This column originally appeared in Catholic New York Sept. 27, 1990.
Over the years in this business, I’ve been lucky enough to log some fascinating travels, with some memorable stops along the way. Few of those stops were as memorable, or more instructive, than two visits I made to installations operated by the Missionaries of Charity—“Mother Teresa’s sisters,” as they’re known to the world.
One was a convent in Amman, Jordan, that I visited with Msgr. —now Bishop—John G. Nolan in 1975. Some convent. The building was actually a chicken coop that the sisters had dressed up a bit. It had no running water, and no electricity. I took my notes that night by the light of a kerosene lantern. Traveling with then-Archbishop O’Connor five years ago in Ethiopia, I stopped in a home for the dying operated by the Missionaries of Charity on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. There, too, conditions were spartan. Neither of these places, it need hardly be said, had an elevator. No other luxuries, either. What distinguished both facilities was the love of the sisters who gave them life.
The absence of an elevator is not without significance, since it was for that reason that the Missionaries of Charity have been prevented from dispensing their love to a good many of New York's homeless. In a smashing victory for bureaucracy, the City of New York told the sisters that they could not convert two abandoned buildings in the South Bronx into a shelter for homeless men because the completed facility would have had no elevator.
The sisters had already spent $100,000 on the rehabilitation project, and planned to spend another $400,000 before it was finished. The shelter would have provided transitional housing for 64 men. When they were first informed of the requirement for an elevator for the four-story building, the sisters said, in effect: Big deal; we’ll carry any body who can’t walk. An elevator would cost too much money. That wasn’t enough for Ann Emerman, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. “The sisters said that if anyone couldn’t walk up the stairs, they’d carry them, just like they do in Calcutta,” she said, according to an Associated Press story. “We said we have different ideas here of personal dignity. Some people might not want to be carried.”
That insulting line of thinking is going to leave 64 more people on the streets of New York this winter, because the sisters decided they shouldn’t spend any more time and money dealing with bureaucratic red tape. It also means that the city will be losing out on about $2 million a year in operating services, all of which would have been donated by the sisters.
Sadly, it’s a line of thinking that seems to be catching on in City Hall. According to a story in The New York Times this week, the city wants to close the nurseries for infants of drug addicts operated in Harlem by the revered Mother Clara Hale. That’s because foster-home care is now deemed to be preferable to the group home approach Mother Hale has been carrying out since 1941, when no one else seemed to care about the problem at all. So the city is no longer sending abandoned infants to Hale House, and is cutting off funds to support them.
So think this over. What we have—at a point when Time magazine and the rest of the country is on New York’s case as rarely before—is the sorry spectacle of the city administration taking on Mother Teresa and Mother Hale. Is this dumb, or what? At 80 and 85 years of age, respectively, these remarkable women have devoted most of their lives to taking care of other people—old people, sick people, dying people, little people, people on whom the rest of society had simply given up. And what are they being told now? “Go fight City Hall.”
At a dinner I wrote about in this space two weeks ago, Cardinal O’Connor said that the secret to curing the world’s ills is no secret at all: it’s love. It’s the kind of love that Mother Teresa and her sisters, and Mother Hale and her coworkers, have dished out for years.
Somebody ought to tell City Hall. As things stand, the word isn’t getting through.