Bainbridge woman recalls Mother Teresa’s gift

Susan van Houte holds the picture of her reunited with Mother Teresa which appeared in the book, “Mother Teresa at 100.” - Brad Camp/For the Review
Susan van Houte holds the picture of her reunited with Mother Teresa which appeared in the book, “Mother Teresa at 100.”
— image credit: Brad Camp/For the Review

As the doorbell rings in the contemporary Wing Point home, Boomer, a friendly black lab bolts for the door barking. The phone rings, and Susan van Houte, a petite Bengali woman, lets it go to voicemail. The busy-stay-at-home mom of three doesn’t have much time for contemplation, but this month, in particular, she’s been thinking about Mother Teresa.

The first time she met the diminutive missionary, she was only a few days old, no bigger than a dove and tucked inside a shoebox. Her birth mother, staying at a home for expectant women, went to Mother Teresa personally, pleading with her to find a home for the infant who was malnourished, and suffered from both chicken pox and measles.

“It’s a miracle I’m alive. Period,” she said at her Bainbridge home on Wednesday.

This was in Calcutta, 1967. There are no records of what became of her mother.

“She might have just crawled out into the alley and died,” van Houte said.

Before leaving, she gave her child a gift: the name Shukulla, which means “love.”

“It was a brave and smart decision,” van Houte said. “It must have been painful, too.”

A British doctor, John Banwell, and his wife adopted Shukella when she was 3 months old. Before she left the Missionaries of Charity, the nuns gave her a gift: a small necklace with a simple pearl.

Rescued from a life of squalor, Shukella became Susan Banwell and never knew the life that might have befallen her.

“I saw ‘Slumdog Millionaire’,” she said. “That could have been my life.”

Instead, she grew up in the U.S. as a doctor’s daughter. And while she’s grateful for the relatively privileged life she was given, it wasn’t without challenges. The relationship with her birth mother was anything but heavenly.

“I think she was overwhelmed,” van Houte said. “She had never really been a mother to me.”

So when Susan became pregnant in 1991, she sought out the only maternal connection she had ever known: Mother Teresa. She wrote to the now-famous founder of the Missionaries of Charity, and the nun responded with motherly advice. The typed letter Mother Teresa sent to her, and her story, is in Time magazine’s commemorative publication which marks the birth centenary of Mother Teresa, who would have been 100 Thursday.

“Little Alyshia is God’s gift of love to you,” she wrote in July 1991, 24 years after saving her life. She also urged her to marry the child’s father “as the fullness and fruitfulness of love can only be found in marriage which is total and true giving of yourself to your husband in unconditional love.”

Susan followed her advice and in 1993, became Susan van Houte. She and husband, Hans, had two more daughters, Annika and Annelies.

In 1995, van Houte’s path crossed with Mother Teresa’s yet again. The revered icon of humanitarian aid was visiting New Bedford, Mass., near where the van Houtes were living. She drove to New Bedford and knocked on the door of the Missionaries of Charity house there and told the nuns her story. A few days later, they called to tell her they had set aside tickets for her and her family for the prayer service that Mother Teresa would lead.

After the service, van Houte and her family were invited to a private prayer service at the nun’s house across the street.

“Mother Teresa held my hand. Her hands were rough and weathered. Her hands told a thousand stories,” she said. “So many people died in those hands, it’s nice to hear of someone who survived.”

The service lasted an hour, with baby Annika on Mother Teresa’s lap, sucking on her rosary beads.

“It was an intense moment. The moment of my life,” van Houte said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Her husband photographed his wife and Alyshia with Mother Teresa, and it is that snapshot that hangs in the hallway among family photos.

“It’s not a trophy,” van Houte explained. “It’s just my life story.”

Because of her own turbulent start, van Houte is committed to giving her girls a secure and loving home.

“To raise three healthy children with good morals is important,” she said. “It’s hard to discuss that in 2010 because everybody’s all about career. I was given a chance on life and now I’ve given life to three children.”

As an adoptee, van Houte has suffered from abandonment issues.

“Unconditional love,” she said. “That’s it. Everybody wants and needs to feel loved.”

Mother Teresa would agree.

“The greatest poverty in the world among the affluent, as well as the poorest of the poor, is to be unloved, unwanted, and uncared for,” Mother Teresa was quoted in “Mother Teresa at 100.”

“There will come a time when Angelina Jolie’s kids will look in the mirror and want to know their roots,” she said. “I don’t care if they’re given the high life. It doesn’t matter. There comes a time when you will ask that question.”

After van Houte is finished raising her three girls, she hopes to visit India and possibly work with a shelter here in the U.S. as a way “of giving back,” she said.

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