MILWAUKEE — It was not uncommon for the fifth grade students in Monica Atkinson’s class to write letters to celebrities, dignitaries and holy men and women. The St. Matthias School teacher felt it important that her students learn lessons of empathy and offering prayers for others, as well as good letter-writing skills.
When it was announced that Mother Teresa became ill during her visit in December 1991, Atkinson’s students wrote the nun letters of encouragement and prayer.
“She was an excellent choice for all to write her a get well message, so we did just that,” said Atkinson. “Over the years, the students wrote to many people, some famous, but others were just of interest because their story prompted us to believe that messages might be important for them.
“Among those we also wrote to were Sen. John Glenn when he went to space (on a Discovery mission in 1998), Gil Haskell an assistant Packer coach who was injured in a sideline accident at a Packer game, Jodee Hogg and Matthew Ramige who were in a horrific plane crash near Glacier National Park, Pope John Paul II when he was ill in 1997, numerous people we heard about in the news, plus numerous family members and friends,” she said.
In her later years of teaching, Atkinson developed a single “Thinking of You” postcard with an imprinted class picture on the front. The postcard proved a bit less time consuming than working with the students to write and mail the letters.
“We had many positive responses from all the communications, but we never wrote them with the expectation of hearing back from those we wrote. We just sent the messages as a way to reach out to others,” she explained.
They certainly did not expect to hear back from someone as busy as Mother Teresa.
However, on Jan. 28, 1992, Atkinson and her class were surprised to receive a typed letter, addressed to each of the children by name and signed by Mother Teresa.
The letter spoke of her gratitude to Atkinson and the class for their prayers and good wishes. She also promised to pray for each of them, and offered them some lessons in living a Catholic life. She asked for the students’ prayers for her order, the Missionaries of Charity.
In the envelope were miraculous medals blessed by Mother Teresa for Atkinson and each of the students. Atkinson copied Mother Teresa’s letter for each of her students and presented them with their medals. She attached a note to the medal stating, “These medals have been blessed by Mother Teresa.”
“We were all thrilled because I did explain to the students that the work she was doing, already at that point in her life, would lead to her becoming a saint at some point, perhaps even in their lives. I recall telling the students to hold onto these special treasures because of this,” said Atkinson. “I never thought this would happen in my life because of my understandings of what kind of time frame was needed for the canonization process. I also sent a message to the parents to indicate that they may wish to keep these items in a special place.”
Former student Rachel Chelstowski, a member of St. Matthias Parish, has the medal stored with her other childhood memorabilia at her parents’ home.
“I remember thinking it was pretty sweet that someone who is probably so busy took the time to respond to us and mail us a little gift,” she said. “I knew at the time she was such a special person, saint or not, and that the medal would be something I’d always hang onto.”
Atkinson has the original letter and medal framed at her home. She often brought it to school when Mother Teresa was mentioned in the news.
“I feel very honored and hold the letter from her as a great treasure from a remarkable human being who walked this earth at the same time as we all did,” she said. “I have reread her letter many times since the news of the canonization was announced and each time, I find something new for reflection and meaning for myself. I hope the students might have a similar experience.”