If Marie Constantin learned one thing from more than 13 years of travel with Mother Teresa, it was to “find Calcutta” in her own home.
“Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right where you are,” Mother Teresa told the photographer, who took the iconic image that would hang on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica for the nun’s beatification ceremony.
Constantin is finding her Calcutta as she deals with family health problems.
“I’d really like to go back to Calcutta, but right now I feel that my family has special needs,” Constantin said.
Her mother died in 2013, and her sister has suffered complications from a recent heart surgery.
And, while she has seen the suffering in some of the world’s poorest countries as well as right here at home, the photographer said she is learning to put Mother Teresa’s words into action in her own life.
“I don’t feel like I need to be at the soup kitchen right now,” Constantin said. “I think you have to find Calcutta in your own home. You have to take care of your family first.”
As Constantin sits on the porch of her Spanish Town bungalow with her cat lazing in her lap, she tells of being one of two photographers allowed to travel with Mother Teresa and photograph her in private moments.
Constantin’s experience with Mother Teresa began when a friend suggested a trip to Tijuana to bring blankets to the poor “because Mother Teresa would do that,” Constantin said.
“I couldn’t care less about Mother Teresa as a teenager,” she recalled. “I thought I could go get some macramé and tacos and drink some beers. I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see.”
Constantin and her friend went through the “dumps” of Tijuana where families, pigs and dogs picked through garbage looking for food or for something to sell.
“We had a caravan of medicines and blankets and foods … All we could do was hug them and give them stuff,” she said of the children.
Later, as a freelance photographer, Constantin photographed Mother Teresa when the nun visited New Orleans in 1984 and Baton Rouge in 1985.
“I photographed her, and it didn’t do anything for me,” Constantin said.
One of those photos captured Mother Teresa smiling with her hands pressed together for prayer. Constantin had no idea of the significance that photo would have decades later.
Years had passed by when Constantin saw Mother Teresa holding a starving child on TV.
“I just started crying and thought ‘God, I don’t do anything for anybody,’” Constantin said.
She began volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen in Baton Rouge. She cooked and spent nights in the homeless shelter to give the nuns relief.
One day, as Constantin was volunteering at the St. Agnes soup kitchen, Sister Sylvia, a regional superior, asked to see some of the photos Constantin had taken of Mother Teresa years before.
One of the photos showed Mother Teresa with her hands pressed in prayer.
Sister Sylvia began inviting Constantin to travel with Mother Teresa on the East Coast, where the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity were doing humanitarian work, Constantin said.
Soon Constantin’s travels with Mother Teresa broadened, taking her to convents in the slums of Calcutta, Singapore, Nicaragua and Tijuana.
“When I went to Calcutta, I had 60 rolls of film and two cameras. My intention was to take some pictures,” Constantin said. “When I got there, the poverty was so horrific that twice I set out to take pictures and I turned back around.”
Constantin chose instead to work in orphanages and homes for the dying and the elderly.
Mother Teresa died in 1997 from a heart attack.
In 2003, the Vatican held a beatification ceremony, which is the third step in the process of being made a saint.
It chose Constantin’s photo of Mother Teresa as the official beatification photo, which was unveiled on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in front of 300,000 spectators.