Her birth name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Her father died when she was eight. She felt a call to the religious life from an early age and at 18 left home and joined the Sisters of Loreto intending to become a missionary. She went to Loreto Abbey in Ireland, where she learned English. The Sisters ran a school in Darjeeling, India and Agnes went there in 1929. She became a novice of the community and took her first vows in 1931, taking as her religious name, Teresa, after Teresa of Lisieux. In 1937 she took her final vows. By that time she was teaching in a school in Calcutta.
Teresa became increasingly concerned about the poverty in Calcutta, exacerbated by a famine in 1943 and the outbreak of violence between Hindus and Moslems in 1946. In 1946 Teresa felt an urgent call to live and work among the poor. She began this work in 1948 and adopted the dress which became so distinctive of her, a white cotton robe with a blue border. The first year was extremely difficult and only her determination and faith kept her going. In 1950 she received papal approval to start the Missionaries of Charity. The community’s purpose was, in her own words, to care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, and all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to society and are shunned by everyone”.
Mother Teresa was joined by others, initially from her old Order and then from elsewhere. As the Missionaries of Charity grew so Mother Teresa was able to expand the work beyond Calcutta. By the mid-1960s there were houses in various countries, not just in India. Mother Teresa also established other related orders so that the work could be extended. In addition to formal religious orders she began the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, and the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers for people of various faiths, whose common bond was their support and encouragement of her work.
Her international reputation and fame were considerably enhanced by the documentary on her work produced by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1969, Something Beautiful for God, published as a book with the same title in 1971. Also in 1971 Pope Paul VI awarded her the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize for her charitable work and efforts to promote peace. Other awards followed from various countries and she was honoured by leading international figures of the day. In 1979 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mother Teresa has not been without her critics. Some charged that her charitable work, noble as it was, did nothing to alleviate the causes of poverty or address the social injustices that accompanied it. Mother Teresa ignored such criticisms. There has never been any doubt over her commitment to the poor and destitute. Underlying that was a spiritual strength nourished by prayer and deep meditation. She greatly admired Francis of Assisi and themes of Franciscan spirituality are woven into the spiritual practices of the Missionaries of Charity.
She reached out to the unloved, the ostracized, the marginalized and the vulnerable. She took a stand for the poor, victims of injustice, refugees and the displaced. She completely ignored the boundaries of race, creed, color and religion, stating that all human beings are a creation of God and deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and love. She saw Jesus in everyone.
After her passing she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2002 with the title, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. The rest of the World also paid Tribute; in 2013 the United Nations declared this anniversary of her death as the ‘International day of Charity’ a fitting tribute.
BORN: 26 August 1910, Skopje, Kosovo Vilayet of the Ottoman Empire (Albania). Now part of Macedonia, Greece.
DIED: 5 September 1997, Kolkata, India.