Mother Teresa

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Mother Teresa spent most of her life caring for the “poorest of the poor.” Her Missionaries of Charity have expanded their scope from the humblest beginnings on the streets of Calcutta to locations on every continent, including, in the United States, New York’s South Bronx. By 1987, the International Association of Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, formally established eighteen years before, numbered more than three million people. Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979.

Early Life

The third child and second daughter of Nicholas and Rosa Bojaxhiu, wealthy parents of Albanian peasant stock, was christened Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910. In a town in what is now southern Yugoslavia, the Albanians were a minority, but the area, a historical meetingplace of East and West, was one that successfully blended many cultures. The Muslim influence was strong, as was that of the Eastern Orthodox church. Agnes’ parents were devout Roman Catholics and saw to it that the children were given a strong background in that faith. The family prayed together each night. Rosa was particularly devout. It was she who prepared all three children, who attended the public school, to receive the sacrament of First Holy Communion. Nicholas Bojaxhiu was a well-educated man who owned a construction business. Agnes’ parents were devoted to each other. Mother Teresa was later to recall that she and her brother and sister often teased their mother about her feelings for their father. Sadly, Nicholas died at age forty-two, a tragic blow to the family, who, in addition to the emotional loss, experienced a loss of income that drastically changed their circumstances but that brought them even closer.

As a young child, Agnes has been described as joyful and playful. Her childhood home was for the most part a happy one. She was educated in Croatian at the state high school and was a soprano soloist in the parish choir. At a very early age, Agnes felt the call of a religious vocation. She was twelve years old when she began seriously to meditate on her decision. Through her membership in the Sodality of Our Lady, she became aware of the missionary work being done in India by a group of Jesuit priests. After six years of soul-searching, she finally made her decision at eighteen while praying at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Letnice. She wanted to work with the Loretto Sisters in India.

Her mother was at first against Agnes’ decision to enter the religious life but eventually gave her daughter her blessing with the admonition to remember to be true to God and Christ. Agnes applied to be admitted to the Loretto Order and left home on September 26, 1928, for Rathfarnam, Ireland, to learn English in preparation for her assignment to India. She spent six weeks as a postulant of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Agnes took the name Teresa, for the “little Teresa,” St. Teresa of Lisieux, who had led a painful and brief but pious life in France in the late nineteenth century. Sister Teresa arrived in India in January, 1929, and was sent to a novitiate in Darjeeling. She took her vows two years later and spent the next twenty years teaching geography to the daughters of middle-class Indians at St. Mary’s High School, where she also became the principal.

Life’s Work

It was on a train to Darjeeling on September 10, 1946, that Sister Teresa received her second call from God. She called it a “call within a call,” and it asked her to serve only the poorest of God’s creatures, the destitute, the dying, the lonely, for the rest of her life. She accepted this summons without question, applying immediately for freedom from the Loretto Sisters to pursue her new duties. This was very difficult for her, as the convent and school had long been her home. She also loved teaching and was well loved by her students. With some difficulty, Teresa received permission to leave the order and work as a free nun in late 1948. She walked from the convent with only the clothes she wore. Her only real preparation was an elementary course in medicine with the American Medical Missionary sisters in Patna, India.

On December 21, 1948, Sister Teresa opened her first slum school in Moti Jheel in Calcutta. There, with absolutely no financial backing or supplies, she began to teach poor Bengali children to read and write. She wrote with a stick in the dust and begged a place to stay among another order of sisters. The following March, Subhasini Das, a nineteen-year-old former student from St. Mary’s joined Sister Teresa, taking the name Sister Agnes. Slowly Sister Teresa’s group grew, living in the home of a wealthy Indian citizen, begging for food, and giving love and rudimentary medical care to Calcutta’s sick and dying poor.

The Missionaries of Charity, with a membership of twelve, was approved and formally instituted by the Archdiocese of Calcutta on October 7, 1950. Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa. She and her novices took vows of poverty, chastity,...

(The entire section is 2070 words.)