Sister M. Lillian McCormack was larger than life: an Irish nun with a beaming smile, a big heart and a lifelong commitment to educating children with special needs. To her niece Julie Capella Vanderbrook, she was everything.
But in July 1976, in the presence of a special visitor, Vanderbrook saw a different side of her mentor, who was best known as the founder of St. Michael Special School in New Orleans. The strong-willed nun she so admired was in awe of someone else: Mother Teresa.
“I can’t begin to describe the look on Sister Lillian’s face. Seeing her humility in the presence of a woman she already considered a saint just had me in tears,” Vanderbrook said.
Next weekend, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who has had two miracles attributed to her by the Vatican, will be officially declared a saint by Pope Francis. The Albanian native and founder of the religious order known as the Missionaries of Charity is affectionately known as the “saint of the gutter” for her work caring for the poor in India and around the world. She died in 1997.
As Roman Catholics worldwide celebrate the new saint's life, memories of her 1976 visit to New Orleans will be on the minds of Vanderbrook and many others on the campus of St. Michael Special School. The beloved religious figure stayed in the convent at the Lower Garden District school, praying in its adoration chapel and inspiring those who were lucky enough to meet her.
Vanderbrook, a 25-year-old mother of four at the time, was one of them. She was one of Sister Lillian’s 24 nieces and nephews, most of whom joined their parents to file into the convent to greet Mother Teresa.
“The first thing I remember is all of us were fascinated with her size. She was just the tiniest little thing you ever saw in your life, wearing her white-and-blue nun’s habit,” Vanderbrook said.
She recalled that Mother Teresa first spent some time with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who founded St. Michael's. Then Sister Lillian proudly escorted Mother Teresa into a nearby room where the others were waiting to greet her.
“There was just something about her, an aura, just something about the way she carried herself that was humble, quiet and just pure goodness,” Vanderbrook said.
Sister Lillian had arranged for photographer David Nelson to be there to record the special encounter. Even more special was the prayer Mother Teresa shared for Vanderbrook’s fifth child, with whom she was pregnant at the time: “I always reminded my daughter Vicki that she was inside that tummy when it was blessed.”
Mother Teresa came to New Orleans that summer to speak at a convention of the Catholic Daughters of America. She also appeared with Archbishop Philip Hannan at a prayer service at the Municipal Auditorium. There, she asked that a prayer be said in thanksgiving for all those who had helped her cause.
“I am very grateful to God for giving me this opportunity and thank you,” she said. “You have come often to our poor to feed them and clothe them.”
Vanderbrook remembers it was Hannan who brought Sister Lillian and Mother Teresa together. While preparing for her visit, Mother Teresa had requested lodging that would include not only a room in which to sleep but also a chapel where she could spend time in prayer. Sister Lillian had just the place for her on the Chippewa Street campus.
The chapel where Mother Teresa prayed — which includes large statues of St. Michael the Archangel and the Blessed Mother — was later renamed in her honor. A $5 million capital campaign is underway to restore and repurpose parts of the two-story building that houses the chapel.
“I’ve heard from so many people that this is such a holy place that I think it’s only fitting that we honor that legacy while also making that building an even more welcoming place for our students,” said Tish Sauerhoff, the principal of the school, which serves children and adults with disabilities and special needs.
The new chapel will be an important addition to the school because the existing building is too small to hold daily Mass, which is instead celebrated in the gymnasium.
In addition to the renovated chapel, the new facility will include an updated technology lab and state-of-the-art music room. Sauerhoff said that will allow the school to expand its music programs, including its well-known bell choir.
The renovation project will receive historic and new market tax credits. More than $4 million in donations already have been pledged, but school officials are hoping Mother Teresa’s canonization will bring renewed interest to their effort.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond will celebrate Mass for the students and faculty on Friday, in advance of the Vatican ceremony on Sept. 4.
“This whole project really began with a $1 million anonymous gift to the school, which we decided could be best used to renovate this building,” said Gary Solomon, a longtime St. Michael's supporter who is co-chairing the capital campaign. “The response has been overwhelming and shows you how much people love the school and its mission. It only takes one visit or one encounter with the students, and people want to know how they can help.”
The school hopes to break ground in the spring and have construction completed by early 2018.
Sauerhoff said plans call for somehow preserving Sister Lillian’s bedroom, in which Mother Teresa stayed during her visit. It will serve as a reminder of the 48 hours when a saint came to New Orleans, as well as of the local nun who died in 2000.
“There is so much holiness and goodness in that building and that room,” Vanderbrook said. “Both from the women who lived and worked there, the saint who visited and those very special students who pray there — the angels among us.”