October 29, 2015
Looking out his taxi window onto the streets of Calcutta, reality set it for Ryan Martire of Bismarck. “It was surreal,” he said. “It hit me that I was really there.”
His flight landed in Calcutta at 2 a.m. on June 11 and he would be there for 17 days to volunteer with Blessed Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. Ryan took in the scene around him as he headed to the Monica House hostel, located across from the Missionaries of Charity’s motherhouse. Even in the wee hours of the morning, honking horns jabbed the air and people filled the streets. “There were bodies all over; people sleeping on the street. Some were just skin and bones with no shirts, and there were even families with babies,” he said.
It was for the people that Ryan had come to Calcutta to volunteer alongside the order of sisters he deeply admired. During the school year, he volunteered weekly at a soup kitchen with the Missionaries of Charity in Chicago where he majors in Catholic studies and plays soccer at DePaul University. “I read a lot of Mother Teresa’s books,” he said. “She’s been big for me.” Ryan described his work alongside the sisters in Chicago as a blessing in which graces seem to pour down just by being with them.
Ryan also credited his time at St. Mary’s Central High School with influencing him to take a pilgrimage to Calcutta. “I was inspired by all the good men and woman there,” he said, “and I came to understand that the greatest work we can do is to teach the faith and save souls.” He had gone on pilgrimages the two previous summers while at St. Mary’s—one to Rome and another to Guatemala—to help the poor, so it seemed like the thing to do over summer.
Arriving in India
Ryan arrived at the hostel at 4 a.m., so he needed to wait an hour before the hostel opened. The simple, clean room, complete with occasional geckos flitting across the walls, was 300 rupees per night—the equivalent of about $6. Ryan quickly unpacked and walked across the street for 6 a.m. Mass in the motherhouse.
There were around 30 novices dressed completely in white, then another 30 sisters in the blue trimmed habit, and probably around 30 volunteers. Instead of pews, there was just a stone floor. After Mass, they prayed “Radiating Christ,” “Anima Christi,” and then sang to Mary. Following that, they went downstairs to pray at Blessed Mother Teresa’s tomb.
The sisters then served everyone a breakfast of bread, bananas, and sweet chi tea. There is an average of 50-60 volunteers a day from around the world, but no one signs up ahead of time. “You just show up and they will give you your assignments,” Ryan explained. He accepted two assignments. In the mornings, he worked at Nirmal Hriday (Immaculate Heart) the home for the dying and destitute, and in the afternoons at Daya Dan (gift of mercy) an orphanage for handicapped boys. “It’s not just social work, but it’s about doing everything with love,” he said and noted a sign that Mother Teresa had hung in the home for the dying that reads, “It’s not how much we do but how much love we put into it.”
Helping the poorest of the poor
There was a ward for men and one for women, with about 50 beds each. Ryan fed and washed people, changed them when they wet their bed, shaved and cut toenails and consoled them with his presence and with physical touch. Raju, a man Ryan spent a lot of time with, reminded him of Christ. “He was in his thirties and very skinny and sick. I think he had hepatitis C,” Ryan said. “His left side was paralyzed. One of his eyes was shut, but the other was completely open. It reminded me of Christ in the movie
The Passion when he was crucified.” Ryan said the man was always thirsty. He explained that “I Thirst” was a motto for Mother Teresa, taken from Jesus’ words on the cross as a reminder of his unquenchable thirst for souls.
While Ryan was there, eight people died and he was present for four of them. “The sisters would pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet around them,” he said. “One person died right as they finished it.” As soon as a bed is empty, the sisters go into the streets to bring someone else in. Each person is washed, shaved, their wounds tended to, and then they are dressed in either teal or orange pants and shirt. The colors alternate daily to insure that everyone is kept clean. Occasionally, people do recover their health and leave.
Each day, Ryan was on his own for lunch, but knew to make sure it was always steaming hot to avoid bacteria. Then, he’d go to the orphanage. Every afternoon when he walked in, everyone was praying the rosary. “Some were just mumbling, but they were all in unison,” he said.
The power of touch
With the children, Ryan again witnessed the power of human touch. “A little blind boy was standing alone near a wall, and when I held him, he became relaxed and was so at peace.” A boy with Down syndrome, around 4-years old, loved climbing and wrestling with Ryan. “It was a blast to be with him,” he said. Another boy that Ryan helped to learn the “Our Father” in English would stare at Ryan’s miraculous medal and asked if he could get one.
Every evening, Ryan returned to the motherhouse for Holy Hour. He was amazed at a sister that looked to be in her seventies or eighties, who knelt on the hard floor the entire hour. “I asked her how she did that,” Ryan said. “She just answered, ‘God kneels.’ ” Since the sisters’ main language is English, Ryan had no trouble communicating.
Another experience Ryan had was visiting a leper colony. “It is completely self-sustained like a city,” he explained. It is here where the habits for the Missionaries of Charities throughout the world are made. “They had such great joy and warmth,” Ryan said. “I got to shake all of their hands and they showed such great love.”
One of the highlights of his pilgrimage was meeting other volunteers. “So many of them know people that I know,” he said. For instance, one girl from Ireland had met Msgr. Tom Richter from Bismarck while she worked with National Evangelization Teams (NET). And, two seminarians he met this summer while volunteering for Ecclesia Institute at the University of Mary, knew two of the seminarians from Vancouver who Ryan met in Calcutta.
Death of Sr. Nirmala
During his visit, Mother Teresa’s successor, Sr. Nirmala died. She was superior general of the Missionaries of Charity for 12 years until retiring in 2009. Hundreds of people, from all walks of life, lined up for a final glimpse of Sr. Nirmala whose body was brought to the motherhouse and placed for public homage beside the tomb of Blessed Mother Teresa. A seminarian that was supposed to be an altar server at the funeral, became sick and asked Ryan to take his place. “There were paparazzi all over, and around 60 priests,” he said. “I would not have gotten in there if I had not served.”
Ryan said the experience has changed him. “Seeing Christ in others helps us to love others more was the main message that stuck with me,” he said. Another strong impression he gained was the contrast between needs versus wants. “In our country we have so many wants, but there, people are focused on their needs.”
Blessed Mother Teresa died in 1997. In 1950, she established The Missionaries of Charity, which today consists of almost 5,000 religious sisters in 133 countries. On October 19, 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified her.