Notebook

Caroline Wyatt: The no-nonsense saint who cared for me

A childhood portrait of the author with her legal guardian Mairi Mackenzie

The sky was an immaculate blue, and a strong September sun warmed the pilgrims squeezing into St Peter’s Square, burnishing the droplets from its two fountains into a liquid gold. Pope Francis could not have chosen a more beautiful day for the canonisation of Mother Teresa.

Around the Vatican the sense of occasion had been building up for days, with the streets packed with the faithful, from groups of excited Sisters in their distinctive white and blue from the Missionaries of Charity, beaming from ear to ear, to monks talking busily on their mobile phones.

Most were there for the canonisation, though some had come for long-planned conferences or training, with the canonisation Mass a welcome bonus. Nobody I spoke to there was in any doubt that Mother Teresa was a saint, even before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had formally agreed.

Fr Brian Kolodiejchuk, a tall, smiling, white-haired Canadian, had perhaps the most encyclopaedic knowledge of her life. With the imposing title of Postulator of the Cause of Beatification and Canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, he spent almost two decades assembling and putting forward her case for sainthood.

Fr Brian told me that they did not duck the difficult questions about her life, or the criticisms raised by atheists such as the late Christopher Hitchens or Dr Aroup Chatterjee, author of Mother Teresa: the Untold Story – both highly critical of her work in Calcutta. Dr Chatterjee firmly believes that Mother Teresa inflicted damage on the city’s reputation while burnishing her own. He is one of several medics who have criticised her for the standards of hygiene in her hospice for the dying in its earlier years. Fr Brian said that Christopher Hitchens had been called to give his testimony, but that ultimately St Teresa’s life and work had spoken for themselves.

Nor did the canonisation process shy away from looking deep into Mother Teresa’s own spiritual struggles, as shown in her letters, and the darkness and doubt she sometimes wrote about – the sense that God was sometimes far from her. And yet she continued her work.

I left Rome that Sunday with mixed feelings. It was a joyful event to report on, but it was also my last story as the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent. For the past two years, it has been a privilege to report on religion at home and around the world, but my MS has reached a stage that makes it harder to travel and do justice to the job I love. So a new, less physically demanding life as a BBC radio presenter beckons.

Very few of us can ever hope to achieve the kind of life of devotion to others that St Teresa did. But over the past few weeks, I have been thinking much of a family friend whom St Peter will have no cause to turn away.

A few weeks ago, at the age of 93, one of my family’s best friends died. She won’t have a Postulator, and she didn’t found an order. But in her everyday life in Sutton and later in Newbury, Mairi Mackenzie lived the Gospel, doing whatever she could for those in need, whether they were the sick, the poor, the elderly or simply her family and friends.

A staunch Catholic, Mairi was my mother’s best friend from church, and became my official guardian in Britain after my mother died when I was a child, and my father was still posted abroad with the Foreign Office. Mairi had often come to visit us and to help take care of us when Mum was ill.

Mairi’s warm yet no-nonsense manner always kept me and my two older brothers in order. One raised eyebrow was enough to stop us whispering to each other during Mass, or to elicit help from those of us dawdling after lunch in a vain attempt to avoid the washing up. Mairi had been a school matron, and it showed.

But beneath the matter-of-fact exterior was a woman who loved her friends deeply and would go out of her way to help strangers in need, never asking for thanks or praise, but doing it as a matter of course. She never had children of her own nor did she marry, but she was at the heart of many families’ lives, just as her deep faith was at the heart of her own.

Although I had no more need of a legal guardian after leaving school, Mairi’s care of me was lifelong. She sent warm socks that she had knitted for me when I was based in Moscow, and proper English tea when I was exiled to report from the far-flung wilds of Paris. Even at the age of 92, she was still visiting “the elderly” and the sick to make sure they had everything they needed.

Memorably, Mairi once rang me on my mobile in March 2003 to make sure that I was alive and well, because she became worried when she couldn’t get any answer from me on the phone at home. The line on my ancient Nokia was a little crackly but I could hear Mairi’s voice loud and clear over the rumble of armoured vehicles at my end as we trundled out of Kuwait.

“Where are you, dear?” she asked.

“We’re just with the British troops invading Iraq, Mairi,” I shouted down the line. “Do you mind if I call you back when they’ve finished?”

“Yes dear, that’ll be fine – as long as you’re all right. I just wanted to make sure.”

A few weeks ago, Fr Bruce Barnes, Mairi’s parish priest from St Francis de Sales in Wash Common, visited her to administer the Last Rites after she had a bad fall and it became clear she would not recover.

By then, Mairi was in bed and barely conscious, and no longer able to talk to visitors, although she sometimes flickeringly registered their presence.

To his astonishment, Mairi began to speak slowly and clearly, saying the words of the Our Father with more strength than she had had for weeks.

She died not long afterwards, and I have no doubt that Mairi is already helping to make sure that all in heaven are properly fed, that nobody is lonely and that everyone is wearing the right socks for the autumn.

At her requiem Mass next week we shall celebrate Mairi’s life and know that her soul, and the good she did in her long and selfless life, will live on.