CRS leader recalls blessing of working with Mother Teresa

BALTIMORE, Md.—Sean Callahan remembers what it was like to work with Mother Teresa. “In those days my vocabulary consisted of two words, ‘Yes Mother, Yes Mother, Yes Mother,’” says the chief operations officer for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and vice president of Caritas Internationalis.

Photo by CRS: Mother Teresa is joined in prayer by her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, at their chapel in Calcutta.
Photos by CRS: Mother Teresa is joined in prayer by her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, at their chapel in Calcutta.

On September 4, 2016, Blessed Mother Teresa will become St. Teresa of Kolkata. Callahan knew her when he was CRS’ East India zonal director in Kolkata (then called Calcutta) beginning in 1994. He continued a longstanding relationship between CRS and Mother Teresa that dated to a few years after she and her Missionaries of Charity began to bring care and love to people who were infirmed, poor and dying in the early 1950s.

“She was very petite and spoke in a soft voice, so that I was always leaning in to hear what she was saying,” says Callahan, who has a photo of Mother Teresa, the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, on his desk at CRS headquarters in Baltimore. “Often, she would wrap her hands around your hands and hold you there while she spoke.”

When Callahan arrived in Kolkata there were 3 million people living on the streets, 1 million of them children.

“The need for help in Kolkata was immense at that time,” says Callahan.  “With so many people living on the streets, the desperation and sickness was everywhere. Mother started the Center for Dying because she couldn’t let the last moments of these peoples’ lives be lived alone.”

CRS’ began working in India in 1946 to help the local Church in Bombay provide food to people recovering from World War II. A decade later, Msgr. Alfred Schneider, then CRS’ director in India, heard of a nun serving the poor in Kolkata. He soon met Mother Teresa at an informal school CRS supported and visited her Center for the Dying set up in warehouses. Schneider then raised the money for Mother Teresa’s first ambulance and arranged for her to speak to a group of Catholic women in the United States, her first instance of international publicity.

An infant finds comfort in Mother Teresa's arms in India.
An infant finds comfort in Mother Teresa’s arms in India.

CRS was soon working with the Missionaries of Charity on child feeding programs and assistance to families in Kolkata. The relationship grew as the Missionaries of Charity became CRS’ largest partner in East India. Sisters were assigned to work with CRS.

“I remember one day showing up to a meeting with Mother Teresa and telling her about a man I had seen in the middle of the street who looked in real distress, without clothes and very frail,” Callahan says. “Her immediate reaction was to ask me where he was and what time I saw him so she could send the ambulance. Then she gave me a phone number and told me if I ever see anything like that again to call that number. That’s the way she worked and I was relieved to know I could get help for some of the people I often encountered in those days.

“Another time I received a call from Mother Teresa who had heard there was a flood in Bangladesh and asked if I could bring supplies in trucks because the sisters there were asking for them,” he recalls. “I explained that to do that would require special permissions from the governor of the state to take the food and emergency supplies across the border. She asked, ‘What do I need to do?’ and I told her she needed to get the permissions.  ‘Okay,’ she said, ’You get the trucks, I’ll get the permissions and we’ll meet in two hours.’

“So that’s what happened. She didn’t just send people out — she did the work herself. So, sure enough, we crossed the border with our supplies and sisters from the Missionaries of Charity as passengers,” he says.

Illness forced Callahan to leave India in 1995. As he was arranging his departure, he told Mother Teresa and she said she wanted to visit him on an upcoming trip to the United States. Rearranging a carefully-planned itinerary, she came to CRS headquarters in May 1996, the year before she died.

Mother Teresa displays one of her famous smiles.
Mother Teresa displays one of her famous smiles.

“We felt we were in the presence of a saint,” says Callahan. “She gave her life to helping people in their most difficult conditions and created a mission for religions and lay persons to follow in her footsteps.”

By Susan Walters / Catholic Relief Services

Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. The agency alleviates suffering and provides assistance to people in need in more than 100 countries, without regard to race, religion or nationality. CRS’ relief and development work is accomplished through programs of emergency response, HIV, health, agriculture, education, microfinance and peacebuilding. For more information, please visit or and follow CRS on social media: Facebook,@CatholicRelief@CRSnewsYouTubeInstagram and Pinterest.

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