|Cliff Richeson and Bonnie Tinsley are pictured with their daughter Pema in this recent family photo. The couple was living in India in the early 1980s when they visited a Missionaries of Charity orphanage, run by Mother Teresa’s order of nuns, and fell in love with a baby girl they would adopt. A personal meeting with Mother Teresa helped the couple break through the long and arduous adoption process.|
Murfreesboro residents Bonnie Tinsley and her husband Cliff Richeson were living in India in the mid-1980s when a vacation detour brought them to the Darjeeling Shanta Bhavan Missionaries of Charity orphanage, where they saw, tucked away in a corner crib, a baby girl. “It was love at first sight,” Tinsley said.
The couple immediately knew they wanted to adopt the child, but had no idea the challenges that lay ahead, or that a personal encounter with Mother Teresa – who will be canonized a saint on Sept. 4 in Rome – would finally make the adoption possible.
Tinsley and Richeson were American, and not Catholic; in addition, Tinsley had previously been divorced, which was a less than ideal biography for adopting a child from a Missionaries of Charity orphanage. “We broke all their rules,” Tinsley said. “It was no, no, no, no.”
The order primarily worked with adoption agencies in a few European countries to facilitate adoptions with Catholic families; they rarely worked with Americans, even those living in India. At the time Tinsley and Richeson were trying to adopt their baby girl, many of the babies, including their future daughter, had been abandoned in the hospital by their birth mothers, and were soon to be adopted by Catholic families in Belgium, Italy and France.
When the couple started the adoption process, they faced a “mountain of paperwork,” according to Tinsley, as well as interviews, negotiations with the Indian government, the U.S. government, and the Catholic Church.
|Baby Pema is pictured in her orphanage crib.|
Tinsley, a former journalist, published author, and a retired Latin teacher, is currently writing a memoir about their experience titled, “Against Every Hope: India, Mother Teresa and a Baby Girl.”
The couple encountered many refusals along the way and everything took longer than they hoped. Although Tinsley and Richeson were living in relative wealth in the city of Bangalore, supported by Richeson’s job with a U.S.-based company, they had no phone, and electricity and running water were spotty. “Transportation and communication were really difficult at that time,” Richeson said.
But the couple forged ahead, trying to communicate with Mother Teresa, holding out hope that if they were able to meet her and speak directly with her, she would help them.
After almost a year of road blocks, including a Missionaries of Charity sister who worked at the orphanage and personally disliked Tinsley, the couple continued to trudge forward with the adoption process. One early fall day in 1985, they visited the U.S. consulate office in Calcutta and were talking to the consul there about their frustrating experience. “He told us to go to the motherhouse, that Mother Teresa would be there for vespers,” Tinsley said.
So the couple headed straight there, only to be greeted by a wall of tourists trying to get in. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, we’ll never see her,’” Tinsley recalled. Then, by some miracle, “this tiny nun beckoned to us to come up the back stairs so we were on the same level with Mother Teresa.”
When the couple caught a glimpse of her, they could tell she looked tired, doing her best to greet all the people swarming around her. Finally, Tinsley said, “the sea parted and we were in her arms.”
“She took my hand and I pled our case. I told her we wanted to be parents, and we wanted this child,” Richeson said. “She was a tiny woman, but very strong,” he recalled.
Meeting Mother Teresa, Tinsley said, “I felt like I’d known her all my life. Her presence was so immediate and focused. … She made you feel totally welcome, no judging.”
Mother Teresa told them, “I have said no to so many Americans, I’m not sure it’s fair if I say yes to you.” She told them she must pray about it, and they should too. She told them to return in the morning.
|Tinsley and Richeson were finally able to take Pema home from the orphanage about 16 months after they started the adoption process.|
Back at the motherhouse the next day, there was a paper waiting for them, signed by Mother Teresa, that they were to take to Sister Margaret Mary at the orphanage, granting permission for them to adopt the baby girl.
However, Sister Margaret Mary continued to do her best to stall the adoption. Tinsley wrote a long, heartfelt letter to the nun about “how we felt like her parents already.” Shortly after, the couple received a telegram informing them that Sister Margaret Mary was no longer working at the orphanage, and the baby girl had been moved to another orphanage that would facilitate American adoptions. “There were so many surprises” along the way, Tinsley said. “We had so much help from mysterious places.”
Finally, nearly 16 months after they started the adoption process, Tinsley and Richeson were able to take baby Pema home with them.
It was then that they realized, “we had no knowledge of babies,” Richeson said. The couple hired a nanny to help with the baby and household duties while they learned how to be parents. “People were always ready to help,” Richeson said.
Pema, they said, made the transition into their family easily. “Pema came equipped to make our lives better,” said Richeson. “She brought us so much joy,” he said, ever the doting father.
After a total of two and a half years in India, Tinsley, Richeson and baby Pema moved to Hong Kong, then Singapore before settling in Murfreesboro when Pema was in the sixth grade. She went on to graduate from Murfreesboro’s Oakland High School and earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Indiana and her master’s at Denver University. Now, she is the director of operations for the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
While the family still keeps in touch with friends and former neighbors from Bangalore, they have not been back to India together. Pema did visit on her own a few years ago, and even met a few of the women who cared for her at the Shanta Bhavan orphanage.
Reflecting on their own experience with Mother Teresa, and witnessing how Indians viewed her during the early 1980s, five years after she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Tinsley and Richeson said she was almost universally beloved. “She was highly respected for what she did,” Richeson said.
The most vocal accusations against Mother Teresa, that she “glorified suffering” to the point of withholding necessary medical treatment from the sick, and that she had the money to update her facilities and adequately supply them but did not do so, did not emerge until later, the couple said.
In judging how well Mother Teresa’s orphanages and medical facilities were run, “all we had to go on was how Pema was treated,” Tinsley said. “She was healthy and well-treated.”
“People who criticize her for her substandard work don’t understand how much better that was than anything in Kolkata at the time,” Richeson said. The best hospitals there, he said, “looked like a garage. The standards and expectations there are not the same.”
“What she was doing was greater than what anyone else was doing,” Richeson said.
As they keep up with Mother Teresa’s canonization ceremonies from afar, Tinsley and Richeson will be cheering, knowing they had a personal encounter with a saint. “We feel so fortunate to have lived during her lifetime,” Tinsley said.