Nestled in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx is St. Rita’s Convent, a home to 20 Missionaries of Charity and a residence for their founder St. Teresa of Kolkata when she visited the United States.
St. Teresa selected this convent for her sisters to serve the poor in the neighborhood. The convent, which also serves as the North American Regional House for Eastern United States and Eastern Canada, is filled with excitement in anticipation of her canonization on Sept. 4.
“This is the Year of Mercy, and we’ve been waiting a long time thinking why is it taking so long for our Mother to be canonized. The Lord had a plan to have it come in the Year of Mercy,’’ Sister M. Clare, M.C., the assistant to the superior for the Missionaries of Charity at St. Rita, told CNY.
“People will come to know Jesus more through her spirit and her life. Mother didn’t want any attention on her. In the Bronx when Mother was coming and we’d have the chapel packed with people lined up because she was here, Mother would say: ‘Sister what’s happening? Is something special on? Are they having a special Mass?’ She never thought it was because she was here.”
Sister Clare can share many stories of St. Teresa’s visits, including a human side displayed in her sense of humor and sweet tooth for ice cream, chocolate and candy. Sister Clare also shares the joy the sisters have to serve the poor as they continue to live a simple life set forth by their founder, who died 19 years ago.
The sisters live in a brick building with a banner of St. Teresa’s centennial stamp from 2010 hanging outside the front of the home facing a housing project. The sisters live without computers and wash their clothes by hand. They avoid pageantry for the good they do—rarely granting interviews or permitting media to enter the convent.
“We’re doing God’s will for us because this is our vocation,” said Sister Clare, who entered the Missionaries of Charity in 1979.
“We will only have true joy and peace when we do what God wants. So we’re called to this life and God has given us the grace to live this life. When this is your vocation, you receive a joy to be with the poor. It is true there are many sacrifices, but also many joys. If we live it, we will have joy.”
Sister Clare, dressed in the congregation’s familiar white edged with blue sari, sat in a room with a glass cabinet displaying the saint’s relics, including the sheets and blanket she used and the pail she in which she washed her clothes. One of St. Teresa’s saris hangs in a frame on the wall above the cabinet.
The nearby chapel includes a wooden altar draped in a white cloth topped by a royal blue cloth. The chapel floor is tiled and royal blue rugs cover portions. The sisters remove their shoes before entering the chapel. Some kneel on the floor to pray, and others sit in blue folding chairs.
To the left of the convent is a patch of land owned by the Missionaries of Charity with a garden of flowers and statue of the Blessed Mother.
Past the garden, an entrance to a soup kitchen and homeless shelter awaits. Some 80 men and women, sitting at tables in separate rooms, are led in prayer before enjoying an early lunch of pasta with pie or cake for dessert.
Painted in royal blue, the walls of the eating area sport pictures including ones of St. Teresa and another of Jesus at the Last Supper as well as prayers such as the Hail Mary written on poster-size paper. Upstairs from the eating area is the homeless shelter for 18 men, who arrive at 4 p.m. and leave before 6 a.m. Two volunteers oversee the shelter at night.
“The sisters are really kind and wonderful to the volunteers. They are helping the poor with food and clothes as well as their spiritual lives,” said Cesar Mateos, a teacher for children with special needs in Spain who was volunteering in the Bronx for the month.
A day starts at 4:40 a.m. for the sisters. Mediation and prayer are followed by the completion of household chores and washing of their clothes before attending 7 a.m. Mass. The sisters visit shut-ins, people confined indoors by illness or disability, in the morning and afternoon. The sisters retire after 9 p.m. prayer.
“They bring happiness and joy to everybody’s life. I’m talking about the volunteers, people on the street and the shut-ins. The shut-ins, their eyes light up when they see the sisters,” said Peter Brady, a volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity for 20 years who will be in Rome for the canonization of St. Teresa.
Following the canonization in Rome on Sept. 4, a week of events is scheduled in New York City, including a Mass to celebrate St. Teresa’s Feast Day on Sept. 5 at St. Rita.
In 1950, St. Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, who first came to North America in 1971, sharing residence at the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary Convent in Harlem.
The Missionaries of Charity came to the Bronx in 1972 and moved into the convent at St. Rita the following year. In 1975, a neighboring abandoned building burned and the city gave the land to the sisters. Four years later, the sisters took ownership of a building bordering its gardens, which now serves as a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
The Missionaries of Charity also are present in the Archdiocese of New York with the Gift of Love hospice in Greenwich Village, the first home for men with AIDS; a women’s shelter at St. Joseph’s Convent in Harlem; and a contemplative house at St. Anthony of Padua Convent in the Bronx.
The Missionaries of Charity, which includes priests and brothers, have more than 5,000 sisters around the world and continue to live a simple life of service to the poor and forgotten as modeled by St. Teresa.
“She would say, ‘all for Jesus.’ That’s what she would always say,” Sister Clare said. “Mother received so many prizes. She would say ‘I don’t accept for myself, I accept it in the name of the poor.’ She would be happy the poor are being exalted and noticed.’’