On an October day in 1960, a small, sari-clad woman arrived in Las Vegas. It was her first visit to the United States and first time away from her adopted home in India in over 30 years. A former geography teacher and now head of her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, this unassuming nun known as Mother Teresa had arrived in a city she described as a perpetual light festival, or “Diwali.” While little known outside Kolkata (Calcutta) at the time, Teresa had been invited to address the National Council of Catholic Women annual conference. Sitting at a little booth during the conference, she addressed an endless series of questions about her sari, free service to the poor, and Albanian origins.
Months ahead of her trip, Teresa had written to her colleague, Eileen Egan: “Thank God I have plenty to do – otherwise I would be terrified of that big public. Being an Indian citizen, I will have to get an Indian passport.”¹ This one sentence encapsulates much of the relationship between Egan and Teresa, revealing personal elements of Teresa’s life and work, as well as the more mundane background work it took to continue her mission.
Egan, a long-time peace activist and employee of Catholic Relief Services, had been a co-worker of this relatively unknown nun for five years at this point. In the 1940s, both Teresa and Egan each experienced a calling to aid those ravaged by poverty, disease, and conflict. While Egan put her organizational and journalistic skills towards refugee relief, Teresa began the initial steps in founding a new religious order devoted to tending the sick, poor, and dying. In 1955, they would meet for the first time in the streets of Kolkata. Out of this initial meeting, the two women would strike up a close association that would endure the following four decades.
Thanks to Egan’s donation, the Archives holds the records of this relationship in the Eileen Egan’s Mother Teresa Collection. Not only did Egan and Teresa correspond regularly, but Egan collected materials related to the life and work of Teresa and her order. Their personal and professional interactions are reflected through hundreds of handwritten letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and more.
Not only can one glimpse letters discussing administrative duties and spiritual reflection from Teresa, one see the growth of her order and renown as the world became inspired by this quiet sister working in the streets. Among the various highlights are: photographs documenting the first Missionary house to open outside India, in Venezuela in 1965; letters preserved in which Teresa agrees to accept her first honorary degree at Catholic University in 1971; an autographed copy of Teresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech; and, letters from Sunday school students across the United States writing to the newly-minted Nobel laureate.
For a scholar of Teresa and her order, the collection is rich in biographical insights. In addition, the Archives houses a second Mother Teresa collection – the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa in America. This collection, begun by Violet Collins, catalogs the history of the lay American and international volunteers working alongside the Missionaries of Charity. While this collection is less focused on Mother Teresa, it does provide a glimpse into the work of lay people inspired by her example.
Returning to Egan, however, provides further insight into Teresa’s time in Nevada. To calm herself before addressing the crowds gathered at the conference, Teresa requested a trip out into the surrounding desert. Sitting silently next a cactus, Egan reports that the future saint silently meditated until she felt ready to face her audience. Upon completing her contemplation, Teresa did finally collect a souvenir – “a few of the long cactus spines which were easily twined into a crown of thrones. This she took back to Calcutta as a tangible memento of Las Vegas. It was placed on the head of the crucified Christ hanging behind the altar in the novitiate chapel.”²
Those interested in exploring more of the insights Egan or the Co-Workers collections offer into the life of the saint or the work of those she inspired, can contact the Archives by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
¹ Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa – The Spirit and the Work (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1986) 134.
² Ibid., 137.