It’s a Great, Great Life

thielman-nicholas-m-teresa-india-cropFor Bro. Nicholas Thielman, CSC, the aura surrounding St. Teresa of Calcutta isn’t about sainthood. It’s about simplicity.

For 46 years, Bro. Nicholas served in Bangladesh, and was fortunate to meet the late Mother Teresa three times. He never had an appointment. The first time, in the 1970s, he and a group of his students arrived at a Home of Compassion Mother Teresa had opened in Bangladesh to donate medicine. On two other occasions, Bro. Nicholas knocked on her convent door in Kolkata with visitors to the area. “You would never have known she was a saint. She was so simple and humble, like any ordinary person. I feel very privileged to have been able to talk to her.”

At Mother Teresa’s recent canonization in Rome, Bro. Nicholas was there to honor the woman who had welcomed him so graciously. He had also attended her 1997 funeral in Kolkata and her 2003 beatification in Rome.

Like Mother Teresa, Bro. Nicholas has lived a life of simplicity ministering to the poor. The youngest of 13 children, he first discerned a vocation as a nine-year-old altar server, but put the thought on hold during high school and later, four years in the Air Force stationed in Bremerhaven, Germany. When he was discharged, he returned homethielman-nicholas-m-teresa-oct15-1976b to discuss the priesthood with his older brother, Rev. Ken Thielman, a diocesan priest.

Eager to start his new life, he attempted to join another order, but the seminary was full. Then, he saw an ad for the Brothers of Holy Cross mentioning teaching and school administration. In high school, Bro. Nicholas had been more interested in sports than academics. “No way,” he thought. But a reference in the ad to social work caught his eye. “I visited the next day and said, ‘Where do I sign?’ It was a sudden inspiration, and there’s been no turning back since then.”

Ironically, Bro. Nicholas has spent much of his career as a teacher and school administrator, mostly in Bangladesh beginning in 1967. Through the years, he taught English, geography and religion, and also eventually served as principal of several schools. “God duped me into joining the Brothers of Holy Cross,” he quipped.

When the paying students left for the day, Bro. Nicholas and others would open the schools in the evening for poor children. “I couldn’t reconcile myself to being in the poorest country of the world and just work with the privileged. To satisfy my own conscience, I opened up literacy and tailoring schools.”

His projects taught academic skills, as well as trades such as tailoring, carpentry, mechanics, lathe and welding. He also opened several orphanages. Bro. Nicholas’ schools and projects enrolled a diverse group of boys, including Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Now retired and living in the Holy Cross community at St. Edward’s University in Texas, he speaks with pride about his former students, six of whom he assisted in coming to study in the United States. Today, they are lawyers, educators, tailors, tradesmen and even a retired U.S. Air Force veteran.

To men considering a vocation, Bro. Nicholas says, “It’s a great, great life, especially if you can go abroad. It’s really very exciting. What you do comes back to you a hundred fold.”