Love is patient. Love is kind. Familiar words to anyone who has attended a Catholic wedding Mass. Susan Conroy witnessed these words in action while working alongside Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, India.
“I knew her throughout the course of 11 years,” Conroy said Oct. 22 during a stop at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Kenner, La. where she recounted extraordinary experiences in Calcutta that changed her priorities from wanting to get a good job, earn money and be a wife and mother to living a life of service.
“I was seeking a meaningful life instead of a comfortable life,” the staunch Catholic said, “to love as Jesus loved; to serve as Jesus served; to give as Jesus gave. That is the secret to life.”
Mother Teresa said people can experience heaven on earth by serving others, and that’s what Conroy set out to do.
“I came back without a desire for the corporate world,” Conroy said. “My heart was full. I wanted to keep helping people.”
A coffee table book
It was Conroy’s mother, Ruth Elizabeth Conroy, who introduced her to Mother Teresa by mailing Mother Teresa’s beautiful musings about joy being prayer, strength and love. Conroy said she displayed the quotes in her dormitory room, something unusual for a student studying economics at the secular Dartmouth College.
Then, Conroy devoured three books about Mother Teresa that her mother had lying on a coffee table at home. Mother Teresa’s words about seeing Jesus in the distress of the poor roused a desire in Conroy to travel to India.
“Mother Teresa believed that when you reach out to those who are poor and hungry and sick, you reach out to Jesus,” Conroy said. “I wanted to see Jesus, to serve Jesus. She was called a living saint, and I wanted to see what a saint is. I wanted to learn to love. She loved people that most of us couldn’t even look at.”
Got sponsors for her trip
Being the seventh of 10 children, Conroy had to find a way to pay for the excursion. She learned about the William Jewett Tucker Foundation that funded Dartmouth student service trips and created a fellowship program to Calcutta that survives today. Within nine weeks after applying to the foundation, Conroy – then a 21-year-old rising college senior – was on a plane to Calcutta in the summer of 1986.
Death and disease surrounded Conroy in Calcutta as she witnessed poverty and human disfigurement beyond imagination. Conroy said she ministered to babies in an orphanage and to dying adults alongside Mother Teresa 24 hours a day. With Mother Teresa, she prayed and ate, participated in Mass and Holy Hour, and even held her hand. It wasn’t always easy, but it was one of the happiest experiences of Conroy’s life. She tried to absorb all the lessons as she witnessed Mother Teresa’s ideal holiness.
Love surpasses fear
“I had never seen such frightening sights, but Mother Teresa didn’t care what people looked like,” Conroy said. “She had love greater than fear. How did she love that way? She looked within with the eyes of love the way God looks at us. She was seeing the dignity of the human being. I longed to learn that. ... Love is the most important thing. We should be striving eagerly for love.”
She said she felt as if she was journeying with Jesus on his way to Calvary as she served the distressed.
“This is Jesus suffering in his agony again,” Conroy said. “Calcutta was like being there in the agony of the garden and being with him.’’
Her life changed overnight
Upon returning home, she finished her degree in economics and, in 1987, met Mother Teresa again in New York City at her Missionaries of Charity convent. There, Mother Teresa asked her to discern becoming a religious in the order. While it was spiritually enriching to live among nuns who lived true vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service to the poor, Conroy decided against entering.
“There was something out there that God wanted me to do in this world,” she said. She would return to India several times; she last saw Mother Teresa in 1997, shortly before she died.
Doing small things with love
Inspired by Mother Teresa – who chose her religious name after St. Therese of Lisieux – Conroy read St. Therese’s autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” and found grace in learning to complete small things with great love yet find satisfaction.
She worked with the Maine Children’s Cancer program, helping dying children. She worked in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and with AIDS patients in the south Bronx. She taught religion to poor children.
Although she professes not to be a writer, Conroy was led to write a book about her time with Mother Teresa and received her blessings on the project. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the book, “Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity,” go to the Missionaries of Charity’s work in Haiti and to EWTN, the Catholic television station that offers spiritual nourishment to Catholics, especially those who are ill and shut in.
“My writing this book and giving it to the world was meant to be,” Conroy said. “God chooses the weak and makes them strong.”
She also wrote “Praying in the Presence of Our Lord with Mother Teresa,” and translated five additional books from French into English.
She has been interviewed on EWTN and completed a 13-part series “Speaking of Saints” that airs on EWTN.
Cared for her aging mother
Conroy is currently working a highly anticipated book about her mother, whom she describes as “being full of light and full of love,” someone who taught her to be kind, loving and gentle. She said she was privileged to care for her parents until the day they died, and currently lives in her familial Maine home.
“I can see the hands of God guiding this,” Conroy said. “The number one thing in my life is to fulfill God’s will. God’s plans are perfect.”
Her avocation to help others has become her vocation, which is why she travels the country discussing her faith experiences, especially with Mother Teresa.
“If these talks make people want to be a saint and love God even more, then I must keep talking,” she said. “God is not loved enough.”
Kenner resident Michael Varino worked for a year to get Conroy to speak in Kenner after seeing her on EWTN.
“People need to be nourished,” he said. “She glows from inside. She’s full of love and shows it.”
Printed with permission from the Clarion Herald, newspaper for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.