Mother Teresa is too well known to need any introduction. The saintly woman from Albania who made India her home in 1928-29 quickly became an icon on the streets of Kolkata. Her selfless dedication to the poor and the dying earned her demi-god status long before she passed away, and a deserving Noble Peace Prize. It is a tribute to her personality that one of her greatest admirers was Jyoti Basu, the godless Communist leader of West Bengal.
A woman whose sole personal possession was a sling bag - "It is all I have and it is all I need" - and who had just three cotton saris and a five rupee note when she founded the Missionaries of Charity left behind an empire of 3,500 sisters, 1,000 brothers, 755 convents, 170 educational institutions and 2,000 volunteers spread over 123 countries. No wonder, when she died in 1997, India draped her coffin with the Indian tricolour, "a rare and unique honour a nun had ever been given till date".
In contrast to the universally known octogenarian Teresa was the little known Sister Alphonsa in Kerala. Both were born in August 1910. Sister Alphonsa's was a story of silent suffering until the very day she died at age 36. Despite contrasting lifestyles, both lived "on the wings of love for Jesus Christ", says author Thomas.
Alphonsa jumped into a fireplace at a young age to escape marriage. Ill health dogged her from the time she joined the Clarist Sisters. The last 10 years were particularly painful. "Prayer was her solace and suffering seemed her spiritual pleasure." For her, Jesus was her "spiritual spouse". The divine greatness of Sister Alphonsa, the first Indian to be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, became known widely only after she breathed her last. Today, thousands, including those from other religions, flock to her tomb for blessings.
Thomas' book is a moving tribute to the legendary Mother Teresa and the relatively little known Sister Alphonsa.