Utah Catholics remember Mother Teresa’s visit to the state

(Photo courtesy of Judge Memorial Catholic High School) This pew — along with a poem and portrait — is reportedly the one Mother Teresa sat on during her visit to a Trappist monastery in Huntsville. It now sits in Judge Memorial Catholic High School in east Salt Lake City.

Attorney Michael O’Brien can be forgiven for not knowing who Mother Teresa was in 1972, when she touched down at Salt Lake City International Airport.

O’Brien, though Catholic, was, after all, just 11.

There was a crowd there that day, but the masses were on hand to catch a glimpse of Mormon pop singers Donny and Marie, not the future saint and Nobel Peace Prize winner who would be speaking at the Trappist monastery in Huntsville.

Nearly 50 years later, though, O’Brien, who is The Salt Lake Tribune’s attorney, has been instrumental in keeping alive the memory — especially for Catholic teens — of the diminutive nun in the blue-and-white sari and her extraordinary visit to the Beehive State.

When the northern Utah monastery closed in 2017, a friend salvaged some items from the holy space, including pews, one of which now has a place of honor at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in east Salt Lake City and may have been the one the legendary nun sat on nearly five decades ago.

The sight of the wooden benches took O’Brien back to that day when he met “Mother,” as she was called.

O’Brien’s mom was tipped off by one of the monks that Teresa would be attending a meeting of co-workers of the Missionaries of Charity at the monastery as well as giving a sermon on serving the poor. The nun was the founder of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, whose central house was in Calcutta, India, but which had other centers across the globe.

The Trappist monks allowed Teresa to speak in a conference room next to the main sanctuary but, during other services, she took her seat in the balcony, where women were allowed.

For the early-morning Mass, Teresa was seated on the pew directly in front of O’Brien’s family, which included him, his mother and sister.

“I was a little punk and bragged that, as a male, I could go many more places in the monastery than my sister could,” the attorney recalls now.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Tribune attorney Michael O'Brien speaks with the Utah Supreme Court in 2019.

During that service, the priest stood at the altar on the chapel’s main floor and invited males to come forward just before Communion to stand around him, so O’Brien went down, while Teresa and other women went to the back of the sanctuary, where a priest would bring the elements of the Eucharist to them.

When it was time for the “sign of peace,” which involves attendees greeting those in physical proximity, O’Brien was still upfront, so he did not get to shake hands with the nun like his mom and sister had.

“Maybe, I wasn’t as special as I thought,” he quips.

The future saint’s speech was a hit with the monks.

Father Charles Cummings recounted Teresa’s Huntsville comments to The Tribune when she died in September 1997 at age 87.

“With a personal union with Jesus, we can see that the poor are Christ himself,'' Cummings quoted Teresa as telling them.

Several monks there had vivid memories of the visit.

“In person, she seemed quite human,'' Cummings said. `”She was not distant or closed or cold.''

For O’Brien, the nun’s presence and pronouncements that day were not simply memorable. They changed him.

“She became my awakening,” he says. “Everybody made a big deal about her. The monks seemed so impressed that I made a mental note and learned about her after that. Because I met her and sat behind her, I became aware of how important it is to do service.”

He followed Teresa’s work as she became increasingly well known, including when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

“She became,” he says, “a personal touchstone of love and charity in the world.”

Sometime before Mother Teresa was canonized in 2016, her correspondence became public, revealing in agonizing detail her feelings of abandonment by God.

“The place of God in my soul is blank,” she wrote to her priest confessor. “There is no God in me — when the pain of longing in me is so great — I just long and long for God — and then it is that I feel he does not want me — He is not there. ... The torture and pain I can't explain."

That made O’Brien revere the nun even more.

(Eddie Adams | AP file photo) Mother Teresa, head of the Missionaries of Charity order, cradles an armless baby girl at her order's orphanage in Calcutta, India, in 1978.

Her experience of doubt and loss “mirrors my own life,” the attorney says. “Sometimes you look up at the universe and ask: Is anyone out there?”

Mother’s expressions felt authentic, he says. “Faith is a day-to-day choice for me.”

O’Brien hopes the pew — with a new portrait of the saint and an accompanying poem, “Do It Anyway” — will inspire a new generation of Catholics.

Sitting outside the school’s main office, students will have to pass by it often.

When Kris Kladis read about the pew in the Intermountain Catholic, she felt it was time for her to donate a medal she had inherited that was blessed by Mother Teresa.

Kladis didn’t earn the medal herself, but the woman who did gave it to an auction raising money for Salt Lake City’s Madeleine Choir School and her parents got it.

Now, the medal and explanation are hanging with the pew, poem and portrait.

Just talking about the saint makes Kladis choke up.

“She was such a role model for all of us, especially impressionable young kids in high school,” the Catholic mom says. She exemplified “kindness and caring for the poor and the sick.”

If these mementos can “give that to students,” Kladis says, “that’s what this is all about.”