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Saints among us

I met Mother Teresa long before she was revered or even heard of by the wider world. Practical and matter-of-fact, with “a large round face and great charm,” as I recorded in my travel journal, she gave me a bag of candies to hand out to women lying on bedding rolls on the concrete floor of her Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta (as Kalkata was then known).

Many of the stick-thin figures were motionless under gray covers, though a few smiled up at me, showing so many gaps in their teeth it was hard to imagine they could manage a toffee.

Women and men of all ages had been rescued from the streets, most suffering from acute malnutrition and many with tuberculosis, leprosy and other diseases. All had their heads shaved, and the place was almost eerily quiet, though we were told that fights occasionally broke out among some of the patients.

In a large back room with huge sinks for washing, six little boys squatted, huddled together on a hard concrete ledge. They were all dumb, we were told, and two of them totally withdrawn. One boy of about 9, with an intelligent and beautiful face, gazed at us with his hands spread then clutched the sides of his face as if asking a question I could not answer. There were no toys or books to be seen, and the nuns had little time to talk or sing, play or read with the children, nor was there any psychiatric help for the poorest in those days of the late 1960s. That they were fed, clothed and safe from harm was the most that could be expected in the early years before Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were flooded with volunteers.

Her home for dying destitutes was set up right next to a famous Hindu temple dedicated to the fierce goddess Kali. I had been brought to Kalighat during my travels in India in 1968 by a man who had taken on the job of regularly feeding 5,000 of Calcutta’s slum-dwellers.

Dudley Gardiner, a retired English sergeant-major, was enormous, loud-voiced and red-faced, with a bushy gray beard. He wore a butcher’s white apron, his hands were cracked, and his ankles blue and swollen from elephantiasis and hours of standing. He rose in the small hours each morning to start cooking vegetarian curry and porridge in huge vats, which were then loaded into an Oxfam vehicle and driven around the poorest slums of the city.

Hour after hour, he and an assistant filled the bowls that were eagerly held out at each stop, working with precision, speed and a spare hand here and there to rumple a child’s hair. By the time their day was finished around 8 p.m., 5,000 people had been fed.

One who stood waiting the day I accompanied Dudley was a young widow with four children. She showed us around her tiny shack, limping due to a deformed foot and telling us how she begged at Howrah Station each day to pay the rent. At age 13 she gave birth to her first child, now a lively girl who had acted as midwife for the last baby three years before. Ever practical, Dudley pointed out that after a year or two, people had to come off the list to make room for another family. Despite his best efforts, he could not feed all the poor of Calcutta any more than Mother Teresa could cure all the sick or rescue all the dying.

By my reckoning, I met two saints that day. Their presence has stayed with me for almost 50 years. Mother Teresa became a celebrity, then a saint. I never heard Major Gardiner’s name mentioned again. For each person who is officially recognized as a saint, there are numerous individuals who dedicate their lives to others, regardless of creed or origin, yet who are never canonized or widely acclaimed. When Mother Teresa’s praises were sung at the Vatican recently, I thought of her with gratitude, but also of those nameless ones who perform miracles that someone, somewhere, will never forget.

— Diana Reynolds Roome lives in Talent.