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Press Release: Mother and Marlene: ‘You Can Do”

By Robert Brennen

Marlene Elias has many gifts. Primary among them is an incredible singing voice and a talent for writing music. She has written, produced and recorded several CDs’ worth of inspirational music. But as good as her music is, what makes Marlene’s life inspirational and what separates her from the rest of us is her exemplary taste in friends.

It was October 1987 and Marlene the Southern California housewife had been invited by her brother, Msgr. John Esseff, to accompany him on a special trip where he was to offer a retreat to a group of nuns. The group of nuns were the Missionaries of Charity, the place was Calcutta, and the woman Marlene was going to meet and who was going to impact her life in ways beyond her capacity to comprehend was Mother Teresa.

Marlene has admitted to me that her first thoughts about the trip and meeting Mother Teresa had more to do with a sense of celebrity and excitement than the expectation that she was about to have an epiphany.

But upon her arrival on the streets of Calcutta and her first introduction to Mother Teresa, Marlene was changed forever.

Like a lot of us “spoiled” Americans, Marlene’s senses were sent reeling amid the destitution that surrounded her in Calcutta. But it all seemed to melt away when she met Mother Teresa.

It wasn’t a celebrity sighting after all. From the touch of Mother Teresa’s hand and the look in her eye, Marlene understood she was in the presence of someone very special.

She found herself swooped up into Mother Teresa’s world, where she tagged along as Mother Teresa “did her rounds” finding the poor and the dying and showing them the dignity and compassion of Christ’s love. It was here that she discovered the Gospel message is a message not for “saints” but for all of us.

Mother Teresa and Marlene Elias became fast friends. After that initial meeting with Mother Teresa in 1987, a deep bond would continue to form between the two women and evolve into another vehicle by which God’s work could be accomplished.

Back home in Southern California, Marlene tried to get back to the life she knew before but soon discovered she couldn’t.

Not ma ny people living in Southern California received regular calls from Mother Teresa and even fewer had Mother Teresa’s private telephone number on the speed-dial setting of their home phone. Sometimes Mother Teresa would call just to say hello, dispense a birthday greeting or inquire about the ups and downs of Marlene’s family and to offer counsel and prayers.

Other times it would be to invite Marlene to join Mother Teresa somewhere in the United States where Mother Teresa would be coming. It never seemed to cross Mother’s mind that Marlene might not have the time or the funds to drop everything and follow. But when Mother Teresa calls you at home and asks you to do something, you don’t put her on hold.

If Marlene’s life hadn’t been changed enough from her initial meeting with her new best friend back in 1987, it certainly took another spiritual turn on Christmas Day 1994.

Besides delivering a personal Christmas greeting to Marlene that Dec. 25, Mother Teresa had something to ask of her American friend.

“Ask” is not quite the accurate word, since Marlene explains that when Mother Teresa got a notion in her head about something she thought needed to be done, she just went ahead and did it. The difficulty or evident impossibility of a task was never a consideration.

Marlene found herself swept up in this Mother Teresa modus operandi on this Christmas Day when Mother Teresa asked her to do some little thing for her. Mother Teresa had previously visited Washington and met with the Clintons.

Mother had asked the Clintons then for help in establishing a home for unwed mothers so they would have a place to go and not think their only “choice” would be abortion. The Clintons did not gush over the concept. So not having heard back from Mrs. Clinton by December 1994, Mother Teresa decided to call her good American friend Marlene and have her talk to the First Lady about that house.

Now, Mother asked Marlene to call the ardently pro-abortion first lady of the United States of America, Hillary Clinton, and ask her to help Mother Teresa obtain a home in Washington, D.C., in which unwed mothers could have their babies.

Images of biblical signposts fill the imagination as this “simple” request is put into context. Mother Teresa wanted this housewife from California with absolutely zero political connections or influence to persuade the pro-abortion wife of a pro-abortion president to help Mother Teresa save “unwanted” babies with a home for women in true crises.

Marlene was dumbfounded and tried to explain to Mother Teresa that the average Southern Californian didn’t just pickup the phone and get the First Lady of the land on the other line. This time Mother Teresa was nonpiussed. She just repeated her pet motto to Marlene, “You can do,” and left it up to Marlene — and God to take care of the rest.

Not knowing exactly where to start, Marlene contacted Sister Sylvia, the Missionaries of Charity superior based on the East Coast and the one person Marlene knew was geographically close to the White House.

This led to a myriad of governmental navigations for Marlene until she finally hit pay dirt with Mrs. Clinton’s personal secretary. Contact was made. Mother Teresa’s request was delivered as Marlene Elias, friend of Mother Teresa, got through to Hillary Clinton.

On June 19, 1995, the Mother Teresa home for infants was dedicated. In attendance were Mother Teresa; then mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry; and Cardinal James Hickey of Washington. And, of course, one Hillary Clinton. This story alone is probably all the proof any Vatican-commissioned devil’s advocate should ever need to validate Mother Teresa’s propensity for the miraculous.

One Last Request

Marlene has many more “Mother stories to tell. So many, in fact, that; she is presently filling up the pages of a book about them she hopes to publish in the near future. When Mother Teresa passed away in 1997, Marlene learned that even in death her friend wasn’t done with her. Mother had requested a particular soloist to sing at her funeral and that person was Marlene Elias.

Again, the news came out of left field for Marlene, who was back in California with no means or time to get herself to a funeral in India.

But somehow the words “you can do” echoed in her head, she believed; and all of the dominoes fell into place. Marlene Elias arrived in time and sang at her friend’s funeral Mass.

Today, Marlene travels across the map and tells people about her experiences with her friend who lived in Calcutta. But the relationship between Marlene and Mother Teresa goes far beyond giving a lecture or a concert here and there.

And it is relationship that continues to this day.

If I had to use one word to sum up my own impressions of having met Marlene Elias, I would use “serene.”

It is not a serenity born of a lack of cares or worries. Marlene’s life is filled with ample amounts of sorrow and disappointment. But Mother Teresa is a constant presence in Marlene’s daily life and continues to act as a conduit to Christ.

Just as Mother Teresa did in life with the poor and dying in the streets of Calcutta, she has shown this American woman in Southern California that she is not alone and that through Christ, all things are possible.


Robert Brennan is a television writer living in Los Angeles.