Mother Teresa is the saint of smiles

Ned McGrath

When Pope Francis canonizes Mother Teresa at St. Peter’s Square in Rome today, a small town in eastern Kentucky will watch with some personal interest. Residents of Jenkins and parishioners of St. George Catholic Church are recalling fondly the quality time spent with the future saint.

As the 1980’s began, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity, was invited to minister in Appalachia by the Diocese of Covington as the first rural mission for the nuns. Four of Mother Teresa’s nuns were sent to Letcher County and moved into a house in Jenkins that had once been a beauty parlor. By mid-June 1982, Mother Teresa came to Kentucky to officially launch a ministry to battered women and their children.

As a reporter at the CBS affiliate in Louisville, I made the seven-hour trip to Jenkins to cover Mother Teresa’s visit. A coal town with a “boom-and-bust” economy, Jenkins was down on its luck in 1982. The police chief told me he thought Mother Teresa would be the biggest thing to happen in Jenkins since Eleanor Roosevelt visited in the 1930’s.

In opening the new facility, I saw first hand the organizational and logistical skills of Mother Teresa. She already had her eye on another piece of property, where she could expand her shelter and build a playground for children.

Her sense of humor surprised us all, agreeing to take a picture of one of the newspaper photographers with his camera. “You better smile,” she told him.

When I had the opportunity to interview Mother Teresa, I asked her about smiles.

“When we smile,” she told me, “we get a smile back.”

But it must be hard for many of the people she works with to smile, I responded.

“It is much easier,” Mother Teresa explained, “to get a smile from our people than from people who are preoccupied with other things. Our people—the poor— are free.

“Poverty is freedom,” she continued. “It allows [her Missionaries of Charity] to love Christ with undivided love...to love and serve Him in the distressing disguise of the poor”

The Missionaries of Charity still work in Jenkins, which continues to struggle with the closure of nearby mines, and drug abuse. Mother Teresa’s nuns visit nursing homes in the area, the sick, the poor, the elderly, the incarcerated.

Fr. Santosh Madanu, now the pastor of St. George, recently told me the sisters make extraordinary efforts to “bring their whole-hearted service to the needy.” They listen, and still bring smiles to the faces of the people in Jenkins.

That’s what Mother Teresa would want them to do.

Ned McGrath is Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Detroit. His 1982 documentary, “Mission in the Mountains,” can been seen this week on the Catholic Television Network of Detroit (CTND).