Most people remember Mother Teresa as a tiny, frail, Catholic nun in a white habit; her weathered face lined with deep creases. She was always seen tending to the poor, sick and dying in India, or other Third World countries, usually with an impossibly warm smile on her face. But there was so much more to this determined, faith-driven woman than just that singular image.
Did you know she started the Missionaries of Charity order in Calcutta/Kolkata in 1948? By the time she died in 1997, there were nearly 4,000 sisters in 610 missions in 123 countries around the world – not to mention the orphanages, schools and hospitals she started. This is quite the accomplishment for a soft-spoken, 5 foot tall nun. So who exactly was she?
Mother Teresa was born Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje (Uskub), Albania, in what was then the Ottoman Empire. She was the youngest of three surviving children born to Nikola and Drane Bojaxhiu. For a time, the family lived comfortably, her father owning a thriving construction business. But life changed drastically when her father died suddenly when Agnes was just eight.
From a young age, Agnes was intrigued with the stories of foreign missionaries who served abroad. By the time she was 12, she told her mother she’d decided to commit herself to a life of religion. At the age of 18, she joined the Sisters of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Dublin Ireland, with the intention of becoming a foreign missionary.
In 1928, Agnes said goodbye to her family and started an amazing missionary journey that would last the rest of her life. Later that year, she left for India as a novitiate for her first assignment, arriving in Calcutta in 1929. She was assigned to the Loreto Entally community. Two years later, Agnes made her first vows and took the name Sister Teresa after St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries. She taught history and geography at St. Mary’s secondary school for girls. She learned Bengali and other Hindi dialects in order to communicate with her students. In 1937, Sister Teresa made her Final Vows and was thereafter called Mother Teresa.
She continued teaching at St. Mary’s and in 1944, after 15 years in India, became the school’s headmistress. She loved all her students and her time in Loreto was happy. But she could not ignore or escape the realities all around her—the Calcutta slums, poverty, suffering, sick, hungry and destitute.
Then in 1946, something transformational happened to her.
She was on a train to Darjeeling for a retreat in the Himalayan foothills. In her compartment, Mother Teresa received her inspiration, what she referred to as “a call within a call.” For her, the message from God was clear. He was sorrowful at the neglect of the poor. “Come be My light.” She was to leave the school and convent, leave her students and sisters. Instead, Mother Teresa was to help the poor, while living amongst them. She would serve Christ by following Him into the slums. She would succeed by radiating His love. She was just 36, and it would become the driving force for the rest of her life.
Mother Teresa returned and asked the archbishop to establish a new religious community of charitable missionaries, dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. To prepare herself, Mother Teresa took a nursing course while she waited for an answer.
After nearly two years of discernment by the Vatican, Mother Teresa finally received permission to begin her mission. She gave away all of her personal possessions in order to live like the poor she would serve. In 1948, she dressed for the first time, not in a nun’s black habit, but rather a white, blue-bordered cotton sari and sandals. She left the gates of her beloved Loreto convent to enter the slums.
Mother Teresa found temporary lodging in Calcutta with The Little Sisters of the Poor. She started each day with rosary in hand and went out into the slums, to find Jesus in “the unwanted, the unloved, and the uncared for.” She visited poor families, washed the sores of children, cared for old men lying sick on the street and nursed those dying of disease.
Dressed like an ordinary, poor Indian woman, she began to get to know her neighbors—the poor and sick—and getting to know their needs. Driven by compassion and a strong sense of duty, Mother Teresa began to teach those she encountered how to care for themselves and others with illness. In 1950, the new Missionaries of Charity was officially established in the Archdiocese of Calcutta.
The work was exhausting, but she was not alone for long.
After some months, volunteers came to join her, some of them former students, some fellow sisters. They became the core of the Missionaries of Charity. She convinced the well-off to donate food, clothing, supplies, and the use of buildings. Mother Teresa’s work was not easy. The streets were deplorable and the poor had no way out of their situations. So the sisters taught them skills like tailoring, soap-making, basket-weaving, and candle-making, so they could earn money themselves.
As the order expanded, services were offered to orphans, abandoned children, addicts, and the aged. In 1952, the city gave Mother Teresa a former hostel, which she converted to a home for the dying and the destitute. The hospice cared for people suffering from cholera, leprosy and tuberculosis who were too poor to afford medical treatment. She cared for many with her own hands. After only a few years, they opened an orphanage and a number of schools throughout Calcutta, all run by sisters and volunteers working under her guidance.
“Christ is in the poor we meet, Christ is in the smile we give, and in the smile that we receive back.”Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Some nationalist politicians began to complain that Mother Teresa’s work had an ulterior motive – to convert the Indian people to Christianity in order serve the Roman Catholic Church. They said she was less interested in helping the poor than in using them to expand Catholic beliefs. The government complained that her hospitals for the poor were dangerous as they lacked proper medical staffing, drugs and equipment. An ironic statement considering that without her, the poor would have no medical intervention at all.
By the 1960s, Mother Teresa began to send her sisters outside of Calcutta to other parts of India.
Then in 1965, Pope Paul VI encouraged her to open a mission half way around the world in Venezuela. It was soon followed by a mission in Tanzania and, eventually, on every continent. Starting in 1980 and continuing for the next two decades, the Missionaries of Charity opened missions in most Communist countries, including the former Soviet Union and Cuba. During the Cold War, she was criticized for this by some political leaders in the West.
She was also disparaged that she did little to end poverty. To this she replied, “Ending poverty is a task for governments to solve. Today, we shall feed the hungry.” For the next four decades, Mother Teresa worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor. Her energy knew no bounds as she crisscrossed the globe, pleading for support and inviting others to “See the face of Jesus in the poorest of the poor.”
All this is not to say that Mother Teresa never has a crisis of confidence, like any other human being. Behind her ever present smile, all her work for the poor never seemed to end. Writing to her contemporaries, she once said, “For me, the dryness and darkness is so great, that I look and do not see God – Listen and do not hear Him – my tongue moves in prayer, but does not speak.”
In order to respond better to the global needs of poverty, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in 1963 and in 1984, the Missionaries of Charity Fathers. She also formed the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, for people of other faiths and nationalities who she shared in her spirit of humble works of love toward the poor.
During these years of growth, the world slowly began to recognize Mother Teresa and her work.
She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 at the age of 69, honoring her work with the poor. Rather than have the traditional Nobel honor banquet, she asked that the money be donated to the poor of India. She accepted the Nobel “for the glory of God, and in the name of the poor,” and used the opportunity to speak out about protecting the unborn. Increasingly, the media began to following her like a celebrity.
She received numerous other awards for her charity work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Millions in donations began to pour in and some politicians questioned how much of that went to the poor vs. administration of the now global Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa took the criticism in stride. She said her labor reflected the love of Jesus and bore witness to the dignity of every human person, no matter their circumstance.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”Mother Teresa of Calcutta
During the last years of her life, despite increasing health problems, Mother Teresa continued to run her Missions and respond to the needs of the global poor. She had a heart attack in Rome in 1983, while she visiting Pope John Paul II. Following a second heart attack in 1989, she received a pacemaker.
By 1997, her health was failing, but her success undeniable. Her sisters numbered nearly 4,000 and had established 610 missions in 123 countries. She blessed her elected successor and then made one more trip abroad to meet with Pope John Paul II for the last time. She returned to Calcutta and spent her final weeks receiving visitors.
Mother Teresa died of heart failure that year at the age of 87. She was given a state funeral by the Indian Government. Among those present were hundreds of Missionaries of Charity, the order she founded in 1948. Her body was buried in the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. Her tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage and prayer for people of all faiths.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes that Mother Teresa performed two miracles during her lifetime when she cured one Indian woman and one Brazilian man of their cancerous tumors. Less than two years after her death, Pope John Paul II permitted her Cause of Canonization, the first step in becoming a Catholic saint. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003, and canonized by Pope Francis in 2016 as Saint Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa left a legacy of unshakable faith, irrepressible energy and extraordinary charity. At the time of her death, she ran foreign missions including homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; family counseling programs; clinics, orphanages and schools. She may be remembered not just for her ministry to the poor, but her ministry to people of the world. Those people who perhaps had experienced some absence of God in their lives, and in seeking an answer, were inspired by her smile and selflessness.