Sometime in May of this year, Father Joe Burg, ex Toronto, telephones me from Jamaica and asked me if I could take care of his parish there while he came to visit his family in Toronto. The dates he suggested were late June and into July. As schools here are closing or closed at that time. I was very glad to oblige.

I arrived in Montego Bay airport on June 17 and was met by Father Joe. We literally “bounced” our way over on the roughest and most twisting road I had ever travelled over the 40 miles.

Balaclava is away out in the country, over two ours drive from Kinston and over one hour from the nearest town, so it was a relief from the speed of life in Toronto.

I had been told that there is a big difference between the Canadians and Jamaican dollars, but I had not bothered to get into details. I brought with me some Canadian traveller’s cheques. A few days after I arrived in Balaclava, I was taken to Manderville by some friends and I dropped at a small bank. I handed in a $20 Canadian traveller’s cheque. After quite a lot of calculation, the woman gave me a large mass of notes, mostly $10 Jamaican bills. They wouldn’t fit into my wallet, so I stuffed them into my pockets and left the bank, feeling really rich. I saw a restaurant and, as it was about mid-day, I decided to have lunch. I ordered soup, fried chicken and a glass of orange juice. When the waitress put the bill on the table I nearly fell off my chair. It was $195 – and I was still thinking in Canadian terms.

Not so rich

I excused myself to the gentleman at the next table and explained that I was a visitor. I said, “what would be a suitable tip for this bill?” He looked at it and said, “oh, anything from $50 to $70.” Next I went into a book store and purchased a novel by one of my favourite authors. It cost me only $175 Jamaican. I left the store feeling not so rich. What was left of the notes easily fitted into my wallet. When my friends collected me I asked for some details and found that one Canadian dollar equals just a little less than 25 Jamaican. So my $20 Canadian came to just under $500 Jamaican.

Certainly the most exciting and spiritually uplifting aspect of my visit to Jamaica was the fact that I was chaplain to the Sisters of Mother Teresa – the Missionaries of Charity. Needless to say I had often heard of Mother Teresa and the work of her society. But I had never met the Sisters. When Mandeville was made a separate diocese about five years ago, the new Bishop Paul Michael Boyle, and Mother Teresa to open a house in Balaclava. He have them a lovely building, which had once been a large boarding school. As it had dormitories and a dining room and a chapel, plus a convent, it is ideal for the work of the sisters. They opened a home for the “poorest of the poor,” which is their special vocation. There are 50 very poor and abandoned people – roughly divided between men and women – living in the home. The staff consists of five sisters, three dogs and two cats. Each group has its own special functions. The sisters care for the sick, the dogs guard the doors and the cats look after the rats.

One wonders what happened to these people before the sisters came. One man had moth legs amputated, several had only one left, most of the women are suffering from acute arthritis or some other serious physical disease and a few were somewhat mentally deranged.

I asked Sister Superior how they were financially able to feed and look after 50 people. She smiled and said “Providence” I said, “But surely you have some kind of grants from either a church or state or both?” She replied, “no. We don’t get any financial help from either the church or the state. WE depend on Providence and Providence never fails.” Apparently food companies and charitable organizations supply the necessities of life for all Mother Teresa’s homes. The Missionaries also have a home in Kingston, Jamaica which I visited. They can give a home to 70 of the poor and they also depend of Providence, which never fails.

My function as chaplain to the home consisted of celebrating Mass each week morning at 6:30 and presiding at Holy Hour for the Sisters and 6:30 p.m., plus giving the Sacraments to the very ill in the home. I believe that the wonderful work being done for the poor is based on the prayer life of the sisters. They are committed to four house community prayer each day. You might wonder how they can afford so much time in the midst of a very busy schedule. Here is some of the explanation. They rise at 4:40 a.m. and retire about 10 p.m. They have no TV, no radio and they don’t read the daily newspapers. This means they have roughly 18 hours for work wit a few brief intervals for meals and recreation. They have sis lay helpers, who keep the wheels turning while the sisters are at prayer or meals. One thing is certain. These poor and abandoned people get three good meals per day, a comfortable bed each night, excellent medical attention – one of the sisters is a qualified nurse – and a doctor visits regularly and on a volunteer basis. One thing I noticed was how cheerful the people appeared to be in spite of their sufferings. I think I found the explanation in a small book containing Mother Teresa’s spiritual advice to her sisters. One quality, the importance of which she stresses, is “cheerfulness.” She insists that there should be no such thing as a Missionary of Charity who is not cheerful. But the cheerfulness must come from the inside – emanating from the love of God for all people. This quality is certainly obvious in the sisters at Balaclava and it communicates itself to the people for whom they care.

Sense of independence

Perhaps I should have said earlier that the only qualification for entry into the home is poverty and destitution. There is no charge and the tiny pension they receive from the government they are allowed to keep for small expenses and this helps them feel independent.

One evening I was in Mandeville with a gentleman who I had met. It was dark and he pointed out to me a woman who was lying on the footpath against the wall. He said, “there is one of the street people.” There was nothing I could do, so I passed by – like the priest in the Gospel on his way to the synagogue. Three days later I was introduced to the same woman in the home. My friend had taken her to the sisters’ home and she had a bed and three meals a day for as long as she needed to stay.

I spent a little over a month at Balaclava. Father Joe was very grateful to me for looking after his parish. It was an experience for which I was thankful. But I have to admit that I gained much more from the experience than Balaclava did. Moving among the “poorest of the poor” every day and witnessing the total giving of the sisters has given me much to meditate on and think about in the days to come.