Telling the story of Mother Teresa first
The American reporter who first brought news of Mother Teresa’s work to an international audience still remembers the day in 1966 when he met the nun serving the poor in the slums of Calcutta.
Certainly she totally deserves to be a saint. In my eyes, she was a saint her entire life,” retired Associated Press reporter Joe McGowan, Jr. told CNA. “She was so humble and yet so pleasant.”
McGowan, 85, was an AP reporter for 42 years who covered wars, revolutions, and earthquakes. In 1966, he was an AP bureau chief with a huge territory – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Ceylon, and the Maldives Islands.
Trying to dig up more stories, he was speaking with a newspaper editor in Calcutta about anything unusual or ignored. “He finally said, ‘Well, there’s that funny little nun who goes around collecting dying people.’ And I knew I had a story,” said McGowan.
The reporter took a bike taxi over to her home for the dying and spent two days with Mother Teresa. She was dressed in the local sari, the homespun material common to average or poor Indian women. “There was nothing pretentious about her at all,” McGowan said.
The nun would walk around Calcutta with a two-wheel cart with the help of two hired men. “They went around picking up dying people,” the reporter recounted. “In those days there were not enough [hospital] beds in places like Calcutta. So if you were declared terminally ill, your family had to come and take you home so that there was a bed for somebody else,” he said. “If nobody picked you up, they put you on the sidewalk to die.”
Since 1952, Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity sisters had cared for the abandoned and the dying at their Home for the Dying Destitutes. The building, a former Hindu chapel, was divided into two parts, one for men and one for women.
“They slept on the floor on crude little mats. It was so crowded they couldn’t even get up and go to the bathroom,” McGowan recounted. “I tried to stay out of the way, these people were crammed in there so tight.”
“Under her outstanding care, some of those people recovered and got up and walked out,” he said. McGowan said he was “extremely impressed” with her work. “I think that showed in my writing about her.”
His Associated Press account from March 1966 was the first international news story about her. McGowan said he didn’t know if he could even explain what motivated her. “She always wanted to do the Lord’s work, I guess she would say.”
“I’m not Catholic, but obviously she is an amazing woman,” he continued. “I just have the highest of respect for her, the work that she did, to work there in the slums of Calcutta.”
The Indian city was a rough place in the 1960s. “Calcutta is a place all unto itself,” McGowan recollected. “I saw a couple of completely naked women walking the streets, their hair all disheveled. They would see a cigarette butt and they would reach over and pick it up and chew it and eat it. This was the kind of thing you saw in Calcutta in those days. How they are today, I don’t know.”
Another time he saw a group of students waiting and waiting for a streetcar, growing increasingly angry at the delay. “They were so mad, when the street car arrived they set it on fire. That meant fewer streetcars for the next day.” In a world like that, McGowan recalled, Mother Teresa was “very, very calm” and “very unpretentious.”
“She was doing all this work, but it was just her life. She wasn’t bragging about it.”
“Elsewhere they had not received any aid of any kind,” he said. “It was so unusual in an extremely overpopulated place like India for them to get this kind of attention.”
McGowan continued his reporting career and retired to Broomfield, Colo., a suburb of Denver. He told of his experiences and the people he met in his 2012 book From Fidel Castro to Mother Teresa. “On the one hand, you had Fidel Castro. On the other hand, you had Mother Teresa: this small nun who was doing – I guess you would have to say – miraculous things for people at the bottom of the societal rung,” he said.
The journalist and the nun reunited when she visited Denver in May 1989. She passed him a written message. “She gave me a card. In her handwriting, it says ‘Love others as Jesus loves you. God bless you. M. Teresa, M.C.’ McGowan says it’s among his most treasured possessions.
This article, written by Kevin J. Jones was originally published on CNA Sept. 1, 2016. Image Credit: United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).