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Did you know Mother Teresa had a “spiritual sister”?

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A shantytown in Calcutta

Aliénor Strentz - published on 05/15/23

Unknown to the general public, she played a decisive role in the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa considered her to be her "sister."

Born on May 5, 1913, into the Belgian Catholic bourgeoisie, Jacqueline de Decker had a happy and comfortable childhood, surrounded by her eight brothers and sisters and three servants. Very early on, she felt the call to become a missionary at the service of the poor. Full of determination, she pragmatically pursued her goal by studying at the Catholic University of Louvain, where she obtained diplomas in tropical nursing and social work.

The Second World War delayed the fulfillment of her dream. She enlisted in a Red Cross team and actively participated in the Belgian Resistance. She spent a lot of time helping the victims of German bombings and the escaped British soldiers who were trying to return to England. When the war was over, she helped liberate and care for the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps of Belsen and Buchenwald. In 1946, she received seven war medals … but she never forgot her greatest desire: to go to India as soon as the war was over.

The collapse of a dream

With the help of Providence, Jacqueline learned that the Bishop of Madras was asking for the help of a nurse to create a medical-social center. With the moral and financial support of her Jesuit spiritual father, she left for India with enthusiasm … but as soon as she arrived in Bombay, she received a telegram announcing the death of her spiritual father. She had to give up the creation of the medical-social center.

Despite the precarious situation in which she found herself, she chose to stay in India. For two years, she lived an itinerant life throughout the country. Dressed in a traditional sari, she traveled to the villages where she brought her experience as a nurse and social worker.

Jacqueline felt that she had found her ideal life, but she wanted to share it with other women. A Jesuit priest told her about a young religious from Calcutta, Sister Teresa, who, like her, was dedicating her life to the service of the Indian people, especially the poorest. Jacqueline felt called to join this sister. She met Sister Teresa in 1948. Both discovered with enthusiasm that they shared the same ideal and decided to join forces to found a new community of sisters.

It was then that Jacqueline was impeded by complications of her serious health problems, which had begun at the age of 17. She urgently went back to Belgium to be treated. On the boat back home, she had a terrible feeling that she would never be able to return to India. Assailed by doubt and the deep conviction that her life had no meaning, she thought several times of throwing herself overboard.

Hope returns … with a letter

Jacqueline arrived in Antwerp in total despair. Her fears were justified as she received a diagnosis that would change her destiny forever: a rare disease of the spine. She underwent 15 transplants, which she experienced as a real torture, all the more useless as the surgeons’ efforts were unable to avoid the worst effects of her disease. She remained disabled for the rest of her life, imprisoned in a plaster corset.

Full of vitality and energy until now, Jacqueline could not make sense of this ordeal. She went through a long spiritual night, feeling rejected by God. She wrote a heartbreaking farewell letter to her friend in Calcutta: “My dream of joining you and returning to India has just been extinguished.” Teresa still believed in her friend’s possible recovery and encouraged her to persevere in prayer and hope. However, as the months went by, she had to face the facts: Jacqueline would remain handicapped for life and would not be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a missionary in India.

The woman who had meanwhile become “Mother Teresa” was inspired by genius, or rather by the Holy Spirit. In 1952, she wrote a letter to Jacqueline de Decker that literally changed her life. She invited her to unite herself spiritually to the Missionaries of Charity, offering her sufferings and prayers and thus participating spiritually in their merits, prayers, and work. She asked her to become her “spiritual sister” with her “body in Belgium but her soul in India.”

A chain of love

Mother Teresa’s letter radically changed Jacqueline de Decker’s life. Mother Teresa told her that she needed her, and that her sufferings and prayers offered with love to God would make her work fruitful in Calcutta. Jacqueline immediately found a meaning to her life by discovering a positive value to her suffering and her disability.

She would finally be able to fulfill her great dream of being a missionary, but from a completely different perspective than the very active and busy one she had envisioned. She accepted this spiritual relationship and responded with faith to Mother Teresa’s letter: “Suffering united to the Passion of Christ is becoming a precious gift. I am not looking for an explanation for my suffering. I have found meaning in it.”

She thus became the spiritual sister of Mother Teresa, offering her suffering and prayers day after day to accompany Mother Teresa in her daily work in India.

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From then on, Jacqueline regained all her energy and wanted to share her new ideal of life with as many people as possible. Mother Teresa encouraged her to continue this astonishing “chain of love” between disabled or terminally ill people and the Missionary Sisters of Charity, who work from morning to night in the leprosy clinics, dispensaries, orphanages, and care centers created by Mother Teresa throughout the world.

For 40 years, Jacqueline continued this immense task of spiritual twinning until her death in 2009. Thus was born a new branch of the Missionaries of Charity, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, which Mother Teresa described as the “true spiritual powerhouse” of the congregation. 

Jacqueline de Decker’s life is a magnificent testimony to God’s mercy and unfathomable plans. Like Thérèse of Lisieux who never left her convent, Jacqueline experienced that one does not need to go to the ends of the earth or have robust health to become a missionary. In the evening of this life, St. John of the Cross reveals to us, we will not be judged on the multitude or the prodigious character of our actions, but only on Love.

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