From across the courtyard, an old nun was beckoning. I checked right and left; she was definitely waving at us.
And so I took my children by the hand climbed the stairs into the Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse.
I was going through Calcutta with my family not long ago and decided we would all take a quick detour to the legendary mission established by Mother Teresa. My late father was a devout Catholic, and admirer of hers, and I knew he would have relished a chance to see the mission – in his honour, I'd take my heathen children (and atheist partner and socialist pagan in-laws) on a quick pilgrimage.
The five-storey stone headquarters sits right at the edge of the curb on a noisy street in the heart of Calcutta. At the narrow door down an alley we spotted the nuns, in those blue-bordered white saris. Not far inside the door is the room where Mother, as everyone there calls her, is entombed – people from all over the world were praying silently at her big white-marble tomb, about the size of two refrigerators and weirdly Stalinist in design.
In the next room we found a museum's worth of exhibitions crammed into a room the size of half a suburban garage: Mother's old sandals, her toothbrush, her pen, the handbag she used when she went visiting the poor. The walls were lined with a series of dense text panels telling the stories of a young Albanian nun's multiple visitations from Jesus and how she got special dispensation from the Pope in the 1940s to leave her order and investigate the possibility of answering the "call" and working with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. But it was hard to take it all in, as a Japanese bus tour poured in around us.
Up a small flight of stairs is Mother's room, which has been left just as she occupied it. One little plank bed, one desk, one cupboard, one crown of thorns on the wall – and never so much as a fan on the hottest days of Bengal summer, one passing nun pointed out.
From there we could see all up into the house, the curtained rooms that are off limits to tourists but where the missionaries continue to house the dying poor. I tried to explain to my kids about how brave and generous Teresa was – but also that many people don't admire her, because she sheltered the dying but did nothing to try to challenge or change the system that led to people living and dying on the sidewalks.
And then an old Indian sister leaning on a walker was beckoning to the children. So we went up to meet her, and she started talking. Sister Gertrude, it emerged, was a student in the 1940s, and Teresa taught at her Calcutta high school. Gertude was, she said, active in the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi; she was also impressed with the politics of this young European teacher. Gertrude said she put Teresa on a train one day to go on a retreat and it was on that train that Jesus first appeared and told her to stay and work in Calcutta – the first of the visions. Next thing you know, Teresa had a dispensation from the Pope, started an order, and recruited Gertrude, her first sister, to the complete confusion of her family. Teresa insisted she go to medical school, and then train as a surgeon, in the Soviet bloc – and eventually she worked in the civil war in Lebanon and all over Africa.
Gertrude's narrative was rambling but astounding; my six-year-old, who has learned about India's independence struggle at school, whispered to me, astonished, "Really? She was a hunger striker with Gandhi?" Nearby hung a picture of Teresa and her first novices in 1953 – Gertrude was the tallest of the sombre young women.
After talking for about 20 minutes, Gertrude abruptly wore out. But before she sent us away, she opened a biscuit tin and gave us each a prayer medal and a rosary from a stash she keeps in a folded in a piece of Mother's sari.
And all of us – pagans, atheists, heathens – went away feeling it had been a special visit indeed.
Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse, 54A, A.J.C. Bose Road, Calcutta. Open mornings and late afternoons. Closed Thursdays, Aug. 22, Easter Monday and Dec. 26. motherteresa.org
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Stephanie Nolen visited the Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse with her grandchildren. She visited with her children. She doesn't have grandchildren – yet.