any kind of praise. When she started her work in Calcutta, she was on her own and absolutely alone. It wasn't until British writer Malcolm Muggeridge discovered her work in 1969, leading to a BBC report on her work that resulted in world wide attention.

Deceased writer Christopher Hitchens, author of a book on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position," says the BBC report was the beginning of "the Mother Teresa media myth." Hitchens called Mother Teresa an "ally of the status quo," because of her readiness to meet infamous world dictators to further her work. Other critics of Mother jumped on the bandwagon, including journalists who insisted that her Missionaries of Charity homes for the dying in Calcutta and elsewhere were understaffed, provided bad medical care, were too crowded and had insufficient pain killers and food. Mother's Missionaries of Charity were also charged with gross financial mismanagement. Krithika Varagur of the Huffington Post went out on a limb when she wrote:

"...Mother Teresa's imminent sainthood is freshly infuriating. We make god in our image and we see holiness in those who resemble us. In this, Mother Teresa's image is a relic of white, Western supremacy." These and other critics who criticized Mother Teresa's looks as well as her stand against abortion were taken aback when she was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Freedom.

Collopy says that when he and Christopher Hitchens were in Berkeley at the same time, somebody tried to get them together for lunch. "I had a conversation with him on the phone, and he was very nice, very articulate, but his criticism of Mother certainly wasn't accurate based on my 15 years with her."

The aged nun, after all, lived in a simple room without any amenities, wore broken sandals that were five years old, refused to use the telephone longer than a few minutes because poor people in India had no access to phones.

"I never met anybody who was that selfless. Her life was a life of selfless service. She did not desire publicity or fame. In fact, she had a deal with God that for every photo taken of her a soul was released from purgatory. You know, when you consider the life of Jesus--he did not hang out with the best of characters--a far more difficult pain for him to accept other than the physical pain he experienced was the pain of rejection from the apostles at the Garden of Gethsemane. This really corresponds to the poverty of sorrow that Mother saw in the West. It was the poverty of being unloved and uncared for that made the poverty in the United States much more difficult to care for. But she was called to attend to that."

Collopy tells me of the time he was driving Mother to one of her appointments when they came upon a group of electricians working on electrical wires. The scene moved Mother to say, "You have to be the empty wire and allow God to be the current that runs through it."

I ask about the photographs of Mother's feet and hands. The images of Mother's feet are shocking to look at because they do not resemble feet but, as Collopy says, "tree roots."

"Yes, the sisters used to encourage me to photograph Mother's feet. She never used to wear sandals in her house in Calcutta, because the poor didn't have sandals. She had an extra toe under her right foot. That must have been very painful. But her feet looked like tree roots. There were notches on her ankles from the way that she prayed, the prostrations and so forth..."

He says there are many times when he feels Mother's presence. In one instance a good friend of Alma's announced that she had breast cancer. Because the woman was very distraught, Collopy immediately drove to her home to give her a small medal of Our Lady that Mother used to hand out to people. Mother would kiss these medals individually then distribute them to pilgrims and the sick. Sometimes she would leave them on the property of buildings that were for sale that she wanted to buy. According to Collopy, "99.9 percent of the time after she would get that house."

After delivering the medal to his wife's friend, Collopy tells me that the very next day the more than grateful woman drove to the Collopy home to make an announcement. She said that when she received the medal on the previous day, she saw Mother Teresa standing in the room. Shortly after this, his breast cancer vanished completely.

Collopy reminds me of something that Mother once said: "I can do much more for you in heaven than I can on earth."

The San Francisco photo-journalist is currently working on a new book, Courage, portraits of people he feels have exhibited courage in their field of work, including Nobel Prize Laureates, Civil Rights heroes, and of course the Dalai Lama, who once rubbed Collopy's shoulder because he said he needed the healing presence of Mother Teresa's love.

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