Mother Teresa of Calcutta Mother Teresa was born on 26 August 1910 in the city of Skopje, which today is the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. Her parents, Nikola and Drana Bojaxhiu, were fervent Catholics from Albania. They had her baptized the day after she was born and gave her the name Gonxha Agnes. Gonxha means “flower bud” in the Albanian language. She was the youngest of five children. Her eldest sister, Age, was seven at the time, and her brother Lazar, was two years old. The two other children had died as infants. Life was pleasant for the Bojaxhiu children. Their father was a merchant and owned a shop not far from their home. He was also a respected member of the town council. Their mother, whom they affectionately called “Nane Loke”, meaning “mother of my soul” in Albanian, was truly the soul of the Bojaxhiu home. She was a devout woman who taught her children to pray to God from their earliest years and to know and love Him. They also learned from her what it means to love one’s neighbour: anyone who came to her for help was never turned away. Nane Loke was strict with her children because she loved them and wanted them to be good and upright. She did not allow them to speak badly about others. She taught them not to waste things or time, never to tell lies and to be careful to choose good friends. When Gonxha was just nine years old, her father died suddenly. Never had the family felt such pain and sorrow. The months and years that followed were difficult for her mother. Drana had to find ways to provide food, clothing and other necessities and see to the education of her children. She began a small business of selling embroidered cloth. Through her skill and hard work, she earned enough money to buy what they needed. These hard times drew her and her three children even closer to each other and they were a very happy family. Gonxha was a lively, pretty girl, studious and hardworking. She especially loved to read and sing and act. In fact, Gonxha and her sister Age, were the main voices of the choir at Sacred Heart Church. Gonxha went almost every day with her mother to pray in the Church. Her love for God grew strong and she wanted all people to come to love Him as she did and to be as happy as she was. At the age of twelve Gonxha first heard, in her heart, God calling her to follow Him. Years later, when people asked her about this, she said: “I knew I had a vocation to the poor. I wanted to be a missionary, I wanted to go out and give the life of Christ to the people in the missionary countries.” When she was eighteen years old, she felt that it was time to do what God was asking of her. She wrote to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the “Loreto Sisters”), asking to join them. The reason she chose this order of nuns was because they had a mission in India. How painful it was to leave her mother, whom she loved dearly and was very close to! Her mother gave her this advice: “Put your hand in His hand (Jesus’) and walk all alone with Him and never look back.” After a tearful goodbye at the train station, she courageously set out for Rathfarnham Abbey in Dublin, Ireland in September 1928. There she spent two months learning a new language—English. She also received a new name—“Sister Teresa”, as a sign that she was beginning a new life. This new life in a new country, away from her family, was not easy, but Sister Teresa felt a deep joy and peace in her heart. From Ireland, Sister Teresa, along with three other young sisters, boarded a ship that would take them to the Loreto convent in Bengal. They began the long voyage at the beginning of December 1928 and sailed by way of the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. At last they reached the Indian Ocean. After stopping in Colombo and Madras they finally reached Calcutta on 6 January 1929. “With indescribable happiness, we put our feet on Bengal’s soil”, Sister Teresa wrote.
Sister Teresa was then sent to Darjeeling. There she spent two years as a novice, praying, studying and training for her life as a religious sister. She also needed to learn the language of the people and picked up Hindi and Bengali easily. Finally the great day came when she would commit her life to God. On 25 May 1931, during a special ceremony, Sister Teresa made her first vows. She promised God that she would live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience and would devote herself to teaching children. These vows were temporary—that means that they were for one year, then she would take them again. Sister Teresa wore a long black habit (a religious dress) and received a black veil to cover her head to show that she was consecrated to God. She said that it was “the greatest day of my life: that on which I became wholly Christ’s”. Soon after she made her first vows, Sister Teresa was sent to the Loreto Entally convent in Calcutta. She taught geography and catechism in St. Mary’s Bengali Medium School. She was an excellent teacher, strict but very kind; her students loved her. The way she taught made the lessons interesting. During Physical Training, she showed the girls how to play some games, like basketball, throw ball and running races. Sometimes she had to settle the little disagreements that happened between the children while they played. Sister Teresa loved to speak to them about God and how much He loved them. She taught them also the value of making sacrifices to show their love for God in return. When they had free time, Sister Teresa took some of her students to the slums to visit the poor. And they often used to share their snacks with poor children. Sister Teresa loved her vocation. And so six years later, on 24 May 1937, when she was twenty-seven years old, she made her final vows. This time she promised God to live poverty, chastity and obedience for the rest of her life. Now there was no turning back. Her whole life was to be “only all for Jesus”. From this day on, she was no longer called “Sister Teresa” but “Mother Teresa”. She continued teaching and then in 1944 became principal of St. Mary’s School. She was also put in charge of the Daughters of St. Anne, the community of Indian religious sisters who were connected with the congregation of Loreto. Mother Teresa was hardworking and good at organizing things. She had a good sense of humour, was cheerful as she went about her work, and very generous; she always seemed to notice the needs of others but bothered little about her own. Her sisters also noticed how quick she was to do things. What they never knew was that in 1942 she had made a private vow, a special promise to God, not to refuse God anything He asked of her. Mother Teresa loved God so much that she always wanted to say “yes” to Him, even when it was hard, and she wanted to do whatever He asked as soon as possible. Mother Teresa was very happy as a Loreto nun. She loved her sisters and her work with the children. Soon it would be twenty years since she had joined—how fast time had gone! Then something unexpected happened. It was on the 10 of September in 1946. Mother Teresa was thirty-six years old. She was in the train on her way to Darjeeling to make her yearly retreat, where she would spend eight days in silence, praying to God. On that train she experienced Jesus speaking to her. He was asking her to give up everything, even Loreto, and follow Him into the slums, to serve Him in the people who had nothing and no one and who were suffering so much—the poorest of the poor. Jesus was thirsting to love and be loved by them. It was a new vocation, “a call within a call”. Mother Teresa knew that it was God who was asking this of her and that it was to be His work. Still, she was afraid—she didn’t know how she could do what Jesus wanted but at the same time she didn’t want to say “no” to Him. When she got back to Calcutta, Mother Teresa told Father Céleste Van Exem, the priest who was her
spiritual guide, about the inspiration she had received. He told her to wait and pray. For more than six months Mother Teresa kept hearing Jesus speak to her. He told her: “My little one—come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light. I cannot go alone—they don’t know Me—so they don’t want Me.” Once she had a vision: she saw many very poor people and children calling out to her: “Come, come, save us—bring us to Jesus.” She also saw Mary, the mother of Jesus, who told her: “Carry Jesus to them (the poor)—Fear not. Teach them to say the Rosary—the family Rosary—and all will be well.—Fear not—Jesus and I will be with you and your children.” And she also saw Jesus on the Cross. He was begging her not to refuse Him. He wanted her to begin a new congregation of sisters, who would be called the “Missionaries of Charity”; they were to bring His love and compassion to the poor in the slums. Father Van Exem told Mother Teresa to talk to the archbishop of Calcutta about it. She wrote to Archbishop Ferdinand Périer, thinking he would say “yes” straight away, but he also told her to wait and pray. Mother Teresa wanted to start immediately. She found it so hard to wait! But she obeyed. Finally, the archbishop was sure that her inspiration was from God. After speaking with her Loreto superiors, he gave her permission to go out and begin this new mission. In August 1948, Mother Teresa exchanged her black Loreto habit and veil for a white cotton sari with a blue border and left the Loreto convent. It was the hardest thing she had ever done. She found it even harder to leave Loreto than to leave her family! Everyone in Loreto, the sisters and students, were shocked. They knew nothing about what Mother Teresa had experienced and wanted to do. They wished her well but missed her terribly. Mother Teresa, now thirty-eight years old, first went to Patna to stay with the Medical Mission Sisters so she could learn from them how to do medical work. They taught her how to nurse the sick and give injections, what medicines to give for different sicknesses, how to clean and bandage wounds. All this would be important for her to know when she began the work in the slums. Mother Teresa finished the nursing training she needed and returned to Calcutta in December 1948. As she had no place of her own, she stayed with the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns who take care of poor elderly people. On 21 December, Mother Teresa went out for the first time to Taltala and began visiting families and the poor that were on the street. In the days that followed, she went into the Pan Bagan, Motijhil and Tiljala slums, doing what she could to relieve the sufferings of the very poor. The poverty and suffering she saw in the slums was dreadful. She cleaned and bandaged wounds and gave medicine to those she could. She understood that these poor suffering people could be made happy if God entered their lives more fully. By the first week of January 1949, Mother Teresa had opened a dispensary and a school in Motijhil with the help of volunteers. Her first “classroom” was under a tree and they used the ground for a blackboard. How happy the children were to be able to go to school! In the meantime, Mother Teresa needed to find her own place to stay. She walked and walked looking for a place until her legs and arms ached. She thought of how the poor must ache also as they looked for a home, food and help. It was difficult for Mother Teresa to be alone. Sometimes she wanted to go back to Loreto. But then she remembered her promise to God and that gave her courage. At last she found a place at 14 Creek Lane, on the upper floor of a house belonging to the Gomes’ brothers. She moved there in February 1949. Mother Teresa kept praying to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, to send other young women who would join her in this new work. In March 1949, Subashini Das, a girl who had been one of her students at St. Mary’s, arrived. She took the name “Sister Agnes”. The next to come was Magdalene
Polton, who became known as “Sister Gertrude”. In the following months, more girls from Loreto joined the little Society and by June 1950 there were twelve. On 7 October 1950, Archbishop Périer formally established the small community of the Missionaries of Charity as a religious congregation in the archdiocese of Calcutta. In 1951, Mother Teresa took Indian citizenship as she wanted the country of the people she served to be her own. The work for the poorest of the poor began to grow. Mother Teresa and her young companions carried Jesus as He had asked into the “dark and unhappy homes” of the poor, bringing hope and joy into their lives. The sisters were full of zeal and energy. No sacrifice was too big for them. Mother Teresa opened centres where the poor could receive food and medicines and started more schools for the poor children in the slums. For Mother Teresa, each person was Jesus, even though sometimes He was not very recognizable. She often reminded her sisters of Jesus’ words from the Gospel, “Whatever you did to the least of My brothers, you did to Me.” In the 1950s, thousands of people lived and died on the streets of Calcutta. The sisters would often find people with wounds full of worms or their bodies eaten by rats, dying alone and uncared for. Mother Teresa wanted a home where she could bring these sick and dying people and care for them so that they could die with dignity and in peace with God. The City Corporation of Calcutta gave her the use of one of the shelters for pilgrims at the Kali Temple. On 22 August 1952, Mother Teresa opened the first home for the dying in Kalighat and named it “Nirmal Hriday”, which means “pure heart”. One of the patients there said, “I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.” This home always had a special place in Mother Teresa’s heart. She worked there every morning for many years. In later years she could only go on Sundays and she was always the first to do the most humble work: cleaning the toilets and drains. In their visits to the slums, Mother Teresa and her sisters found children suffering from malnutrition because their parents were so poor and didn’t have enough food. They also found children who were orphaned. Seeing the need of these little ones, Mother Teresa opened a home to care for them—this was the first Shishu Bhavan. She later started a center for leprosy patients where they could receive medicine and treatment. By 1953, the number of sisters had increased so much that there was not enough space in the 14 Creek Lane house. After some searching and much prayer, Mother Teresa obtained a bigger house at 54A Lower Circular Road (which was later called A.J.C. Bose Road), and she and the sisters moved there in February 1953. This became the “motherhouse” of the Missionaries of Charity and thousands of girls have lived, prayed and trained to become sisters there since then. As more girls continued to join the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa began to expand her work outside of Calcutta. She took a group of sisters to open a house in Ranchi in May 1959. After this, houses were opened in Delhi, Bombay, and Jhansi and more continued to open throughout India. On 1 February 1965, the young congregation came directly under the authority of the Pope. This meant that Mother Teresa could begin missions in other countries. The first mission she opened outside of India was in Venezuela in July 1965 and before long she had missions in many other countries of the world. Mother Teresa’s work grew quickly and can be compared to what happens when a pebble is thrown into a pond. It makes one circle, then another and another, each growing larger and larger as it spreads through the water. She had started all alone. Soon she had sisters not only from India but from all over the world, helping to serve Jesus in the poorest of the poor. Young men also wanted to share in this
work of loving service and so the Missionaries of Charity Brothers were started in 1963. A branch of Contemplative Sisters, who could spend more time praying for the poor, began in 1976 and a branch of Contemplative Brothers in 1979. Then the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, a branch for priests, was founded in 1984. But that was not all. Already in 1969, Mother Teresa’s work attracted people of all nationalities and religions who wanted to share the joy of serving the poor and so the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa began. Mother Teresa also welcomed those who were sick and suffering to join in the work by praying and offering their sufferings for the sisters and their missions. Later the Lay Missionaries of Charity as well as the Corpus Movement for Priests became part of the large Missionary of Charity family. And so the work spread through Calcutta to other parts of India and from India to more than 120 countries of the world. Mother Teresa’s charitable work began to attract attention and she received many awards, the first being the Padma Shri in 1962. She received the Jawaharlal Nehru Award in 1972 and the Bharat Ratna (the Jewel of India) in 1980. One award that caught the attention of the whole world was the Nobel Peace Prize, which she received on 10 December 1979 in Oslo, Norway. She accepted it and every award and honour (over 700 in her lifetime) not for herself but in the name of the poor. Different organizations began to ask her to come and give speeches. This was not something Mother Teresa enjoyed doing at all, but if it would help people come closer to God and become more aware of the poor in their own places, she was willing to go. She was now often away from Calcutta, travelling to all parts of the world to bring God’s message of love and compassion. She missed being in Motherhouse and always looked forward to returning home. One early morning, when Mother Teresa was seventy-three years old, she fell from the bed and hurt herself. This happened when she was visiting her sisters in Rome in 1983. They took her to the hospital to be checked and it was then that the doctor discovered that she had a serious heart problem. They gave her medication but over the next years she had several heart attacks and had to receive a pace-maker. This did not stop her. She would not say “no” to Jesus! As soon as she felt a little better she was off again, opening more foundations, giving speeches, taking every opportunity to proclaim, by her words and actions, God’s love, joy and peace to the people she met. She did not think of herself! As soon as she knew there were poor people suffering in some part of the world because of disease, war, earthquakes, floods or famine, she was there to offer help. It did not matter what caste, religion, or nationality the people were—she saw everyone as a child of God and as her “brother”, her “sister.” Everyone who met her knew that they were in the presence of a holy person. They could feel that she was very close to God. There was something, however, that the sisters and the people never knew about Mother Teresa. They knew about the pain in her body but they never knew about the terrible pain she had in her soul. She loved God with her whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and she used to feel God’s great love for her. Then everything changed. As soon as she began the work among the poor, she didn’t feel that God was very close to her anymore, even though she continued loving God just as much as before. For many years she felt that God had abandoned her, that He didn’t want her, even that He didn’t love her at all. But of course He did. God was hiding His presence from her. He was letting her share how He felt when He was dying on the Cross and how many of the poor people feel—lonely, unwanted and unloved. She understood the poor so well because she experienced the same rejection and loneliness as they did. Mother Teresa did not act on her feelings but kept on praying, loving and serving God, and loving and serving her religious family and the poor. Her smile kept anyone from guessing what she was feeling inside. All the while Jesus was very close to her, giving her strength and shining through her.
As Mother Teresa got older, her health continued to get worse and worse. She wanted another sister to take over as head of the Missionaries of Charity. On 13 March 1997, Sister Nirmala M.C. was elected to be her successor as Superior General. Mother Teresa was filled with joy to give her blessing to Sister Nirmala and to be freed from such a great responsibility. Less than six months later, on 5 September 1997 at 9:30 p.m., Mother Teresa “went home to God” at the Motherhouse. She was 87 years old when she died. The news spread rapidly throughout India and the world. While her body lay in state at St. Thomas Church, thousands of people came to pay their final respects to this humble woman who had touched the lives of so many. The Government of India honoured her with a state funeral on 13 September 1997. Dignitaries from India and around the world, together with the citizens of Kolkata, Bengal and other parts of India, who loved and admired her and recognized the greatness of her mission, were present to pay their homage. The poor and her Missionary of Charity family deeply mourned the loss of their beloved Mother. Her body was buried in Motherhouse which quickly became a place of pilgrimage. On her tomb were engraved the words of Jesus, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is what Mother Teresa did all through her life. People come from all over the world every day to pray at Mother Teresa’s tomb. She continues to bring God into their lives and to radiate His light and love to them. Thousands have found a friend in heaven to whom they can turn to in their need. She readily answers prayers! Through her intercession many have been healed of sicknesses. Many in despair have found hope, peace and strength. Others who did not know how to pray have learned to pray to God. Troubled families have learned to forgive and love one another. Couples on the verge of divorce have been united in love. Many have discovered the beauty and joy of living for others rather than for self. And many have been inspired to strive to grow in holiness, doing the will of God with a smile. Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa in Rome on 19 October 2003. Though she is now called, “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”, for children, for the poor, for her religious family and for all who knew and loved her and who pray to her, she continues to be “Mother”.