Mother Teresa story lead Topeka native to join her order

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

MEXICO CITY — Some moments in life are never forgotten. For Father Bob Conroy, a native of Topeka and a priest of the Missionaries of Charity, one such moment occurred during his eighth-grade year at Topeka’s Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School.

His class watched “Something Beautiful for God,” a 50-minute documentary about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The film touched his heart. When he later saw pictures of Mother Teresa with the poor and dying in Life magazine, he cut them out and hung them in his room.

“[Her work] was incredible, at least to me,” said Father Conroy. “It made me wonder that if she could do something like that, maybe I could do something for God, too.”

And that began Father Conroy’s relationship with Mother Teresa, the church’s most recently canonized saint. He didn’t know then, but he would meet her just a few short years later.

After finishing college in 1983 at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, Father Conroy was sent to Rome for further studies. During his first semester, he also started working in a nursing home run by the Missionaries of Charity. A few months later, Mother Teresa passed through Rome.

That’s when his spiritual director, Father Joseph Propps, took the Topekan with him on a trip to a convent at which Father Propps celebrated Mass for Mother Teresa and her Sisters. The seminarian’s interest in the order only grew.

The next year, Mother Teresa and Father Joseph Langford cofounded the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, an order of priests dedicated to the same work as her order of women religious — serving Christ in the poorest of the poor. That very year, Father Conroy began the process of applying for acceptance by the community.

Correspondence with the community was slow, however. It sometimes took more than six months for him to receive a response to one of his letters.

“Because the answers were so slow in coming,” said Father Conroy, “I wondered what the community would be like!”

Meanwhile, Father Conroy moved closer to ordination. Yet, his heart was torn. He had no doubt about becoming a priest. Yet, he wasn’t sure where God wanted him to serve the church.

The summer between his first and second year in Rome, Father Conroy spent time in Dublin, serving in the slums there. The summer between his third and fourth year of theology, he traveled to Tanzania to serve the poor.

It later occurred to him that, in a sense, he had been trying out the life of a priest as a Missionary of Charity.

Upon his return to Rome, he prayed a novena to Mother Teresa’s namesake, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. He received affirmation while at the Colosseum in Rome, a place visited by both St. Thérèse and Mother Teresa.

When he discussed his wish to join the order with Mother Teresa herself, Father Conroy remembers that she repeatedly emphasized the life of poverty he would be embracing as a Missionary of Charity.

“I’m not sure why she emphasized it so much to me. Perhaps it was how I was dressed,” he said with a laugh.

Father Conroy joined the community in 1986 in the Bronx, New York, and it was then that his relationship with Mother Teresa grew more personal.

Whenever Mother Teresa visited New York, he recalled, she provided instructions to the religious Sisters, priests and seminarians.

“We’d have conferences with her,” he said. “And afterward, you could speak to her individually. . . . It was all very communal.”

On Jan. 28, 1989, Father Conroy was ordained a Missionaries of Charity priest. Mother Teresa attended his ordination in Tijuana, Mexico.

For the next eight years, Father Conroy had many occasions to interact with Mother Teresa. Once, he celebrated Mass privately for her in a hospital in San Diego. Other times, he participated in one of her retreats or instructional sessions.

Yet, there’s one night that remains forever etched in his mind.

“There were three or four novices, and we were all with her one night. We saw this woman crawling on the side of a mountain,” he recalled.

Mother Teresa encouraged them to check on the woman, and she went with them. When they got to the mountain, they saw the woman was an alcoholic and had fallen down and was struggling to get back up.

Mother Teresa helped the woman to her feet, cleaned her off and talked with her. Father Conroy said that memory remains special because he realized that “she didn’t have a superficial character.” In that moment, he said, “Mother Teresa herself was gone. God was radiating through her.”

He also realized she never worried about what people thought. Her mission was to serve God.

“She never lost track of that,” he said. “She was the real thing.”

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