KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. – Mother Teresa’s canonization held special appeal for one parishioner in the Diocese of Wilmington. Louise Loening of St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville spent four years as a volunteer with the new saint and her religious congregation in Kolkata, India, three decades ago.
Loening had three grown children and a young granddaughter in 1986 when a younger friend who had volunteered there encouraged her to give it a shot. Loening cashed in her pensions – she had worked as a magistrate in New Castle County – sold her car and borrowed some money and traveled to India.
Before she left, she wrote to Mother Teresa, who replied promptly.
“Two things I learned from (the reply),” Loening said last week in her home near Kennett Square, Pa. “One was that I’d be welcome any time, and two, I would have to find my own housing and boarding. And that was fine. I probably would have done that anyway.”
Upon her arrival in May 1986, she went to the motherhouse and introduced herself to Mother Teresa. She began her work by teaching a program on western culture at the convent.
“Some of the ladies that I see in the pictures today at the sanctification are some of the ones that I taught, which is kind of nice,” said Loening, who was 55 when she first went to India.
She recalls Mother Teresa as “very down to earth. She had a very good sense of humor, a sort of sly sense of humor. She was very direct. Never wasted words.”
One time, the new saint called Loening aside because something seemed wrong.
“I said, ‘Mother, what am I doing? Am I any good?’ I also said, ‘I am very, very disgusted with myself because I don’t feel I’m doing any good, and every time I see a leper, I’m frightened and disgusted,’” she remembered.
“She looked at me piercingly and said, ‘OK, we’re going to talk to the master.’ And we did. We went and prayed, came back out and she said, ‘I have an idea. I want you to go out to Titlagarh, which is where the leprosy center is.’”
There she met with the Missionary of Charity brother who was in charge. He had her comb the females’ hair, which tends to fall out, and to apply oil to make the hair stronger. Mother Teresa’s solution worked.
“With one afternoon’s work, I got over any obsessive nonsense I had about leprosy. I got over that in a hurry,” she said.
Each year, she would return to the United States to “get well,” and in 1989, she spent time in Louisiana at the request of the American Leprosy Mission.
Also while in India, she began studying to become a Catholic with a chaplain at the convent. She joined the church at St. Joseph’s in 1989 and spent her final year in India as a Catholic. Mother Teresa, she said, was very pleased that Loening had converted. When she returned, just weeks after having been received into the church, “Mother all but flew down the stairs.”
The following year, after her annual return trip to Delaware, she was planning to go back again. Her three children said that was fine, but they would be lying down in front of the plane.
“I got the message,” she said. “So I didn’t go back.”
She did not have any contact with Mother Teresa following her return to the States, but she did write some of the sisters with whom she had worked regularly. Loening was very excited when it was announced that the nun would be canonized.
There are a few reminders of her time in India in Loening’s home. She wears a medal with Mother Teresa’s likeness on it; that was sent to her by one of the sisters she knew. And on a table is a photo of the two of them. Getting the picture was not easy, she said, because Mother Teresa did not like having her photo taken. Doing so required some bargaining with Jesus.
“She had a deal. She’d look up at the heavens and say, ‘All right, Jesus, let two more people out of purgatory.’”
Now 85, with 13 grandchildren, Loening has no regrets about her work in Kolkata.
“It’s been a long time since I was there, but I remember vividly that it was the pivotal turning point of my life.”