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The Men and the Missionaries: Estonia and Charity

Soon, when Heino gets his documents from the state, he will begin a new life. He has been officially dead eight years. Until a few weeks ago, he hadn't seen his daughter in twenty. He loved the bottle. The Missionaries of Charity, Order of Mother Teresa, took him in.

            "How did they choose you?" I ask, taking note of thirty other men dressed in rags, eating soup at two long tables.

            "The sisters say God chose me. They say God chooses the people in this house."


The people in this house are eleven: seven homeless men and four Catholic nuns. The men are mostly alcoholics, the poorest of the poor. Every winter men outside this home freeze to death. Others die of gangrene or infections, sleeping under bridges or in makeshift tents in forests. Many live covered in lice which they contract from pulling out of dumpsters everything that might keep them warm. Most of them reek of alcohol. Some smell of urine or feces. It would almost take a saint to deal with them.

The sisters are of tough stock: Sisters Andrea, Sanjibha, Jeanne Jugan, and Maubant, Missionaries of Charity, Order of Mother Teresa. Missionaries of Charity are those who have been martyred in Yemen and Sierra Leone. Approximately 5,000 sisters cover five continents and 130 countries. They operate 710 houses, one of them on Ristiku Street in Tallinn.

            "When people think of nuns in Tallinn, they think of the Pirita Cloister," says Sister Superior Andrea, MC, who runs the Ristiku house, a nondescript two-story wooden structure in Pelgulinn, a neighborhood populated by men the sisters serve. The house is marked only by a crucifix above the door and, on most weekday afternoons, men in the courtyard lining up for soup.

The sisters are of small physical stature, each a little over five feet tall. But what they lack in size, they make up for in zeal. "You don't have to be a Christian to respect the dignity of a human being," says Sister Andrea, seated in the quiet of the home's second floor. "Loving God and being a human being are the same thing."

The home, despite its city location, is one of the most peaceful places in Tallinn. A mobile phone ringing would be a bomb going off. "It seems people are afraid to be alone," says Sister Andrea. "People are always playing the radio, the television." In this house there is neither. There is a telephone in the corner, but it rarely rings. "Mother Teresa," adds Sister Andrea, "said that the fruit of silence is prayer."

The sisters rise every morning at twenty minutes before five. They take breakfast and then, at six o'clock, begin prayer. Each day, they pray at least four and one-half hours. At one thirty in the afternoon they are allowed a siesta. This is tradition more than anything else: in India, it was too hot to work in the afternoon, and so Mother Teresa allowed work to be stopped for a short period each day.

On Wednesdays, which the sisters term their "day in," the homeless are not fed, and the sisters pray even longer. "We pray to get strength," Sister Sanjihba says. Despite the faith and optimism of the sisters, they are still human beings living in the real world. "You need the day in to get strength," says Sister Sanjibha. "It is not always easy to be patient and kind to the poor."

Their successes, if one could term them that, are often small. There are sayings by Mother Teresa (to whom the nuns refer as "Mother") posted all over the house in Estonian and Russian. The one closest to the front door translates: We can do no greatthings—only smallthings with greatlove.

There also appears to be an inverse relationship between how much a sister speaks and how long she makes the men pray at the table. Sister Maubant has hardly spoken to me, but she prays longest at the table. They pray with the men in Russian, a language all the sisters speak, having lived in Moscow, Novosibirsk, or Belarus. The sisters can also manage in Estonian, although if they need to toss someone out—a drunk or a troublemaker—they switch quickly to Russian. The sisters speak English amongst themselves.


This particular day is rainy and so there are more men, close to forty today. Toomas is in the kitchen and will haul a large pot of soup up a spiral staircase after the prayer. The soup is full of rice and some sort of canned meat from Norway. Toomas says he's an alcoholic. He has no trouble admitting it.

            "But what did you do before?" I ask. 

"Before I was a drunk?" he clarifies, perhaps sensing my reluctance to use the term.

            "Yes," I say. "Before you were a drunk."

            Toomas looks at his feet. "I'm ashamed to tell you." He pauses, raises his head and looks me in the eye. "I was an architect."

            I ask what he's designed.

            "Mostly saunas," he says. "I was a sauna specialist. But I also did the main gate at the Tallinn zoo."

            "How long have you been sober?"

            "Since January."

            "Is it tough?"

            "No," he says without a trace of irony. "It feels great."

            When Toomas was a drunk, the state supported him. But the system required that he take his rent, gas, and electric bills to a state office each month. He forgot to go two months in a row and his landlord tossed him out on the street. Toomas blames no one but himself, and is still in awe of the sisters for taking him in, for making him one of the seven: "I didn't believe people like this existed in the twenty first century."


While the sisters feed over one hundred men on cold winter days, the house has space for only seven men to live. The nuns would like room for more and have appealed to government and private foundations for help. They'd like a larger house or to add on to the one they have. "In Moscow," says Sister Andrea, "we had forty men and six nuns."

But the sisters are not counting on being able to enlarge their house. As a nation becomes wealthier, the less inclined people are to share, or at least this is the experience of the sisters. "Institutions and people are often less open to charity when they are rich. The more poor they are, the more they understand and share," says Sister Andrea.

            While post-Soviet societies may be less generous, there are some signs of improvement in Estonia. It is said that eight years ago, when a different set of sisters approached the government to ask to ride public transport for free, a state official turned them down with these words: You come here to help, and now you ask for help? Today, eight years later, the sisters' work is more known and recognized. They are more kindly received in state offices. But if help does not come, they do not complain. The sisters demand nothing from society. "We sometimes challenge someone to share," says Sister Andrea. "But we live on God's providence."


Heino, officially dead eight years, has been sober now five months. The sisters took him in, learned his name.

            "Estonia didn't recognize me," says Heino. "Russia didn't recognize me. Why should God recognize me? But the sisters took me in, invited me to stay."

            The sisters are helping him get new documents. They tracked down his daughter and called to see if she would meet him. I ask about the reunion, wondering how it might have been after a twenty year absence. Heino had seen his daughter last when she was six.

            "She came here to this house. It was a typical father-daughter reunion," he smiles. "We hugged a bunch, and there were grandkids. It was wonderful."

The daughter is purchasing a house near Pärnu. And when the home is ready, Heino will begin his new life.


Sister Andrea tells the story of Mother Teresa and the Kali temple in Calcutta. "The temple is a Hindu temple, and Mother and the sisters were there helping the poor and dying. This upset the locals, that someone of another faith would be in a Hindu temple helping Hindus, and the local people called for an official to remove Mother. The man arrived and entered the temple to find Mother washing a dying man and sisters helping various people. The official walked out on the steps of the temple and addressed the people: 'Tomorrow when I return, if I see your wives and sisters doing the work of Mother Teresa, then I will throw her out of the temple.'"

            Of course, Mother Teresa was not removed from the temple. And it is unlikely Estonians will come to do the work the Missionaries of Charity are doing in a small wooden house on Ristiku Street. It is, unfortunately, unlikely that any of us will come to do that work. But, as the Missionaries of Charity will tell you, God is ready to do that work.

By Scott Diel