Local Catholics inspired by Mother Teresa

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

To many around the world, Mother Teresa lived the life of a saint: dedicating herself to uplifting the poor and serving the most destitute.

To Bob Rowe, a Kalamazoo-based musician who wrote letters to the revered nun for more than a decade, she inspired him to transform his own life through similar efforts. Nearly 30 years ago, he launched Renaissance Enterprises, a nonprofit that offers arts and music programs to nursing homes and care facilities.

“She indicated whatever I did for others I did for God himself … service to others was what really matters,” Rowe said. “She affirmed my desires to help others in a very straightforward way.”

Like others across Metro Detroit and Michigan, Rowe is cherishing Mother Teresa’s example as the Vatican this weekend officially bestowed the beloved religious figure with an accolade that will be recognized for generations to come: sainthood.

The canonization for Saint Teresa of Calcutta took place on Sunday in Rome as Pope Francis led a Mass in the St. Peter Basilica. The Archdiocese of Detroit also marked the occasion with a special Mass at the city’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Bob Rowe, 61, of Kalamazoo, poses with letters he received from Mother Teresa for more than 14 years and other related material. He says the inspiration to do full-time outreach with seniors came from his friendship and correspondence with Mother Teresa. XXXXBob Rowe, 61, of Kalamazoo, is a singer, songwriter and founder of Renaissance Enterprises, which is his non-profit organization where he and 30 other musicians provide music for seniors in nursing homes in Michigan, the Midwest and Tennessee. On Friday morning, September 2, 2016, Rowe poses with letters he received from Mother Teresa for more than 14 years. He says the inspiration to do full-time outreach with seniors came from his friendship and correspondence with Mother Teresa. (Todd McInturf, The Detroit News)2016.

Some 19 years after Mother Teresa’s death, area worshippers and admirers say the Catholic Church granting the Nobel Peace Prize winner one of its highest honors only confirms what they already knew, as her name became synonymous with selflessness and charity.

“To most of the people, she was a saint when she was still alive,” said Franz-Llesh Grishaj, religious education director at St. Paul Albanian Catholic Church in Rochester Hills, which has a statue in her likeness and celebrated a commemorative Mass on Sunday.

The 90-minute service in Detroit was led by Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who started by admitting a mistake: Church leaders had grossly underestimated the size of the crowd, and printed up only about 300 programs.

“We did not plan accordingly,” Vigneron said.

Vigneron’s sermon focused on what he sees as the lessons of Saint Teresa’s life, and the centrality of Jesus in her missionary charity work in Calcutta, India (renamed Kolkata in 2001). He set Saint Teresa’s work as a bar everyone could meet, in their own way, provided they make the necessary commitment.

“If you’re not all in with Jesus, you’re not in at all,” Vigneron said. “There is no negotiating with Jesus. Because he gives us everything, how could we be content with anything less than our whole self?”

In the 1980s, a documentary about the efforts of Mother Teresa, who had Albanian ties, among the impoverished in India inspired Rowe, who grew up Catholic. He had already started to tailor some performances to audiences not often targeted, such as senior citizens. Still struggling with committing to that full-time and moved by her authenticity, Rowe found an address for Mother Teresa’s associates and penned a letter.

“I poured my heart out to her,” he said.

Within weeks, Rowe received a reply. He quickly wrote back, sparking a lengthy correspondence that lasted until about a year before her death. “I don’t think there was a single letter or a note I ever wrote her that she didn’t answer back personally,” he said.

He credits those writings with steering him to Renaissance Enterprises. “The greatest lesson I learned from her was to keep my eyes on God and not to worry about what other people say,” he said. “What really matters is how much we put of ourselves into whatever it is that we’re called to do and that we bring the love that we’re supposed to share with each other.”

The nun told him as much more than once, Rowe said. She referred to his efforts as “truly the work of peace.” And in a letter dated Oct. 29, 1991 wrote: “You have indeed made your life something beautiful for Jesus in the elderly and the aged who feel so unloved and unwanted. Continue to give them joy through your visits, your smile and song. What you do to them you indeed do that to Jesus. My prayer is with you.”

Rowe also looked to Mother Teresa’s call for her sisters to warmly interact with those they served: touching them, making eye contact. So, when strumming his guitar, singing songs from another era, or entertaining patients unable to leave their rooms, he strove to connect.

“He really does make them feel special and they love the music and it’s just a very uplifting time when he’s there,” said Ronda Payne, activity leader at Pine Ridge Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Stevensville, which Rowe long has visited. “He’s just a very humble, kind, gifted, talented individual and it comes across. ... I would definitely say I could see her influence on him.”

Mother Teresa’s inspiration has extended far.

“I am so proud of who Mother Teresa is for our faith and our culture as an Albanian,” said Tringa Gojcaj, who attends St. Paul Albanian and who was in Rome for the canonization ceremony.

“More importantly , Mother Teresa is the mother of peace to the entire world because she brings all religions together in her messages and shows compassion, love and hope on a global level. We live in a changing world, and the world needs so much more faith, love, hope and compassion.”

This is an image of Bob Rowe playing music for seniors in a Michigan nursing home in the early 1990s. He sent it to Mother Teresa, she signed it and sent it back to him. XXXXBob Rowe, 61, of Kalamazoo, is a singer, songwriter and founder of Renaissance Enterprises, which is his non-profit organization where he and 30 other musicians provide music for seniors in nursing homes in Michigan, the Midwest and Tennessee. On Friday morning, September 2, 2016, Rowe poses with letters he received from Mother Teresa for more than 14 years. He says the inspiration to do full-time outreach with seniors came from his friendship and correspondence with Mother Teresa. (Todd McInturf, The Detroit News)2016.

Phyllis Davis Williams, a West Bloomfield resident who calls St. Moses the Black on Oakman Boulevard her church home, said Teresa’s example would be a positive one for children to follow, especially in an election year heavy on divisive politics.

“We need her reflection in the spirit of our kids,” Davis Williams said during the Detroit Mass on Sunday. “She is an example of what the heart of the church is really about.”

Monsignor Patrick Halfpenny, a former Archdiocese of Detroit communications director and now pastor at St. Paul on the Lake in Grosse Pointe Farms, remembers the nun’s 1979 visit to the city to establish a Missionaries of Charity convent. He has also interviewed her and crossed paths overseas.

“She was such a tranquil person and so, at least to all appearances, at ease in any circumstance with the great and the powerful or those pushed to the margins by culture and society,” he said. “It made no difference to her. Every person was important.”

Her swift sainthood underscores the significance of the nun’s much-praised work, said the Rev. Daniel Jones, who teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary and has connected with the Missionaries of Charity.

“Any time you canonize a saint in the Catholic Church, what you are doing is … elevating qualities, a way of life that you value, that you look to almost as a kind of expression of perfection in how to live as a Christian,” he said. “The church is clearly saying: ‘This is what we are about. This is what we all should be striving for.’”

That’s why St. Paul Albanian dedicated its Sunday Mass in honor of the canonization. Besides decorating the church in blue and white to mimic the nun’s traditional garments, members also are joining a procession to her bronze statue on the grounds, said Fred Kalaj. And later this month, the saint’s life centers the opening night of a five-day parish mission.

Saint Teresa continually inspires the community with her maxims, or sayings, Kalaj said. “These kinds of things, they became proverbial in our culture among our people,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed.