When I met Jacqueline de Decker, the Belgian woman whom Mother Teresa called her “sick and suffering self,” she had her torso encased in a corset and wore a surgical collar round her neck. Even then in 1980, almost thirty years before her death, she was so disabled that she could only drive about her native city of Antwerp in a specially adapted car.
Rotten Little Salmon. Jacqueline was born on May 5, 1913, one of nine children in an aristocratic Catholic household with several servants. When she was fifteen, she injured her spine in a diving accident; it taught her “a certain acceptance of suffering.” By her late teens, she felt called to the religious life and tested her vocation with the Missionary Sisters of Mary. The sisters housed her in a huge convent set aside for “come and sees” and served her tinned salmon for supper. Not realizing that her stomach was riddled with fibrosis and that she could not tolerate tinned food, Jacqueline ate the meal and fell violently ill. Reflecting on this event, she later said:
I realized I could give myself to God and stay in the world. That tinned salmon showed me that I was not to go into a convent. My lay vocation, India, everything, was all due to a poor, or rather a rotten, little salmon.
Jacqueline studied sociology at the Catholic University of Louvain and also took a diploma in nursing and first aid. Together with a group of like-minded lay people, she planned to use these skills in India. But the Second World War postponed her arrangements. Antwerp was heavily bombed. Many people fled Belgium, and little was being done to help the wounded left behind. Jacqueline worked with the British rescue teams, retrieving survivors from the ruins. As the German army advanced, she went into France and at the end of the war was one of the first to enter Auschwitz with the Red Cross. Her exceptional courage earned her an official commendation, the George Medal.
Round-Trip to India. Two of the people with whom Jacqueline had intended going to India were killed in the war, and a number of others decided to marry instead. Then on December 13, 1946, the very day she set sail, the priest who had encouraged her to go also died. Consequently, she arrived in India alone, with little financial or moral support.
Wearing a sari and living as one of the poorest of the poor, Jacqueline began her village work, intent on promoting development as a social and health care worker respectful of all faiths. Her greatest hardship was not the deprivation but the solitude. When, therefore, a Jesuit priest in Madras told her about a nun in Calcutta who wanted to found a congregation to serve Christ in the poorest of the poor, Jacqueline traveled north to find her.
By then, the nun—Mother Teresa—had received permission to leave her congregation and had gone on to Patna, where the Medical Mission Sisters were giving her basic medical training. Arriving there toward the end of the day, Jacqueline found her in the chapel. “Our first meeting was before Jesus.”
The two women discovered that they shared the same ideal, but Jacqueline had to admit that in India her health problems had become more acute. And so, while Mother Teresa set about establishing her new congregation, Jacqueline returned to Belgium for treatment. On the overcrowded ship home, she became so discouraged that she contemplated suicide: God had called her to India, and she had failed him.
For months she had no sense of his presence. Back in Antwerp, Jacqueline noticed a numbness in her arms. To prevent total paralysis, grafts had to be put in her neck and two other places. She spent a year in plaster and then had twelve vertebrae grafted in a month. It became apparent that she would never return to India.
“My Suffering Children.” In 1952, Jacqueline received a letter from Mother Teresa. It contained a request that changed her life: Would she offer all her suffering to God for Mother and the work among the poor? And would she find others to do the same?
Why not become spiritually bound to our society which you love so dearly? While we work in the slums, you share in the merit, the prayers, and the work, with your suffering and prayers. The work here is tremendous and needs workers, it is true, but I also need souls like yours to pray and suffer.
Mother Teresa’s words brought Jacqueline the realization that God had not rejected her. On the contrary, he was granting her a special role: to offer joyfully her suffering and pain in intercession for Mother Teresa. And so began the Link for Sick and Suffering Co-Workers.
As the first Missionaries started to join the solitary nun in the slums, Jacqueline sought among her fellow patients for those prepared to pray for an adopted sister (or, in time, brother), to write them once or twice a year, and above all to accept from the heart the mystery of suffering offered in faith and love for the work of a virtual stranger in a far distant land.
Knowing that they were being supported in this way, those strangers grew in energy and confidence. As Mother Teresa wrote: “When the work is very hard, I think of each one of you, and tell God: ‘Look at my suffering children and for their love bless this work,’ and it works immediately.”
Linked in Love. From her Antwerp flat, Jacqueline coordinated the Link, relaying and translating letters filled with doubts and frailty, yet expressing generous readiness to partner with the Missionaries of Charity in the service of God. In Mother Teresa’s vision, these Sick and Suffering Co-Workers were sharing constructively in the Passion of Christ, and their letters were “beautiful.”
Mother Teresa’s request that I publish some of the letters introduced me not only to Jacqueline but to people whose suffering, ranging from horrifying diseases to chronic depression, seemed to me appalling. And they were subject to every human weakness.
One spoke with understandable irritation of the “holy hens” fussing around her wheelchair and telling her to “offer up her pains.” Another told how, when confronted with the assurance, “How Jesus loves you,” he could not help retorting, “He’s got a funny way of showing it.” Many had experienced despair. Some were deeply introspective, others resolutely practical and even humorous. One English lady, whose psychopathic husband had killed her baby and himself, remarked unforgettably: “Well, my dear, all life’s a rugger scrum. Someone’s bound to get hurt!” She added: “When people say, ‘Why me?’ I say, ‘Why not you?’” Clearly, these were not plaster saints! Still, they showed that suffering can bring people closer to God.
The letters of the Sick and Suffering contained many lessons for me—not least, that suffering can be the medicine that deepens our humanity. A common prayer emerged, if only from between the lines: Assimilate and use the shortcomings and the shadows of my life!
Stripped to the point of being at times unable even to pray, many of the writers possessed that most easily lost of all virtues, humility. They felt dependent on God alone and rejoiced in discovering that they could still be useful.
A Living Legacy. By 1980, Jacqueline had undergone thirty-four operations for her illness, which was never given an official medical label. She called it the GGD, or “God-Given Disease”—her recognition that emptiness, “failure,” and weakness were the means by which God used her. Also by 1980, some three thousand Sick and Suffering Co-Workers in many countries had accepted the challenge of forming a kind of “spiritual powerhouse” for their more overtly active sisters and brothers.
And not only was Jacqueline coordinating the Link: She also sorted out the legal, domestic, and health problems of some two thousand Antwerp prostitutes! Her brother, a judge, had discovered that no one was looking after their welfare and alerted her to their need. Jacqueline promptly took up the cause of women who were struggling to survive or to support children and dependents through prostitution. Her disability called out their compassion, she found, “and I transformed that into a normal friendship.”
Old age finally brought Jacqueline to hand over her role as coordinator for the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers. It was hard for her, but this sacrifice, too, became an offering to God. In 1996 she moved into a nursing home, where she died on April 3, 2009.
But the legacy of Jacqueline de Decker lives on. Today, some five thousand people around the world are offering their prayers and trials to God on behalf of the Missionaries of Charity. Like Jacqueline, they have discovered that their lives are not devoid of dignity and meaning but are purposeful and precious in the sight of God.
A Chain of Love, Kathryn Spink’s book about the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers is available at www.Lulu.com. For her other writings, visit www.kathrynspink. com. Anyone wishing to offer their suffering for a particular Missionary of Charity may contact Bridget Eacott ([email protected]).