Mother Teresa, and the Denver priest who was her kindred spirit

Mother Teresa, and the Denver priest who was her kindred spirit

Father Woody and Bl. Teresa of Calcutta. Courtesy of Regis University.
Father Woody and Bl. Teresa of Calcutta. Courtesy of Regis University.

.- Mother Teresa visited Denver, Colo. twice in the 1980s. Both times, one of her biggest fans was tasked with driving her around to some of her destinations.

Father Charles B. Woodrich, affectionately known in the community as Fr. Woody, figured out a way to be assigned to pick her up from the airport for her first visit in 1986.

Longtime friend and parishioner, Dr. Victoria McCabe, recalled him making the announcement at Mass: “My hero is coming, and I get to pick her up and I’m so excited!”

After he made the announcement, parishioners started offering all kinds of help – a policeman offered some of his squad as an accompanying guard, and the owner of a limosuine service offered a fancy ride to pick up the internationally-known Catholic sister. Fr. Woody, who only owned an old, beat-up Ford, enthusiastically accepted the offer.

But the limo wasn’t Mother Teresa’s style. As the founder of the Missionaries of Charity who went to great lengths to make sure her sisters lived with poverty and simplicity, she politely but firmly declined the ride for herself and the sister accompanying her.

“He was leading her toward the (limo) and she stopped. And she put her hand up and said, 'Oh Father, I cannot ride in a car like this. I am so sorry, but we cannot get in the car.'”

Baffled, Fr. Woody instead offered to ride in the police car with Mother and her sister, while the rest of the squad piled in the limo.

The next time she visited Denver, in 1989, Fr. Woody had learned his lesson.  

“One thing I know is she doesn’t want to ride in a limousine,” he said at the time.

That time, when he was asked to drive Mother Teresa back from a youth conference at Estes Park, he decided to drive the Holy Ghost Sandwich Truck. A man after Mother’s heart, Fr. Woody worked tirelessly to help the poor in and around his parish, and would use the sandwich truck to deliver sack lunches to people who were hungry.

But on the way back from the airport, the truck quit.

“Who has a breakdown when you’re carrying a saint?” McCabe recalled him saying.

It was the time before cell phones, so Father and the sisters had to wait for help to come. As soon as they broke down, Mother Teresa hopped out of the truck with her sister and asked everyone to join her in the rosary. When that finished, help had not yet arrived, and Fr. Woody was worried that Mother might be getting tired, or hungry.

“And Mother said, ‘Oh Father, don’t worry,’ and he said she fished around in her pocket of her sari and brought out this cheese, this big beautiful cheese wound in a cloth and passed it around. He said it was the best cheese ever,” McCabe said, laughing.

That incident, McCabe said, is a perfect snapshot of the surrender Mother Teresa had to the will of God in every moment of her life.

“Oh, the car (broke down)? Well it’s ok, help will come, and we will pray,” McCabe said.

During her visits, one thing that impressed Fr. Woody so much about Mother Teresa were her hands.

“She was very humble, extremely humble, very serious, and boy when you shook her hand you knew you were shaking a hand! That woman’s grip!” McCabe said. “I mean, little tiny lady, with the hands of a large person! It’s a worker’s hand.”

Fr. Woody was able to snap some close-up photos of Mother Teresa’s hands during her visit, who likely reluctantly obliged, as she didn’t like having her picture taken.  

“He just said, ‘Look at those hands! Those are the hands of a worker! Then he would say, ‘Christ didn’t want any lazy people, and we have to follow her, we have to work.’”

And work he did.

In the spirit of Mother Teresa, Fr. Woody was renowned for his unquestioning generosity when helping people in need. In the record-settingly horrible Denver winter of 1982, Fr. Woody opened up the Church every night to let the homeless come inside to sleep.

“You’d hear the phone ring and you’d pick it up and hear: ‘Yeah, uh, Fr. Woody here, bring me some blankets and pillows,’ and then he’d hang up and call the next person,” McCabe said.

“And everybody just did it!” she said. “You’d get that call and you stop whatever you’re doing and do it.”

One time Fr. Woody called McCabe as she was taking exams, and asked for soup. When McCabe told him she was busy studying, Father’s reply was: “There are hungry people down here. Bring what you got.”

When Fr. Woody passed away very suddenly in 1991 at the age of 68, it was a painful shock to the Catholic community in Denver. Heartbroken, McCabe looked up where Mother Teresa was staying at the time, which was a hospital in California, and wrote out a 5-6 page letter to inform her of his passing.

“I got a letter back from her and she said, ‘I am so sorry to hear in Denver of the loss of the beloved Fr. Woody. But he’s with God now, he would not want you to be sorrowful.’”

“So she had about 4 handwritten sentences, but really what she said was stop blubbering and pick up the work. Do the work. It really got my attention because it was like: stop. There are people that need to be fed.”

Fr. Woody’s legacy lives on through a program called “Father Woody’s Service Projects” at Regis University in Denver, of which McCabe is the director. Among their projects are delivering meals to the poor and elderly, just as did Fr. Woody, and throwing Christmas parties for the poor every year.

The legacy of both Fr. Woody and Mother Teresa has been so lasting, McCabe said, because of their willingness to lead by example and practice what they preached, and because they were simple and practical in their mission.

McCabe said she will always remember that when a journalist asked Mother Teresa how she could ever solve a problem like homelessness, she replied: “Well, you just pick up the next one. No, you cannot pick up them all. You pick one up, you take them inside, you care, you wash, whether it’s a dying person or a child, and you go back out and pick up the next one.”

Fr. Woody had a similar philosophy, summarized by a quote that McCabe uses in a lot of her work at Regis University: 

“Just open your door and help people. You don’t even have to have a meeting about it!”

This article was originally published Sept. 5, 2015.

Tags: Missionaries of Charity, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Father Woody