Mother Teresa, also known as Teresa of Calcutta and after her beatification, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, was a Catholic nun, missionary and social worker, who established the Missionaries of Charity in the Indian city of Calcutta, to care for the dying and the destitute.
Her selfless love and devotion to the poor, diseased and unloved lasted all her life and spread across the globe in the form of hospices, houses of the dying and missionary homes for the poor in more than a 130 countries.
She received many awards during her lifetime, among them, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, the Order of Merit of the U.K in 1983, the highest civilian award in India, the Bharat Ratna in 1980 and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. The following write-up attempts to chronicle the life of this holy soul.
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, the youngest child of Nikola and Drane Bojaxhiu, in Skopje, Albania, part of the Macedonian empire, on August 26, 1910. Mother Teresa's family was deeply religious, and believed whole-heartedly in the teachings of Christ.
Her father worked as a construction contractor and was also politically active, supporting the Albanian freedom movement. As a child, Mother Teresa attended prayers at church and received her first communion when she was five years old. She followed the message of Christ, throughout her childhood.
Mother Teresa and her family were struck by tragedy in 1919, when her father died, leaving the family financially vulnerable. Drane Bojaxhiu played the role of both father and mother for her children, and instilled in them values of love, devotion and service to mankind.
Mother Teresa used to attend the local Sacred Heart convent school in Skopje and often sang in the school choir. They were taken to visit the Black Madonna of Letnice in Kosovo and it is here that Mother Teresa first felt a divine calling.
Under the guidance of her mother and a local priest she soon became interested in missionary work and at the age of 18, left home to pursue the life of an emissary of God.
As a missionary
She became a Catholic Missionary nun in 1928 and changed her name from Agnes to Teresa, inspired by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She joined the Irish order 'The Sisters of Loreto', known for their missionary work in the Indian subcontinent. She was sent to Calcutta on 6 January, 1929, to work as a teacher, at St. Mary's High School.
She arrived in India with a mere 5 rupees on her person, a fact celebrated by a special 5 rupee coin issued by the Indian government in 2010. In 1931, after completion of her novitiate period in the order, she took her First Profession of vows.
She also began teaching at the St Teresa Convent at this time, learning and becoming proficient in Bengali and Hindi. On 24 May 1937, Sister Teresa made Final Profession of Vows to become 'Spouse of Jesus For all Eternity' and became 'Mother Teresa'. She continued her work till 1944 when she was made Principal of the school.
A few months later, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to Darjeeling for treatment. As the train weaved through valleys studded with Himalayan pine, and parted the low hung clouds reflecting the light of the setting sun, she heard the voice of Christ, which she explained as 'A call within a call'.
The Lord ordered her to abandon teaching and go to Calcutta to serve the poor and downtrodden, living in misery, and with no one to share their troubles. He commanded her to 'fill the poor with the fires of his love'. Mother Teresa had taken vows of obedience and servitude to the order, and could not just quit her vocation.
She tried hard at convincing her superiors, that her calling was of paramount importance, and finally in 1948 was allowed by the Vatican, which had been petitioned by Archbishop Ferdinand Périer, on behalf of Mother Teresa, to go out into the world and pursue her divine calling.
For the first time in her life, she wore her trademark white sari, with blue borders, and left the Loreto Convent for the streets of Calcutta.
The Missionaries of Charity
Mother Teresa's first endeavors into the world of the poor and oppressed were an experience in humility and hardship. In her own words "The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home, I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health."
However, before she could begin her work in earnest, she went to Patna to receive some basic medical learning. She returned in 1948, and began serving the poor, aiding them in any way she could manage. Mother Teresa had no money and was soon reduced to begging herself, to be able to carry on her work.
A few young women were inspired by her ceaseless devotion to the emancipation of the poor and joined forces with her, a preliminary collaboration of devoted individuals that would later form the Missionaries of Charity.
Mother Teresa started an open air school for poor children and soon a home for people suffering from terminal illnesses who had no place to go. Her efforts didn't go unnoticed and were appreciated by the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
She had just begun, her next aim was to gain Vatican recognition for her fledgling order, and it happened on 7 October, 1950, when she was given the go-ahead to form a Diocesan congregation, which she named Missionaries of Charity. The missionary started out as a group of just 12 devoted souls working together to provide some succor to Calcutta's poor.
In 1952, Mother Teresa was given permission to convert an abandoned temple into a home for the sick and dying. Originally named the 'Kalighat home for the dying', she renamed it 'Kalighat Home of the Pure Heart or Nirmal Hriday.
It served as a place where the dying could breathe their last in peace and dignity, and attempted to provide some medical care, to relieve the suffering of the patients. Mother Teresa once said that though these people have lived like animals, they need not die like animals, and can leave this world as men and women, bathed in the love of God.
Leprosy was prevalent in Calcutta at the time, and people suffering from the disease were often cast out into the streets as unclean. These outcasts lived in the underbelly of society and died, uncared for. Mother Teresa established a hospice for lepers which she named Shanti Nagar (City of Peace).
The Nirmala Shishu Bhavan or the Children's Home of Immaculate Heart was opened in 1955, for orphaned children who did not have a home. The order continued to grow and donations and volunteers began pouring in from all across the country and even abroad.
Mother Teresa then organized the Missionaries of Charities Brothers in 1963, the Lay Missionaries of Charity and the Corpus Christi movement for priests, later in 1981. Today the missionaries of charity have grown to consist of over 5000 sisters, 450 brothers with more than 600 missions, homes and schools in 133 countries.
Charity across the Globe
Mother Teresa did not limit the flow of her love and boundless service to Calcutta, but went across the world with her message of peace and love for the poorest of the poor. The first Missionaries of Charity house outside India was established in Venezuela in 1965.
It then steadily established over the years to Eastern Europe, then in the 70s to dozens of countries in Asia, Africa and the United States. One of her remarkable feats was the cease-fire she orchestrated between Israel and Palestine during the Siege of Beirut in 1982, to rescue 37 children trapped in a hospital between the two armies.
By the mid-70s she also adopted a hard-line stance on the issues of divorce and abortion, saying no to both, and urging people to give up babies for adoption rather than killing them. She worked ceaselessly for earthquake victims in Armenia and visited the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl disaster to provide relief to the citizens in nearby towns.
When the AIDS virus began to grow to epidemic proportions around the world, Mother Teresa opened hospices for people suffering from the fatal disease, even opening one in New York in 1971.
It was in the 1970s that Mother Teresa became internationally renowned, party due to the documentary by British journalist and author, Malcolm Muggeridge, titled Something Beautiful for God. It was also published as a book and became a worldwide bestseller, with over 300,000 copies sold.
The Vatican too feted her numerous times, with awards such as the Pope John X XIII Peace Prize in 1971, and the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1976.
Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979, which she accepted in all humility, asking the committee to donate the award money to the poor of India. When asked how people can bring about world peace she said, 'go home and love your family'.
The Indian government had awarded Mother Teresa the Padma Bhushan in 1962, it was followed by world wide recognition through the likes of the Ramon Magsaysay Award of the Philippines, also in 1962, the Order of Australia in 1983, the Leo Tolstoy International Award from the Soviet Union, in 1991 and the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education, in 1993.
She was also granted Honorary Citizenship of the United States in 1996, only the fourth person ever, to have the honor.
Death and Legacy
Mother Teresa's health began to fail in the early 1990s. She suffered a heart attack, twice, and had to undergo heart surgery in April 1996. She offered her resignation as head of the missionaries of charity but the sisters voted her back in office. However, her condition continued to deteriorate and she passed away on 5th of September, 1997.
She was given a state funeral by the Government of India and messages of condolence poured in from all over the world. After her death, the Vatican began the process of her canonization, skipping some initial requirements and going straight to the beatification stage.
Here, a miracle is required to have occurred due to the direct intercession of the martyr or venerable in question, and then another, for the process to move on to canonization. Mother Teresa was beatified on 19th October, 2003, by Pope John Paul II, giving her the title ofBlessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa has also been commemorated in various monuments, art and literature around the globe. The Albanians celebrate Mother Teresa Day on the 19th of October and have named an airport in her honor.
In India too, there have been several commemorative institutions named after her such as, The Mother Teresa Women's University, in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu and the Mother Theresa Post Graduate and Research Institute of Health Sciences in Pondicherry.
Mother Teresa was the apostle of peace and selfless love for the poor, possibly the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century. She taught the world a lesson in humility and devotion and her work is carried on, in the same spirit, by the Missionaries of Charity every day, across the globe.