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True Life

In Mother We Trust

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A year after completing school, Magdalene Polton, the daughter of a rich landowner in Bengal, became the second nun to join Mother Teresa in her mission to serve the sick and the poor. Now, at 82, Sister Gertrude, as she came to be called, is the only surviving member of this original group. She recalls the early days when they would beg each day for the poor, but struggle to feed themselves, surviving solely on the strength of prayer.

I first came in touch with Mother Teresa in the early 1940s when she was the geography teacher in St Mary’s High School in Calcutta, where I studied. I developed an instant love and respect for her, and, in time, we became close. In 1946, she told me of her desire to start an order to serve the poorest of the poor and the sick and dying. The next year, after I passed my intermediate exams and before returning home to my village Atharogram in Khulna district (now in Bangladesh), I told Mother I wanted to join her in her work. Mother told me it would be a tough life and I would have to make many sacrifices. She asked me to think about it. 

I returned to Calcutta the next year and met Mother again. She had, by then, received permission from her superiors at the Sisters of Loreto to leave the convent and work among the poor. Mother donned a white sari with a blue border, which was the uniform of women garbage cleaners employed by the municipal corporation. I remember being moved by the sight of Mother in this simple yet powerful dress, worn in the style of village women. I formally joined Mother on 26 April 1949. There were only three of us then—Mother, Sister Agnes, who had joined on 19 March, and myself. We took up a small house at Creek Lane on rent from an Anglo-Indian family. We started an open-air school for homeless children and started work among the poor in the vast slums of the Park Circus and Sealdah areas. We used to collect food and clothes and distribute them among the poor in these slums.

Our day would start before dawn with prayers. Mother was very particular about the early morning prayers and used to tell us that praying to the Lord at the start of each day would give us fortitude to bear the pain and sufferings that were in store and help us bring joy to others. After prayers and a small breakfast—a roti or piece of bread and some water on most days—we used to go out to beg. 

We used to go to big hotels and houses of the rich to get food and clothes. We would visit the pharmacies in Sealdah to beg for medicines. We would tell everyone we were begging for the poor. People were usually generous, and Mother had this amazing ability to get even difficult and reluctant people to donate. I remember we went to a pharmacist who was busy with his customers. Mother requested him to donate some antibiotics, cough syrups and paracetamol tablets. He said he was busy. Mother just stood there with a smile on her face. After some time, the pharmacist came up to us and apologised with folded hands for keeping us waiting and gave us all the medicines we required. We would beg like this till noon, return to our abode, and, after a simple meal, go to the slums to distribute whatever we had collected. Mother had done a short course with the Medical Mission Sisters at Patna after leaving the convent in 1948, and so had some knowledge of diseases and medicine. After feeding and clothing the poor and administering medicines to the ailing, we would teach the children there. We also used to beg for books.

Fending for ourselves was a major problem. There would be very little to eat, and quite often, we would go to bed hungry. I remember we used to have just boiled cabbage or some other vegetable and rice on most days. Our landlord and some neighbours would help us at times. I remember we returned one evening and Sister Trinita (who joined us in May 1949, bringing our number to four) told Mother there was nothing to cook except rice. Mother said we’d have only boiled rice with salt as that was what the poor we worked with had everyday. We happily had that. Life was tough and there were no material comforts at all. But we were very happy because that was the life we had chosen for ourselves. There were no regrets. And Mother’s presence was something that gave us joy every single day.

Mother received permission from the Vatican to start her own order in October 1950. I remember we were overjoyed. By then, there were two dozen of us and word about Mother’s work was spreading fast and drawing many volunteers and contributions. Mother always used to ask us to pray whenever we faced any difficulty. And believe me, those prayers used to be answered each time. I remember another day in early 1950 when we had not even a grain of rice for dinner. Mother asked us to pray to the Lord to give us strength to serve the poor. We never used to pray for only ourselves. After some 30 minutes, a neighbour came with cakes and other foodstuff—it was her daughter’s birthday and she wanted Mother to bless the child.

After Missionaries of Charity (initially known as the Diocesan Congregation of Calcutta) was formed, people from all over the world started coming to join our order. By 1952, there were too many of us—83, if I remember correctly—for the small house at Creek Lane. We realised we’d have to shift to new premises, but we didn’t have the resources to buy or build a house. Mother asked us to pray. We did, for many months. And out of the blue, a benefactor donated Rs 50,000. At the same time, a two-storied house on Lower Circular Road (where Mother House stands today) came up for sale and we bought it for Rs 52,000. It was nothing short of a miracle!

In 1955, on Mother’s advice, I joined an MBBS course at the government-run NRS Medical College, and after graduating in 1960, took a course at the School of Tropical Medicine. But it wasn’t only the sick and the dying in Calcutta that Mother was concerned about—she sent me to Jessore (in Bangladesh) in 1971 to look after those wounded in the war that year. I was also despatched to Beirut and many other places to take care of victims of violence, of famines, floods and other disasters. In all these missions, I was never scared because I always knew Mother would guide me through all difficulties and dangers. Even though she is no more, Mother still guides all of us every single day. She is always present in our lives, in our midst.  n

As told to Jaideep Mazumdar