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Son of Mother Teresa’s first nurse for Missionaries of Charity tells of pair’s lifelong friendship

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Blessed day: Phillip Phillips and his wife Josephine with a photograph of St Teresa of Kolkata and his mother, and her Rosary beads. Photo: Emilie Ng

KOLKATA native Phillip Phillips was just a young boy when a “lovely little lady” in a sari smiled and gave him a simple instruction – “Be a good boy”.

This exchange between Phillip and the sari-laden woman, who last week became St Teresa of Kolkata, was not rare.

The newly canonised saint was a long-time family friend of the Anglo-Indian’s mother Lilian Phillips.

Born on January 12, 1916, Lilian Mary Fields was left orphaned as a young girl and in her teens was sent to live at a Loreto convent in Kolkata.

There the orphan met a young teaching nun six years her junior and the pair immediately struck up a friendship.

Seven years later, that young teaching nun made her final vows and she would go on to become Mother Teresa of Kolkata.

“Mum used to say to us as a young girl she used to treat Mother as her mum, and she’d hang on to her hand or her habit and go around the convent with her,” Mr Phillips said.

“And obviously Mother Teresa being Mother Teresa, she never ever forgot my mum, and their friendship stayed very, very strong.”

So strong that when Mother Teresa felt a call to start a new religious order in Kolkata’s slums, her thoughts first turned to Lily Fields, who had completed a nursing course in school.

“When her missionary order was in its infancy, being an opportunist she grabbed my mum knowing she was a qualified nurse,” Mr Phillips said.

Now married and with young children, Lily would be invited by Mother Teresa to care for the sick in the local Catholic church’s presbytery.

“(Mother Teresa) would come out to the presbytery and sometimes she’d be with another nun but I think initially she just came out on her own,” Mr Phillips said.

“We’d go down with Mum to the presbytery, and Mum used to be giving the injections or medications and Mother Teresa would be there. 

“And that memory of her in a sari with her Rosary beads and that smile, I’ll never forget. 

“She blessed me a few times and she said, ‘Now you be a good boy’. 

“Now whether I am or not is only for Jesus and God to judge me on that.”

Lily remained a nurse with the Missionaries of Charity until leaving for Australia in 1969, following Phillip who had already left for Melbourne in 1966.

Despite leaving her spiritual mother in Kolkata, Lily had one precious memento, a photograph with Mother Teresa, that she took with her wherever she went.

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Lily’s final meeting with Mother Teresa was in 1972 when the Albanian nun gave an address in north Melbourne.

She broke through the crowds to personally speak with Lily Phillips and her husband Patrick.

“Then, being Mother Teresa, she said to Mum and Dad, ‘You go away, you go away because you’ve already heard everything’,” Mr Phillips said.

“She was trying to give time to everybody and that’s what it was about.”

Lily Phillips died in 2005, still believing that her friend from the convent would one day be called a saint.

When Pope Francis had confirmed earlier this year Mother Teresa would be canonised, Mr Phillips was not surprised.

“It naturally filled me with so much gratitude because … I knew after meeting this lovely little lady that she would become a saint,” he said.

“I always say we won Tatts Lotto because to me, to see somebody like Mother Teresa through our mum, how fortunate were we?”

Mother Teresa has not only been a source of inspiration in good times but also in some of the Phillips family’s darkest moments.

“Our daughter does suffer with a mental problem and mental is worse than physical as we found out,” Phillip said.

“She’s been to some very dark places and I’m just saying if it wasn’t for our faith through Mother Teresa we probably might have lost her.”  

In particular Mr Phillips’ wife Josephine has found strength in knowing Mother Teresa suffered a deep feeling of abandonment by God.

“We through Mother Teresa’s teachings would never even think of abandoning our kids, but through our Church, anybody,” he said.

“That’s the strength and courage we take from Mother Teresa. 

“I know Josephine is sitting there but to me she has been a perfect example of that courage and strength otherwise our daughter would not have survived.”

As an Australian of 50 years, Mr Phillips has also turned to another saint, Mary MacKillop, for guidance, especially to grow in common sense.

“… One of the most easiest things but the hardest to actually develop in a person is common sense,” he said. 

“To me people like St Mary of the Cross and Mother Teresa had that and that’s how you connect with people from Mother Teresa’s viewpoint.”

Mr Phillips also said Mother Teresa’s determination was similar to that of Australia’s first saint.

He believes the two saints were called by God to share in the same mission.

“You see, Mary MacKillop died in 1909 and Mother Teresa was born in 1910.

“It’s almost as though Mary MacKillop passed the baton to Mother Teresa saying, ‘Keep doing my work’.”

The night before Mother Teresa’s canonisation, Mr Phillips shared his mother’s friendship with a saint at his local parish at Bracken Ridge.

Beside him he placed that treasured photo of his mother with Mother Teresa and Lily’s pair of Rosary beads, his mum’s two most cherished items.

He’d like to think his mum and Mother Teresa were both rejoicing in Heaven during the canonisation on September 4.

“We’re a blessed family,” he said.

By Emilie Ng

Catholic Church Insurance

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