By Dave Jolivet
NEW BEDFORD — June 14, 1995 was a dreary, rainy day in the Whaling City, but the weather never dampened the excitement and enthusiasm for the visit of the beloved Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The saint-to-be was visiting the members of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, who had just begun to minister in New Bedford.
She visited the rectory St. Lawrence Martyr Church, where the then-diocesan Director of Communication, Msgr. John J. Moore and then-Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Conv., hosted the tiny woman with the large heart prior to a Mass at the church.
As the day of the 25th anniversary of St. Mother Teresa’s death approached, the Missionaries of Charity, who still live across the street from St. Lawrence Church, approached pastor Father Michael Racine to ask if he would celebrate a Mass of remembrance for her.
“I’m going to have a special mass commemorating her passing 25 years ago on Monday, September 5, which is Labor Day,” Father Racine told The Anchor. “It’s the actual day, so it’s appropriate that we do it. The Mass will be at 10 a.m. at St. Lawrence. All are invited to come and pray with the sisters.”
On that day in 1995, the church was filled to capacity with priests, Missionaries of Charity, religious and faithful fortunate enough to gain access. Also in the church were children from schools across the diocese. Surely a day they would never forget.
Outside in inclement conditions, hundreds lined the street in the rain as the Mass was celebrated inside.
The saint of the streets, Mother Teresa, spoke at the end of the Mass. She asked the large gathering, including her Sisters, to keep praying for the Missionaries of Charity. She said the charism of her congregation is to work for “the sanctification and salvation of the poorest of the poor.”
Msgr. John J. Oliveira, now retired, was the then-Master of Ceremonies for the diocese. “It was my last ceremony as Diocesan Master of Ceremonies, so I was able to be close to all the ceremonies,” Msgr. Oliveira told The Anchor.
“My first encounter was her arrival at the New Bedford airport by a private plane. A crowd greeted her and she was ushered into a private plane hanger where she met various civic and religious officials. Bishop O’Malley was the first to greet her and was responsible for her presence and the foundation of a convent for the Missionaries of Charity in New Bedford.
“At her arrival at St. Lawrence Church, she was greeted by many from the diocese, friends, and citizens of the Whaling City. Most of the clergy of the diocese were in attendance.”
Retired Father Joseph Viveiros, the former diocesan director of the Ministry for the Deaf, was at the Mass, and signed it for those with hearing disabilities. “In the early years of my priesthood I was often called upon to sign for the deaf and hard of hearing at church and social occasions,” he told The Anchor. “On June 15, 1995, at St. Lawrence in New Bedford, I was asked once again to interpret for the deaf and hearing impaired. At that time I was to sign Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s address to our diocese. It was a very moving experience for me. I was truly astonished at how many people were in the church, in the doorways and out in the streets.
“They had all come out to see and hear Mother Teresa speak to them. I recall how I was greatly humbled by that simple little woman who held everyone in the palm of her hand as she spoke to them of God’s love for us all. She, like all virtuous women, ‘spoke with a gentle kind of wisdom’ as she told us of how Jesus always reached out to the poor and the needy. In a kind and loving way she challenged us all to the same. She told us that before God we are all poor and needy. Then she told us that the poorest of the poor are all around us and that we do not need to travel to far places like Calcutta to find them. All we have to do is open our eyes, our minds and our hearts and respond to them.”
“At the end of the Mass she spoke briefly to those assembled, who listened attentively to each word,” added Msgr. Oliveira. “She was treated as a celebrity in some ways. But I sensed she was uncomfortable with all this. She wanted her presence to bring peace and healing, all the extras did not phase her. As she often stated, she was a pencil in the hand of God. That was enough for her. That was what she was about.”
Msgr. Barry Wall, another retired priest of the diocese, shared his recollections with The Anchor. “The visit of Mother Teresa to her Sisters in New Bedford in June 1995 was an extraordinary occasion. Her presence and her words spoken at the Mass celebrated by Bishop O’Malley at St. Lawrence Church brought joy and inspiration to everyone. She was received with devotion not only by Catholics but by the larger civic community led by the mayor, the late Rosemary S. Tierney.
“I think of the visit against the background of local church history. To find an event like it we might have to go back to September 1849 when the city received a visit from Father Theobald Mathew, the Irish Capuchin Franciscan Friar, known on both sides of the Atlantic as the Apostle of Temperance. He came at the invitation of the City Fathers, many of them Quakers who were advocates of temperance. Father Mathew rode in an open carriage to a reception accepting the applause of young and old who gathered along the way. Before and after public exercises, Father Mathew received the pledge to abstain from alcohol from more than 150 people at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Fifth (Pleasant) Street.
“A new Catholic School, the merger of two schools, will soon open in New Bedford and will be named for St. Teresa of Calcutta, a permanent reminder of the words and deeds, and the visit of Mother Teresa,” Msgr. Wall noted.
The Missionaries of Charity encourage all diocesan faithful to attend the September 5 Mass at St. Lawrence Martyr Church to remember St. Mother Teresa and to pray for the work her order continues today.