A Late Vocation
“Sister, this is the call of God that I have been waiting for. I had a sense of having a call and not knowing what it was.” This was Mrs. Theresa Nath’s reaction, at the age of 54 years, to a request to leave home in Fiji’s capital, Suva, to become a companion for Mother Canisius.
Mother Canisius had come from New Zealand to Fiji ten years previously in 1977 to live a life of prayer as a hermit. She lived at the Ashram, a rural retreat center about 150 miles from Suva. She was growing old and weak. She needed a companion.
Mother Canisius, on meeting Theresa, asked her all sorts of questions. She wanted to test Theresa’s commitment. Would she remain with her in her good days and her bad days? “Luckily I passed all her examinations,” said Theresa smiling.
Theresa was born in Suva in June 1933. Her father owned his own small bus service. Theresa attended a Catholic primary school to class three, when the schools in Fiji closed during World War II to be used as billets for soldiers.
After the war Theresa boarded at a Catholic primary school. She was baptized and received First Communion there. When she finished class eight her father brought her home to the rudimentary dwelling he built on land he had bought.
Theresa had an arranged marriage with a Catholic convert in 1952. They were both 19 years old and lived with her parents. Theresa began working in a cigarette factory in 1957. By 1960 she had five daughters.
Theresa’s husband went to England in 1962 to stay with her relatives, find work and bring the family over. He sent money home for three months. Then he disappeared and all communication with Theresa ceased.
Caring for Her Children
When Theresa’s adopted brother married, the dwelling became too small for the extended family. Theresa bought a small shack and became a tenant at will in an informal settlement. Two of her older daughters were married by then.
Sometime later Rup Chand, a seaman, asked her to look after his own mother and his two very small children, whose mother had deserted them. He promised to send money regularly to her. Theresa agreed, partly because she worried about her three adolescent daughters. Rup Chand was honest and treated her daughters with respect and care. She warned him never to criticize her Church or try to stop her from going to Mass on Sundays.
Like everyone, they had their ups and downs. If she was annoyed with him she would go to a film after Mass on a Sunday morning. Worried about her, he would guess where she was and would wait for her to come out (Hindi films are quite long) and accompany her home.
When her father later moved house, he signed over his land to Theresa. The Housing Authority, to whom she mortgaged the land, built a standard house there. She paid a large deposit and a weekly sum. She sold food parcels and did some sewing to make some extra money. Rup contributed too. Her three younger daughters married and emigrated to North America. Theresa had now fulfilled her family responsibilities and was open to another call.
Caring for Mother Canisius
By 1997 Mother Canisius was becoming weaker. When she was in hospital for surgery Theresa stayed with her. “I would sleep on the floor beside her bed. Two years later she was admitted again, and I stayed with her day and night.”
Theresa’s daughter Angeline had returned from the U.S. She used to bring their food to the hospital on the 8:00 a.m. morning bus, stay all day and return to the Ashram on the evening bus to wash their clothes. After two months Mother Canisius died in Theresa’s arms.
Angeline wondered why her U.S. permanent residence permit was taking so long. A day or two after Mother Canisius’ burial she received a phone call from the American Embassy. The message was, “Why haven’t you collected your residence permit? It has been here for the last three months!”
Theresa is now 89 years old and has lived for almost 35 years at the Ashram. There she has a regular program of prayer which includes reciting the Divine Office morning and evening and attending Mass, when available. She used to help cook for groups that came there.
Caring for the People
Theresa has been an angel of mercy to many people around the Ashram. She bought the materials and had a small house built for a young mother with small children who was thrown out by her mother-in-law. She paid school fees for many children. She bought hampers for poor families in the settlement before Christmas and Easter each year.
She helped two part-time Ashram cooks, when there was no priest in residence. She paid one from her own pocket and had wiring and electricity installed in the other’s house. She paid the seminary fees of a young man in India and was thrilled to attend his ordination.
Like Ruth with Naomi
Her daughter Annie recalls visiting the Ashram once and being woken by her mother and told to shower and to be in the church by 7:00 a.m. As she was walking up the hill she heard her mother singing a hymn by herself inside the church. She stood outside and cried. Her mother seemed to have a glow of happiness.
When Theresa heard God’s call to become Mother Canisius’ companion she gave her house and land to Rup Chand and his son. The then Archbishop gave her permission in writing to live as long as she wished at the Ashram and be buried beside Mother Canisius. She would remain a companion to her in life and in death.
Columban Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.