A TIRELESS volunteer who has met three popes and Mother Teresa and helped children at both home and abroad is taking a back seat after 25 years.
Norman Imms, who helped to forge strong links between the Shishu Bhavan orphanage in Calcutta, India, and Peterlee’s Acre Rigg Academy, is stepping down after doctors told him to rest.
The 69-year-old, who lives in the Edenhill area of Peterlee, has been diagnosed with mitral stenosis, which is a heart murmur, so is taking it easy.
Norman, who is married to Cathy, 64, has looked back on his work, which began 25 years ago when he became a co-worker at Mother Teresa’s missionaries charity, which helps to run the orphanage.
The devout Catholic has been a link between Acre Rigg and Shishu Bhavan, having personally flown items donated by Peterlee pupils and local businesses and even London’s Selfridges to the orphanage, over the decades.
Norman described how initially donations fit in a suitcase, which he dubbed “God’s love in a suitcase”, but over the years he ended up transporting up to 52 large boxes of donations to Calcutta.
Former midwife Norman met Mother Teresa nine times and she even wrote to him personally on several occasions.
He became a parent helper at Acre Rigg Juniors 15 years ago and initially worked with the then-headteacher Peter Todd.
But he helped to continue the partnership with the help of current head Julie Craggs.
The dad-of-three and grandfather-of-four, who also met Pope John Paul II nine times as well as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, said: “It’s closure, the end of an era.
“I will miss the children and the orphans – that’s what it’s all about.
“We built a wonderful relationship up between the school and the orphanage at Shishu Bhavan.
“I hope Mrs Craggs will continue sending money to the orphanage, my work is done.
“I just thank God for having had the opportunity to be allowed to do this to help the people, help the children and help the orphanage because it’s been a very humbling experience.”
He said by relaying tales, photographs and video footage of the orphans to the Peterlee youngsters it had been an “education for them all in how lucky they are”.
Norman, who has also attended a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in recognition of his charitable work, had even taken news of the thoughtful work of the children at Acre Rigg to The Vatican.
Norman said he and Cathy were recently paid a visit by Mrs Craggs and Theresa Armstrong, the school’s secretary, who presented them with flowers and a thank you card containing dozens of Acre Rigg pupils’ signatures and he was “thrilled” that Mrs Craggs said a donation will be sent every year to the orphanage.
He has previously told how praying with Mother Teresa helped cure him of the paranoid schizophrenia and manic depression, which was hailed as a “miracle”.
Following his recent diagnosis of heart failure, well-known East Durham doctor, Joseph Chandy, has advised him to rest.
Dr Chandy had referred him to the University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton, for an echocardiogram.
“I’m just getting old”, said Norman.
He thanked the Hartlepool Mail for supporting his work over the years.
NORMAN Imms’ special holy friendship began in 1980, when he first met Pope John Paul II.
The visit, at the Hall of Audiences in Rome, was also enjoyed by Norman’s wife Cathy and his late mother Connie, who lived in Bailey Rise, Peterlee.
Most people are lucky to meet a pope once in their lifetime, but Norman would go on to meet His Holiness eight more times over the next 19 years.
“He was a wonderful spirit, because Pope John Paul II was so different,” said Norman.
“He was remarkable because he had a great understanding of humanity and Cathy and I were very lucky to go to his apartment.”
Norman met His Holiness again in 1992, 1993, twice in 1995, in 1996, 1997, 1998 and then 1999, with Cathy and his mum, nine months before Connie passed away aged 78.
He met Pope Benedict XVI in April 2012 and Norman describes him as “a lovely man because I got up close to him and I shook his hand and smiled and he smiled”.
“He and one of his bishops looked at a photograph of the children from Acre Rigg Juniors and they smiled widely.
“He was a human key figure.” Describing Pope Francis, who he met in May last year, he said: “He is great.
“He has ordinary shoes and an ordinary car.
“He is setting a new kind of Catholicism, for instance by ex-communicating the Mafia he is starting as he means to go on.”
Norman met Mother Teresa nine times, in Rome, Belgium and London, between 1990 and 1997.
“Mother Teresa was a living saint, a deity, a holy phenomenon of our time.”