COLUMBUS — Mary Jo Van Ackeren opened a box on her kitchen table and peeled away a layer of bubble wrap protecting a series of neatly labeled and arranged photos.
She pointed out a few pictures, including one of a person who looked like nothing more than skin and bones and another of a makeshift house constructed of scraps and other throw-away items. Another picture marked “Mother and I” showed two women — Van Ackeren and Mother Teresa.
“I think she taught us the love of the poor. We are all brothers and sisters and need to help each other,” the 86-year-old Van Ackeren said of Mother Teresa, who was declared a saint earlier this month.
The meeting between them was the result of about 13 years of correspondence. While exchanging letters, Mother Teresa would ask Van Ackeren to visit her in India where the Catholic nun had a mission tending to the poor and dying in Kolkata (then known as Calcutta).
The letters she received from Mother Teresa are also stored in the box with the photos of Van Ackeren’s visit, each typed and signed. The last was received in August 1997, just a month before the saint passed away.
The communication started after Van Ackeren went on a business trip while she was employed with J.C. Penney. A man at the meeting who sold jewelry asked her about a pin on her lapel. She explained it was a dove representing the Holy Spirit. He asked Van Ackeren if she was Catholic. When the St. Bonaventure Catholic Church parishioner said yes, he told her he met a friend of hers on a recent flight. It was Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa gave the man her address, wanting him to send her broken jewelry that the poor she worked with could fix and sell. The man said he didn’t have the time, but Van Ackeren volunteered to send the jewelry for him. He gave her Mother Teresa’s address and the correspondence began.
In the mid-1990s, Van Ackeren traveled to Kolkata, where she was greeted by Mother Teresa. For about two weeks, she worked with the nuns there, waking early in the morning, attending Mass and helping at the orphanage and home for the dying.
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Van Ackeren said the poor were everywhere, living on the streets. She followed Mother Teresa around one day and was exhausted by the work the older woman did.
“I was worn out. She’d go to the people who were dying. She’d pick up their head and say, ‘It’s OK. Jesus is waiting for you,’” she said.
During her time in Kolkata, Van Ackeren said she questioned where God was because of the all misery and wondered how much good could be done. It was difficult at first to hug and care for the poor, but she helped by bathing and feeding them, some so weak she had to help them close their own eyelids.
The longer she stayed, the more Van Ackeren said she began to understand. She saw it in the work of Mother Teresa and the other nuns who spent each day caring for what she called the castaways.
“I could see and feel God’s love, which had existed from the beginning but I just didn’t see it at first,” she said.
Van Ackeren wasn't unaware of the needy. In Columbus, she founded Simon House in the early 1990s. The nonprofit, which provides assistance to the poor, is named after her brother-in-law, Simon Van Ackeren, a Franciscan priest who died when he was 20.
Spending time with Mother Teresa only helped strengthen her belief that people need to take care of one another. That was the message Van Ackeren said she took away from her trip to Kolkata and what she thinks Mother Teresa wanted others to understand.
“God’s calling us to help our brothers and sisters, regardless of who they are or where they’re at. You don’t even need to travel overseas. You can help them right here,” she said.