Mother Teresa order began in India's humble Creek Lane

by AFP/Elizabeth Roche, Oct 13, 2003 | Destinations: India / Calcutta (Kolkata)

There is little about the three-storey house in Creek Lane in the east Indian city of Calcutta to suggest that this was where Mother Teresa founded her now world-famous Missionaries of Charity order in 1950. Gomes's Retreat -- the name is inscribed on an wooden door plaque -- is a old and nondescript house in the middle of a narrow lane at the heart of the bustling city.

"Mother Teresa came here in 1948 or 1949 -- I cannot remember correctly now -- just after she left the Loreto order," said Agnes Gomes, 80, whose husband Michael rented out the second floor of the house to the Albanian-born nun. "She was alone when she came but when she left in 1953, there were 28 sisters with her," recalls the diminutive Agnes, bespectacled and clad in a traditional Indian sari.

According to Agnes, the first member of Mother Teresa's order was a woman who shared her name, Sister Agnes, who joined her about two-and-a-half months after she began living in Creek Lane. Mother Teresa's quarters consisted of just one large room opening into two verandahs. When she began to live here, Mother divided the room with a curtain using one section as a makeshift chapel, Agnes said. When her followers joined, the living space was increased.

"We used to hear peals of laughter in the evenings. The house used to resound with it. One thing we noticed particularly was that they were always happy, smiles always on their faces."

The second floor now has five rooms, a kitchen and bathroom -- all additions made after Mother Teresa left, Agnes said.

She recalls how Mother Teresa gave away most of her food even if it meant going hungry herself. "I have never seen a person as kind-hearted as her. She could never say no to anyone," Agnes said.

In the early days when Mother Teresa did not have any members in her order, she used to take Michael Gomes with her to chemist shops where she would beg for medicines to treat the ill, Agnes remembers. "My husband used to assist her in distributing the medicines among the poor and slum dwellers." Many of the sick and the poor used to frequent Creek Lane for assistance.

"None of them ever returned empty-handed. No, I was not annoyed that such people came home. Gradually Mother taught also taught me to administer injections," she said.

Agnes also remembers Mother Teresa's great emphasis on cleanliness. "She used to scrub the floors herself and wash the stairs every night," Agnes said referring 30 or so steps connecting the three floors. "She liked to clean the place though I used to try and tell her not to do so."

Another thing Agnes recalls is the nun's sweet tooth. "She used to live a simple life, take ordinary meals. (But) she loved sweets, lozenges and candies. Sometimes she used to eat candies after meals, sometimes in the evening after prayers."

Agnes now lives alone on the second floor where Mother Teresa once lived, after her husband died in August 2000. As a mark of his respect and fondness for Mother Teresa, Michael willed the house to the Missionaries of Charity after Agnes's death.

She spends her time praying to Mother Teresa and remembering old times. Her walls are dotted with many photographs of her husband and Mother. She points out one which her and Michael with Mother Teresa in a wheel chair which was taken on August 26, 1997, days before she died.

"We had visited Mother Teresa at the Missionaries of Charity and a foreigner clicked this picture. We got a copy from Sister Nimala (Mother Teresa's successor)."

She is also kept busy by the many curious vistors who come to the house to see where Mother Teresa began her work. A little board on Agnes's mesh door gives details about the hours during which they are welcome to look through the house. "Many people come to see where Mother began her work. They regard it as a holy place," Agnes said.

She said she was happy people come to her house enquiring about Mother Teresa. The only difficulty sometimes is communication, as she can speak only the local language, Bengali. "A lot of my time is now spent on satisfying people's curiosity about Mother Teresa. When foreigners come, it is difficult," she said.

Agnes said she and her husband had no inkling that Mother Teresa would be honoured across the world and become a saint. "We did not know she would become such a great person. But then, Jesus Christ was born in stable. We are happy that she was here and we got a chance to help her in the beginning."

In the twilight of her life, Agnes says she has only two regrets. One is that she never learnt to read and write and the second that she does not have the money to go the Vatican for Mother Teresa's beatification on October 19, 2003. "I don't have the money, otherwise I would love to go," she said. The beatification, the last step before sainthood, is the fastest such elevation in the history of the Catholic Church.

* * * * *