CANTON – It was 1982 when Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited here, but those who welcomed the future saint still remember it vividly.
Clad in her iconic white sari with blue border, gray cardigan and simple brown sandals, Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Kolkata, visited, in 22 hours, Walsh College (now Walsh University), Our Lady of Peace Church, now part of Christ the Servant Parish, and Sancta Clara Monastery.
In anticipation of her canonization Sept. 4 in Rome, some of those involved recalled the visit – noting her humility, simplicity, and the power of her personality to move the people she encountered.
This small, wizened woman “captured the rapt attention of our campus audience and moved everyone by her Christ-like demeanor,” recalled Brother of Christian Instruction Francis Blouin, Walsh’s third president, who awarded the future saint, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, an honorary doctorate of human services.
The seed of Mother Teresa’s visit was planted, recalls Jerry Pellegrino, a former Walsh student, when he went to see Mother Teresa in 1978 during her visit to John Carroll University, near Cleveland.
Msgr. James Kolp, then-pastor of Massillon St. Mary Parish, who had performed the wedding the previous year for Pellegrino and his wife, Becky, accompanied Pellegrino.
Although she was not yet a Nobel laureate, Mother Teresa was already beginning to win the hearts of the world.
“I said to Jerry,” Msgr. Kolp noted, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get her to come to Walsh?”
Jerry and Becky Pellegrino began efforts for that to happen, aided by their friendship with Bishop Gerald Mahon, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster, England, who they had met on a plane from London while returning from their honeymoon.
“Bishop Mahon had travelled to missions around the world and became a good friend of Mother Teresa,” Costello said. The bishop helped arranged for her to come to Canton in 1982.
On June 22, two days before the Pellegrinos’ fifth wedding anniversary, Mother Teresa arrived at the Akron-Canton Airport. A small group that included the Pellegrinos, Brother Francis, Walsh’s director of development Norman Kutz, and Msgr. Kolp.
“I was going to help her with her bags, but she didn’t have any,” Msgr. Kolp recalled, noting her simplicity in carrying only a small travel bag.
Mother Teresa spent the night at Our Lady of Peace Convent in Canton, waking early for morning Mass.
“She and Sister Priscilla [a Missionary of Charity Sister who accompanied her] slept on the floor and wouldn’t use a tub or shower to wash up in because the poorest of the poor don’t have those in their homes,” Pellegrino said.
The effort to rush her to Walsh for her press conference and talk were hindered by Mother Teresa’s insistence on speaking to the people at the church, Brother Francis noted.
After Mass, she insisted on lingering “because ‘these wonderful people got up so early to see me,’ and so she went to meet them.”
After arriving at Walsh and speaking at a press conference, she was taken to the gymnasium. The tickets were free but “we had to limit it to the 2,000 people [who could fit inside] the gym,” Costello said. “There were 500 more who wanted tickets.”
“She just mesmerized people. I remember watching everyone on the aisles reach out to her as she slowly made her way to the stage,” recalled Kutz.
“Security was instructed not to let them touch her, but she just waved them [the officers] off. She wanted the opportunity for human contact. It took her about 10 minutes” to reach the stage, Kutz noted.
“You could’ve heard a pin drop” when she reached the microphone, Kutz said.
Mother Teresa spoke of her work but also of the need for everyone to love and to reach out to those in need – including in their own families. Poverty is not limited to material poverty, she noted, but includes loneliness – “the greatest disease in the world.”
She also urged prayer. “I pray that you will be making your family a place where Jesus can come and rest with you. Never turn your back to the people who need your love. Make time for your husband, wife and children. And with prayer help us do something beautiful for God.”
She later visited the Poor Clare Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at Sancta Clara Monastery for lunch and presumably some rest. Pellegrino noted that instead Mother Teresa spent her rest time in Eucharistic adoration there.
Mother Teresa concluded her time in Canton by speaking to another 2,000 people at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall.
On her flight to her next stop, Minneapolis, Brother Francis and Kutz accompanied her. Brother Francis recalled that she thanked them for flying with her, thinking that they were doing her a favor.
After her visit, the Pellegrinos kept in touch with Mother Teresa, usually by phone. Surprisingly, she would answer the phone herself when they called, Pellegrino said.
For the Pellegrinos, her visit seemed to spark little miracles that they saw throughout the Stark County community and served its purpose of bringing awareness and support to the poor. Though not planned as a fund-raiser, the visit raised more than $30,000 in donations from the local community in support of her work.
“We might have helped to initiate the invitation,” he noted, “but I like to think it was the Holy Spirit that ultimately guided her here.”