A new book I am now writing, to be entitled My Christmas with Mother Teresa, will tell an amazing true story that has never before been told. It is the story of how Catholic Relief Services and the Missionaries of Charity joined forces to being emergency humanitarian aid to the ten million Bengali refugees from East Pakistan who flooded eastern India in 1971. It’s a dramatic, action-packed tale of political repression, natural disaster, guerilla warfare, ethnic cleansing, massive population shifts, Cold War politics, modern war, and the birth of a new nation. More than that, however, it’s a powerful drama of great human tragedy and suffering illuminated and uplifted by the gentle touch of Christ’s redeeming love.
Why were the innocent Bengali people of East Pakistan massacred and forced onto India’s doorstep in such great numbers in 1971? Because their determination to establish their own free and independent nation of Bangladesh conflicted with West Pakistani commercial interests. Since 1947, the Hindu natives of East Bengal had lived as second-class citizens in the apartheid-style nation of East Pakistan, ruled by Islamic West Pakistani foreigners from Islamabad with whom they had little in common. Late in 1970, facing continued repression and racism, government mismanagement of a terrible natural disaster, and persistent violations of their rights, the East Bengalis finally started a guerrilla uprising against the Pakistani regime.
During this time, Pakistan was ruled by a brutal military dictator, General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan. General Khan was determined to crush the rebellion and restore full Pakistani control of East Bengal no matter what it took to do so. In early March 1971, he declared martial law and had Bangladeshi independence leaders arrested and imprisoned. Later that month, he sent military reinforcements into Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, to quash the uprising with mass arrests, torture, and the indiscriminate murder of Bengali civilians. When even these measures failed to destroy the liberation movement—on the contrary, it only grew stronger—General Khan turned to all-out mass murder. The Pakistani Army turned completely against the Bengali people of East Pakistan, ruthlessly massacring tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children and burning dozens of villages.
This wholesale reign of terror precipitated a mass emigration of Bengalis from East Pakistan. Beginning in March of 1971 and continuing until December of that year, millions upon millions of East Bengalis—mainly civilians, but also some guerrillas—ran for their lives, pouring en masse across the Indian border, seeking refuge from their enemies in the nearest friendly country. Millions arrived in the already densely populated and impoverished Indian state of West Bengal, whose capital was Calcutta, while millions of others poured into the neighboring border states of Orissa, Bihar, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura. These ten million refugees arrived in India absolutely destitute, presenting their host nation with a humanitarian crisis of almost unbelievable proportions—and presenting Catholic Relief Services with one of the greatest relief challenges in the organization’s history.
The book will tell how Catholic Relief Services (CRS) rose to the occasion, planning and executing a tremendous feat of emergency relief. From March to December of 1971, with assistance from the Missionaries of Charity, CRS built some 200 refugee camps along the Indian border and continuously supplied all the material needs of the Bengali refugees: sanitation, medical services, food, water, clothing, soap, and shelter. The book will tell how this extraordinary relief undertaking was organized and carried out under the principal direction of two individuals: the CRS Program Director for India and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
However, the crème de la crème of this book will be its account of the CRS Program Director’s unexpected Christmas surprise of 1971 at the climax of the great refugee relief effort. Cardinal Terence Cooke, who was Archbishop of New York, Vicar of the U.S. Military Archdiocese and head of Catholic Relief Services, was visiting U.S. troops stationed in the Holy Land on Christmas Eve when he decided on the spur of the moment to come visit Mother Teresa and the refugees the following day. The Program Director hastily organized the unforeseen visit, personally escorting the saintly cardinal as he toured the Calcutta refugee camp on Christmas Day in the company of Mother Teresa.
It’s quite remarkable that such a heroic humanitarian achievement that changed the course of history, capped by an unforgettable encounter between two renowned Catholic figures of the twentieth century, has never before appeared in print. My Christmas with Mother Teresa will finally tell this unforgettable story based on the personal eyewitness account of that now retired CRS Program Director who oversaw the tremendous East Pakistani refugee relief effort and who brought Mother Teresa and Cardinal Cooke together on December 25, 1971. A few years ago, this humble and cheerful gentleman, who is a good friend of mine, kindly granted me a series of interviews in which he told the untold story. He also shared with me his personal photo collection of his cherished Christmas with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (some of these photos will likely be included in the published book). I have spent much of the last few years writing the story based on these interviews as well as on my own additional research, and the manuscript is now nearing completion. The identity of this CRS Program Director will be revealed in the published book.
My Christmas with Mother Teresa will acquaint readers with a major unrecognized achievement in the history of Catholic Relief Services, and it should also help fill a gap in the biographies of Blessed Mother Teresa published to date. Information about the book’s publisher, release date, and availability will be provided on my Twitter page and here on my blog as it becomes available, so please stay tuned.