Locals remember Mother Teresa’s 1976 El Paso visit

by Sep 4, 2016Blog, Our Stories0 comments

Sister Eileen O’Keefe, CCVI, met Mother Teresa back in 1976. Here’s her account of this encounter.

Sister Eileen O’Keeffe, CCVI, was just 35 years old when she met Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It was May 29, 1976 and Mother Teresa was in El Paso for a youth speaking engagement.

“She was so tiny and wrinkly from her years in the Sun but she had the brightest, bluest eyes,” said Sr. Eileen. “Just as gentle and friendly as you could ever find. We were giddy to meet her.”

Mother Teresa will be canonized by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 4, making her Saint Mother Teresa, who during her life was known as the “angel of the slums.” She founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 in India to care for people who no one else wanted to help. Her ministry continued until her death in 1997. By that time, it had expanded to dozens of countries.

Ruben Garcia, the executive director of Annunciation House, was the key to bringing Mother Teresa to El Paso.  At that time, Garcia was the director of the diocese’s Youth and Young Adult ministry. In the fall of 1975, leaders requested Mother Teresa as a possible speaker for the region’s biennial meeting set for the following year. Initially, Garcia was flatly denied the chance to request her presence. But Garcia is not one to take no for an answer.

“We didn’t have Google so I called information and asked for her number in Calcutta, India and I got it,” Garcia said. “The sister who I spoke with told me Mother Teresa was in New York for a speaking engagement and was staying with a bishop there. I asked for the bishop’s number. He answered the phone, I explained who I was and he told me she was in prayer and I should call back.  When I did, I got to speak with her on the phone and again, told her why I was coming. And she said, ‘For the youth? Then I shall come.’”

Garcia said months later, he was picking up Mother Teresa at the El Paso International Airport.
“She asked to visit the Sisters of Loretto at Nazareth Hall nursing home, that was very important to her,” he said. From there, it was a quick bite to eat and then off to the El Paso Civic Center where Garcia said her speech centered on the hungers of the human family.

“The night she spoke at the Civic Center, you could have heard a pin drop,” said Sr. Eileen. “I remember all the details of it. It was not so much focusing on the physical hunger of the world. I know we try to do that a lot but she spoke of the many other hungers in the world and in families. She spoke of compassion, understanding, love, kindness and people starving for those gifts. She said, ‘Go home tonight and talk to your family. That’s the hunger that I’m asking you to feed.’”

Sr. Eileen, who now lives in St. Louis, MO was among several sisters from the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who worked at St. Margaret’s Center for Children or what is now the Pastoral Center for the Diocese of El Paso.
Sr. Eileen said Mother Teresa spent the night at the convent that is now the home of Bishop Mark Seitz.  A sister offered her bed to Mother Teresa.

“Sr. Rita said Mother Teresa slept on the floor just like she did in India because there was not a single indentation in the bedspread.”

Though brief, Sr. Eileen had her own encounter with the legendary sister. “We asked her if she was hungry. It was late, after we’d come home from hearing her speak. And she said she just wanted half an apple. Later, she went to bed and I worried the apple would brown overnight. So I ate the other half. I like to tell people I split an apple with Mother Teresa,” she laughed.
Sr. Eileen said even in 1976, Mother Teresa felt special.

“There was another sister who came down from Phoenix just to hear her speak. Mother Teresa carried just a small backpack with her and inside was another white sari that she wore.  She rinsed out the one she’d worn and said it was okay to put it in the dryer but not to iron it because she folded it in such a way that she tucked it under her pillow and that’s how it got pressed.  Well, this sister and I were so excited, we couldn’t help ourselves.  We got her sari and we put it on ourselves!” giggled Sr. Eileen.  “I think we thought we were going to get struck dead but we couldn’t help ourselves.  We knew she was special. You felt you were touching the clothes of a saint long before there was talk of canonization.”

Sr. Eileen still keeps a photo from her time with Mother Teresa as well as a gift book the sister left with her El Paso hosts.
When asked about her rare encounter with a real-life saint, Sr. Eileen can’t help but squeal. “I know, isn’t that cool?!”


Originally published in Catholic Diocese of El Paso’s website: http://www.elpasodiocese.org/news–events/locals-remember-mother-teresas-1976-el-paso-visit 

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