Huntsville abbey hosted Mother Teresa in 1972
Friday, Sep. 16, 2016
Courtesy photo/Mike O'Brien
Trappist Brother Nicholas Prinster walks with Mother Teresa at Huntsville's Holy Trinity Abbey in 1972.
By Mike O’Brien
Special to the Intermountain Catholic
(This article first appeared in the “Salt Lake Tribune” on Sept. 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission).
The words “Catholic saint” and “Utah” rarely are used together. Yet, the home of the Latter-day Saints has a wonderful but little-known connection to the newest Catholic saint– Mother Teresa of Kolkata. She visited Utah on Oct. 19, 1972, staying at Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville. I was there.
I was 11. My family was recovering from a painful divorce. My Irish Catholic mother, orphaned young, had benefitted from a close relationship with her uncle, a Vermont priest. So, during our troubles, she took us to visit the Utah Trappist monks. They befriended us. I grew up as a kind of boy monk.
In the fall of 1972, some excited monks told us a “living saint” would visit there soon. One monk, Brother Nicholas, had worked with her in India. After this news, I first learned about Mother Teresa’s good works helping the poor and dying.
Young Mother Teresa had joined an order of Irish nuns, studied in Ireland, and taught in a Calcutta school. In 1948, as Utah’s monks built their Quonset hut monastery, she began working in the Calcutta slums. She started modestly, with a couple of patients and little money, but soon expanded the work as she could.
Just before her Utah visit, we got insider information. Mother Teresa would attend Mass and address the monks and her volunteers. The monks would relax their strict rules prohibiting women in their cloister so she could speak in their conference room.
The evening before her visit, two monks picked Mother Teresa up at the airport. No one noticed them ... a large crowd was there hoping to see the Osmonds, who arrived at the same time.
On the big day, we arrived early for the Mass. We waited anxiously, with other guests, for Mother Teresa’s appearance. We sat in the back balcony of the monastery chapel, just behind where she would sit.
She arrived quietly, wearing a black sweater, simple white sari robe with blue trim, and sandals with socks. She was tiny, with a worn, homely and wrinkled face, and a bulbous nose. Still, even my immature eyes saw her intense inner beauty.
During Mass, the monks gathered at the front of the church. As a male, I joined them, but monastic rules required women to stay in the back guest area. I felt privileged and regularly gloated to my mother and sister, Karen, about this special status.
During Mother Teresa’s visit, my mother and sister turned the gloating tables around on me. While I was up front, the congregants were invited to greet each other. Mother Teresa turned, shook hands with my family, and warmly spoke to them. My sister later pointed out, several times, how I did not get to shake the living saint’s hand. I am still jealous.
In her Huntsville talks, Mother Teresa told how her Calcutta house for the dying was in a temple formerly dedicated to a Hindu goddess. Many Hindus objected to her presence there and protested, shouting “Kill Mother Teresa!” The loud demonstrators disturbed her patients, so she confronted them, saying, “You want to kill me? Kill me! I’ll go to Heaven, but you must stop this nonsense!”
They stopped it. Later, the protesters brought her a Hindu priest stricken with tuberculosis. No other hospital would take him in. Mother Teresa did, and she personally cared for him until he died peacefully in the former temple.
A month after we saw Mother Teresa, a newspaper article briefly reported her visit. Of course, now we all know the rest of her story: 1979 Nobel Peace Prize; 1997 state funeral when she died the same week as her friend Princess Diana; her face on a 2010 American postage stamp. Finally, Pope Francis canonized her as a saint on Sept. 4, 2016.
Few people predicted all of this in the fall of 1972. Yet, the Utah monks were ahead of the news cycle. They knew Mother Teresa would be known worldwide, respected and loved for who she was and what she did.
Knowing the monks as a boy provided me with a living education about the virtues of simplicity and compassion. Meeting Mother Teresa, even briefly, and learning about her work, was the capstone in that education. With her and the monks, what better models of such important values could a young man like me, or any of us, possibly get?
I have met many people who are saintly. St. Teresa of Calcutta is the only person I have met who holds the official title. It is amazing that at age 11, I met such a person at a secluded Trappist monastery in rural, out-of-the-way, but lovely Huntsville, Utah.
(Mike O’Brien is a Utah attorney. He is writing a book about his adventures growing up with the Huntsville Trappist monks.)