With their blue-trimmed white saris, the sisters are a discreet but distinctive presence on the streets at night, offering solace to the destitute and, when possible, a place to stay.
But these sisters with the Missionaries of Charity, the religious congregation founded by Mother Teresa, who is to be declared a saint Sunday by Pope Francis, are not assisting the poor of Kolkata, India, where the order began in 1950. They are tending to the indigent and abandoned in Rome.
“Mother used to call it a drop in the ocean, but without that drop, it would not be the same,” Sister Mary Prema Pierick, the superior general of the congregation, said in an interview in a former chicken coop turned into spare living quarters for some of the sisters in Rome.
Active in 139 countries, the sisters and the affiliated brothers and fathers that form what is known as the Missionaries of Charity family are continuing the work begun by Mother Teresa nearly 70 years ago, caring for those she called “the poorest of the poor.” Regardless of where the poor might be.
In the 19 years since Mother Teresa died, her legacy has continued to grow, drawing men and women to the congregation, which now numbers more than 5,800 around the world.
Considered a saint by many yet criticized by others, Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian Roman Catholic nun who gained celebrity status for her work with the poor in India, was beatified in 2003. Her canonization will be one of the fastest in modern times.
Rome always had a special place in Mother Teresa’s heart, those who knew her say, and the city became a frequent stop on her travels. That is partly because she met often with Pope John Paul II, himself canonized in 2014, who told her to visit him whenever she was in Rome.
That was “one obligation she happily obeyed,” said Sister Prema, a soft-spoken woman whose English has a light German accent, a nod to her roots in Essen. The Italian capital was also the first European city where Mother Teresa opened a home for members of the mission, in 1970.
She chose an area in the outskirts called Tor Fiscale, then a shantytown inhabited mostly by postwar refugees, some living in makeshift homes in the arcades of the ancient Roman aqueducts that still crisscross the countryside there.
“Here’s a photo of Mother next to a Fiat 600; here’s another of the sisters building the house at Tor Fiscale,” the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator – or main promoter – of her case for sainthood, said during an interview in the home. He pointed to photographs on a wall outside a tiny room where Mother Teresa often stayed.
In one, half a dozen sari-clad sisters are mixing cement and laying bricks for a wall in what would become one of the congregation’s first European formation houses, for aspiring sisters to live and study.
“Sisters go to where the poor are, so they just came here,” he said.
Today, 15 male theology students occupy the house with three priests with the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, the branch founded to “do priestly service to the poor, and provide spiritual assistance to the MC family,” he said.
In the mornings, the vine-covered courtyard of the house opens to homeless men, who come to shower, have breakfast and perhaps play Ping-Pong.
When the Rev. Sebastian Vazhakala, the co-founder with Mother Teresa of Missionaries of Charity-Contemplative Brothers, sought a place to live in Rome in 1979, he moved to a run-down area – just off what was once the ancient Roman road of Via Praenestina – populated by roughly 8,000 living in improvised shacks. “For me it was like Kolkata, this was a slum,” he recalled.
A small group of brothers cleared the land and built roads, integrating with a citywide program to rehabilitate neglected neighborhoods. In 1993, they opened a shelter for homeless men, Casa Serena. Today it provides beds and showers for 80 people, along with two hot meals a day.
Giuseppe, a middle-aged Roman who declined to give his last name, has been a guest at Casa Serena for just under two months. “From one moment to the next, I went from the stars to the stables,” he said of his setback. “I hope it doesn’t last long.”
He said he had come to know Mother Teresa better during his stay, since her words are used as annotations throughout the guesthouse. “What she did was very human,” he said.
“I learned from her that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” said Vazhakala, who was part of the first group of six men who took vows in 1968, and the only one of that group to remain in the Missionaries of Charity family. “Those are not her words, but she was practicing that. She would say, ‘If I can do something, then I must do it.’”
In Rome, the sisters run a homeless shelter for men, next to their house facing Palatine Hill – where Mother Teresa’s room has become a pilgrimage site – and a soup kitchen and homeless shelter for women in Vatican City.
They have a night shelter for homeless men close to Rome’s main train station, and two houses where they give accommodation to pregnant women and mothers with children. They visit the families of the sick and needy, and offer summer camps for children from families who cannot afford to send them to one. Volunteers assist them, and the brothers, in their efforts.
The canonization, said Vazhakala, who founded the Lay Missionaries of Charity, a movement open to practicing Catholics who pledge to give service to the poorest of the poor, will offer a fresh pulpit for her works.
“Oh, absolutely, apart from the holiness of her life, it’s like a Mother Teresa school will take place: It will be a chance to experience her spirituality,” he said.
Members of the Missionaries of Charity family – both lay and religious – have been descending on Rome for Sunday’s canonization, and a week of events has been organized, from a musical based on Mother Teresa’s life to Masses venerating her relics.
Kolodiejchuk said about 1,700 parishes had already asked his office for relics.
Kristina Drungyte, a lay missionary from Lithuania, said she had traveled to Rome from Reading, England, where she looks after the elderly, “to be here in that crowd” on Sunday.
“I won’t understand the language, but the spirit itself will be enough,” she said.