The Women Who Wear Blue and White Saris
By Katie Trudeau
Where can one begin when speaking of the beauty of the Missionaries of Charity sisters? These women were founded by the phenomenon known as, St. Mother Teresa. Over the course of sixty years, this order has become one of the fastest growing orders in the Catholic Church – reaching over 5,000 sisters worldwide. Thousands of women feel the call in the depths of their hearts, only to find that this call is just one of many. This call is an on-going relationship with Jesus Christ.
It takes roughly nine years to become a become a full-fledged Missionary of Charity sister. Now this may shock the world, but it is no surprise to these brave women. After the first encounter of the call from Christ, wherever in the world they may be, the woman then goes to a “come-and-see” experience. If the women wish to join the Congregation, then they enter Aspirancy at the nearest Missionary of Charity (MC) Regionalhouse. This can be in either: Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, or the Americas. During the novitiate, the women learn English (the language for the Congregation), while studying the history of the order and Theology.
If they are found suitable to begin novitiate, they obtain the plain white sari. The first year is spent deepening their knowledge of God and the MC order. The second year is dedicated to practical training for missionary lifestyle (i.e. nursing or medical training). At year five, the woman will take a temporary vow where she then receives her blue striped sari and metal crucifix. The next step is considered Tertianship. Each woman travels the Motherhouse in either Rome, Kolkata, or Washington D.C. where they go for one year before their final vows, known as their final profession. During this process, there may be highs and lows, but this experience is how Christ shows them the power of suffering. Each MC learns the extraordinary lesson of poverty, both spiritually and physically.
An MC sister is allowed very few things. First, they receive three saris and two cotton habits. This means that one is used for their profession of vows and their burial. The other two are for the daily tasks of life. Yes, their motto is often: “One to wear, and one to wash and mend.” And don’t worry, they have one simple navy blue cardigan and scarf to keep them warm in cold climates. Other things that sit on the shelf for each MC is her: plate, cutlery, cloth napkin and prayer book wrapped in brown paper. When running errands around the streets, they carry their hand-sewn blue canvas bags. But the most iconic are their one pair of sandals, as they shuffle down halls, run through streets and most of all – leave at the top of the stairs outside the chapel.
Any Motherhouse can be run slightly differently, but the typical day for these stunning women include a vast amount of prayer and service in a simple schedule. Although their days can best be described in Mother’s quote: “If we want a love message to be heard, it has got to be sent out. To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” Prayers and Mass begin at 5am. Breakfast is at 7am. Service to the poor in their homes occur from 8am to 12pm. Then, naturally, they eat lunch and take a nap. Then comes time for spiritual reading and meditation along with a tea break. Adoration begins at 3pm and then it’s back to work! Service again to the poor within their homes is from 4pm to 7pm. Dinner, recreation, and cleanup wraps up the evening and then there is night prayer as a community.
The MC homes around the world can be easily overlooked from the outside. Yet, when walking through the very threshold of the door, one notices a type of peace and utter joy. There is a change in the mood once entering an MC home. These sisters do it all. From running orphanages, caring for the destitute and dying, washing wounds of the ill, teaching catechism classes to inner-city youth, being compassionate to those suffering with HIV and AIDS, bringing meals to those laying on bus stop benches, etc. These beautiful souls the sisters care for are best described by Mother’s famous line: “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” These sisters can stay for a year or two in one home and leave to another home in a completely different country whenever Sr. Prema (Superior General) believes the Holy Spirit is calling them elsewhere. The purposes of the homes are meant to fill the gaps from government and society for each country’s specific need in a particular community. Their service is rooted in Mother’s famous line: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”
Now that the secret life of the Missionaries of Charity has been revealed, one can find a greater appreciation for the religious life and this special calling to be truly the light of Christ in a very dark world. Each sister finds the charism of joy and service, yet in those lies a deeper charism at the root. There is a profound internal poverty these sisters attain over the years. This comes from the passage in the Bible of Matthew’s Gospel.
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity must attain a radical form of poverty that is comes naturally due to their mission. They take care of the poorest of the poor, whether that be material or spiritual poverty. And within each soul they serve is Christ, in what they call the destressing disguise of the poor. Therefore, no sister feels she does extraordinary thing day to day. She simply does what Christ asks of her, in each moment, and hopes she can answer the call by each action growing stronger in her trust with Him. Finally, each of us must remember that we are called to do the same thing that these sisters do – we just love in our own communities (i.e. family, workplace, Church). Mother always said: “Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.” And to do that, we must be in communion with Christ through prayer to receive the grace to persevere.