Mother Teresa's portrait in Saint Peter's Basilica on the day of her canonization.

Who are You?

After 40 years as a hospital nurse in a ward for children with incurable cancer, Teresa Volpato learned that she herself had cancer. Here is her journey to Calcutta and encounter with the sister, now proclaimed a saint, who turned her life upside down...
Paola Bergamini

Teresa looked outside the window at the winter mist that enveloped the houses in Cittadella. How long had she lain there immobile? An hour? Maybe longer. She could not remember. She took a look at the calendar: January 1996. She had been incapable of doing anything since her return from the hospital. Teresa the skier. Teresa the mountain climber, never still. A month earlier, after 40 years of service as head nurse at the Center for Childhood Leukemia in Padua, when she was told that she had to retire, her reaction had been, “Well, at the age of 60 you turn the page. I’ll be able to dedicate myself completely to mountain climbing, and finish traveling the piece of the world I haven’t seen yet.” Enough of watching children suffer, accompanying them to their death. Instead, irony of ironies, everything vanished the day of her goodbye party in the ward. A colleague had handed her an envelope with just her name on it: Teresa Volpato. It was the result of her latest exam. Distractedly she had read the report–malignant breast cancer. Three days later, she had already had surgery, involving complete mutilation. Then the therapy: chemo, radiation...

Only a few days had passed, but it seemed like an eternity. Teresa picked up the pile of accumulated mail, and her eye fell on a bright red envelope. She opened it. It was a travel agency ad for a trip to India. She had already been there. Other countries were much better. Even so, she picked up the phone and called. There was one place left, if her passport was up-todate. Ten days later she landed in Calcutta. The first evening, the group guide described their plans. “For those who would like it, tomorrow morning at 5:30 there is Mass with Mother Teresa in the Missionaries of Charity convent.” “Who is this Mother Teresa?” she asked. Everyone looked at her, horrified. “A saint! She won the Nobel Prize for Peace.” But Teresa had decided at the age of 16 that God and the Church did not interest her, and that they had nothing to do with her life. She told the guide, “OK. I’ll see you all after breakfast.” End of discussion.

At dawn she was awakened by a strange odor. The mosquito repellent coil had burned the carpet. She heard the voices of her travel companions in the corridor as they were preparing for the Mass. She decided to go, if only to put off having to explain that black mark on the floor.

In the church on A.J.C. Bose Road, Teresa found herself pressed against the wall. In front of her was a sea of white, the saris of sisters who had arrived from all over the world for the General Chapter. Looking at them, she thought, “Poor simpletons, who don’t know how to enjoy life.” A woman next to her elbowed her and said, “There she is, Mother Teresa, there in the wheelchair.” Teresa observed that insignificant little old woman full of wrinkles, in front of whom the world bowed down. Their gazes met for a few seconds, then Mother Teresa gestured at her a few times with her hand. She wanted Teresa to come to her. Teresa went. The Mother gestured for Teresa to kneel beside her. The Mass began. At the moment of Communion, Teresa watched the sisters lining up, and observed that their faces were not those of simpletons. Many of them were young, some of them very beautiful. The breast cancer, the travels, and the projects seemed so far away. A thought almost forced itself on her: why do they do it? What am I here to do? “Why do they do it?”

When the celebration ended, Mother Teresa gestured for her to follow. In a few minutes, they were joined by a sister who translated into Italian: “What do you want to ask Mother?” “If I can remain a few days to work in her houses.” That sentence spurted out of her mouth, without even passing through her head. Mother Teresa simply said, “Welcome.” Teresa asked her, “Starting when?” “Tomorrow morning.” “All right.”

In the hotel, her travel companions bombarded her: “You’re nuts! You of all people!” This seemed like an annoying buzz to Teresa. That insistent question pulsed within: why do they do it?

Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta.

The next day, in the house on Bose Road, the sister who welcomed her asked, “Where do you want to work?” “You decide.” “What do you know how to do?” “Nothing.” She had decided to start from zero. “You’ll go with the handicapped children. Now come with me.” The sister accompanied Teresa to the landing of the stairs just outside the chapel, where Mother Teresa blessed the over two hundred volunteers one by one, saying to each of them, “God bless you.” Teresa did not believe in that God, but she stood in line. She wanted to understand. She wanted to see.

In Shishu Baavhan (the children’s home), Teresa spoon-fed the sick and looked around her: the little ones were in ramshackle wheelchairs and baby walkers. She asked the sister, “Can’t they be fixed?” “If you want to, do it!” “Where can I find a hammer and nails?” “You have to provide them yourself.” She acquired everything needed and began with the wheelchairs, then painted the cribs, and whitewashed the walls, involving the other volunteers. She had ripped up her return ticket. Even though at times she wanted to escape, every morning she got in line to hear again Mother Teresa’s words: “God bless you.”

Their afternoons were free. The sisters invited the volunteers to the hour of adoration. Teresa was not interested; she only wanted to do practical things. But one afternoon a strange curiosity pushed her to go. She listened to Mother Teresa say, at the beginning, “I don’t care what God you pray to, but pray. Come to Mass and to adoration invoking your Lord.” Teresa gave a start. “This woman doesn’t even care to explain her religion.” She began going to Mass.

After three months, she returned to Italy for medical follow-up and to have an evaluation of the treatment she had continued on her own in India. The tumor had not disappeared, but she had never thought about it, just as she had never thought about whether it was worthwhile to keep on living. She lived.

When she landed in Padua, she heard the news that Mother Teresa had died. Her friends and relatives called and asked, “Now what do you think you’ll do?” Her answer was clear: “I have to return.” For the sick, for the children, to see those sisters again, to be with them, friends like she had never had before. Questions filled her thoughts: who is this God they follow? The answer is in Calcutta.

This time she rented a small apartment near the mother house. One morning a physician sister, her great friend, asked, “Tomorrow are you available to help me in the clinics?” “To do what, Sister Andrea?” “Treating wounds, bandages, whatever you can do.” “All right.”

The following morning, seeing them load medicines, clothes and food onto a truck, she asked, “Where’s the clinic?” A volunteer, without stopping, answered: “It’s this truck.” After an hour’s journey they reached a village where a line of over five hundred people had formed. The physician sister told her, “Go to the church steps and prepare the clinic. They will come to have their wounds dressed. Then, give each person a piece of aluminum foil with a bit of ointment and medical cream. Those who need an examination, send to me.” Teresa began and did not stop until two p.m. She was fast and precise. The sister observed her and as they returned to the truck she said, “You’re good. Where did you learn?” “Forty years of hospital work.” “From now on, you’re with me.” “All right.” She always obeyed. Her Italian friends would have been stunned: this was totally out of character for her.

Teresa Volpato and Mother Teresa.

Every day, a different village. A few weeks later, they brought a woman with burns all over her body. Her husband had set her on fire. Teresa did what she could, and, discouraged, said, “She can’t remain here. She’ll die.” Sister Andrea responded, “If we bring her to Kalighat, the house for the dying, will you take care of her?” “Yes.”

Teresa divided her time between Kalighat and the clinics. She was good. She knew all the medicines and how to use them. The sisters noticed this and brought her a new sick person every day, to the point that she had to decide to remain with the dying, she, a person who never again wanted to see people dying. After a few weeks, Sister Tall–a nickname given because of her height– stopped her and said, “At the contemplative sisters [one of the branches of the order founded by Mother Teresa] there is a room with a kneeler and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Why don’t you spend a period of spiritual exercises there?” Teresa did not understand. “What? With whom? For how long?” “Alone, a week for yourself. Go, pray, speak with Jesus. Only you must never abandon Him. When you want to leave, let us know and we will find a substitute for you.” “All right.” No objection or excuses this time, and curiosity was not the motivation that drove her. It was something she could not do without.

Loved by God.
The first morning after only an hour she wanted to escape. She left and returned. That evening, walking home, she sat down at every corner, in a daze. “Who are You?” she asked. The next morning she was still there, and the next morning after that. She spent three days in conversation with God, and at the end asked for a priest to hear her confession. It was a new beginning. She wrote her Italian friends, “My life is captivating. I feel a serenity I have never felt before. I feel loved, by God.” The sisters had full trust in her abilities, but beyond that, repeatedly told her: “In the face of the sick person you must see God; in this way you remain in conversation with Him.” They brought her those who were in the worst condition, full of worms, with purulent wounds, whose gaze asked, “Can you do something?” But Teresa felt another question: “Are you capable of following Me?”

She never left Kalighat. She had made one request of Jesus: “I have emerged from my torpor. Let’s make a contract: give me ten years of life and I’ll give You my best effort.” In 2006, the contract expired and she renewed her request: “I’m not ready yet. I need another 10 years.”

In February of 2016 the contract expired again. Teresa returned to Italy because of a grave pulmonary complication, which was then resolved. In her home in Cittadella, in that living room where everything began 20 years before, she recounts, “On August 17th, I’ll be 80 years old. I’ve given myself a gift: a ticket to Calcutta. My contract with God has ended; if He so chooses, I’m ready, but now I’m returning to India.” Will she attend the canonization ceremony? “For me, as for many, she is already a saint. From the very beginning, seeing what she had generated, I thought: I have truly encountered God. Otherwise all this would be humanly impossible. Today you still understand this when you are with the sisters.”

The album. She draws a photo album out of a drawer. She is a good photographer. There are the faces of Mother Teresa, the sisters, the sick people, the children... 20 years of life. “The most beautiful years. I think that the 40 years in the hospital served to prepare me for the encounter with Jesus. He has become my friend, my brother. I talk with Him, ask Him for advice. He always answers. In the beginning my friends thought I’d gone crazy, but then they began to raise funds and some of them came to Calcutta to stay with me and the sisters. To see.”

What about the mountain climbing and the skiing she had promised herself? “I haven’t seen a mountain since then. A few days ago I got together with some friends of my youth, the old group I used to go hiking with. We’ve all aged. Some of them, thinking about death, feel dismay. But after what I’ve seen and experienced in Calcutta, I have a different awareness of life and death. And, if I think of the latter, I’m not afraid.” Teresa smiles, and seems happy. Maybe with her heart and mind already back in Calcutta.