Mother Teresa

by Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu

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Mother Teresa

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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,...

(This entire section contains 2070 words.)

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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, obedience, charity, and an additional, special vow to serve the truly destitute. This vow proscribes any member of the order from working for the rich or from accepting money for services. All material resources are donated. Mother Teresa insisted on only four preconditions to becoming a sister in her order. Applicants must be healthy of mind and body, be able to learn, have plenty of common sense, and have a cheerful disposition. A novice can be no younger than seventeen. Once accepted into the order, a woman spends six months as an aspirant, six months as a postulant, two years as a novice, and six years under temporary vows. One year before temporary vows expire, the sister is sent back to the novitiate for an additional year of contemplation before taking her final, lifelong vows.

On March 25, 1963, the Archbishop of Calcutta formally blessed the new order of the Missionary Brothers of Charity. Six years and one day later, the International Association of Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, a secular group of volunteers active since 1954, received the blessing of Pope Paul VI. The Co-Workers were started by a wealthy Englishwoman named Ann Blaikie, who had begun helping Mother Teresa by gathering donated goods for Mother Teresa’s poor. By 1987, the Co-Workers included a staggering three million people in seventy countries.

The Missionaries of Charity is the only religious order of its time that is actually growing in membership. By 1987, the group numbered three thousand sisters and four hundred brothers. These selfless people have treated tens of thousands of destitute sick and given the hopelessly dying the opportunity to die with dignity. In 1952, the Nirmal Hriday (“Place of the Pure Heart”) Home for Dying Destitutes was opened at 1 Magazine Road in what was formerly a Kali temple, donated by the city of Calcutta. Nirmal Hriday is a last refuge for the dying. In 1957, the missionaries began treating India’s large population of contagious lepers, first establishing a colony for lepers in West Bengal. As the order grew, they were also able to open an orphanage for abandoned children. Most of the children are adopted out to homes in Europe. In 1959, the first house of the Missionaries of Charity outside Calcutta was opened in Delhi. Since then, twenty-two other cities in India have become recipients of Mother Teresa’s special brand of aid.

The decision to open houses outside India was a difficult one for Mother Teresa, who had become an Indian citizen in 1948. The first foreign country to welcome her help was Venezuela. Soon after, a house was established in Rome. Ceylon, Tanzania, and Australia followed. Perhaps most surprisingly, the missionaries found it necessary to establish the Queen of Peace Home in an area popularly known as Fort Apache in the South Bronx of New York. According to Mother Teresa, the spiritual poverty in the United States is greater than anywhere else on earth. Later the sisters expanded their efforts to Harlem. On December 24, 1985, a few short months after Mayor Ed Koch gave her his wholehearted permission, Mother Teresa opened a hospice for victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in Greenwich Village called Gift of Love. By 1987, the houses of the Missionaries of Charity numbered twenty-one in the United States alone. Other modern cities have not been forgotten. Houses of the Missionaries of Charity can be found in both London and Amman, Jordan. In Dacca, India, a home was opened to care for women from Bangladesh who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers.

All the houses follow the same rigid schedule. The sisters or brothers rise at 4:40 A.M. and have prayers from 5:00 until 6:00, when Mass is celebrated. At 6:45, the religious inmates are fed a light breakfast of unleavened bread and banana. The sisters are true to their vow of poverty. Each sister owns only two or three cotton saris, underclothes, bedding, a tin bucket (for laundry), prayer books, a pen, a pencil, and paper.

Mother Teresa was the recipient of many humanitarian prizes and honors. She was awarded the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize and the Joseph Kennedy, Jr., Foundation Award in 1971 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She also received awards from her own government, notably the Jawaharlal Nehru Award in 1969 for International Understanding and the Shiromani Award, which was presented to her personally by Indian President Giani Zail Singh. In April, 1990, Mother Teresa stepped down from the leadership of her order because of severe illness. In 1997, three months before her death, Mother Teresa received from the United States the Congressional Gold Medal.


Attempts to write Mother Teresa’s personal biography have been thwarted or replaced by the story of the Missionaries of Charity and their works. What her workers, sisters and brothers alike, give to the poor is much more than medical care. They give unconditional love to those who are shunned by the rest of the world. Mother taught that one may find Jesus in all persons, but he is especially present in the poor and grotesque. Recipients of the missionaries’ aid are not proselytized, nor are they limited to the Catholic population. Unlike most missionaries, the Missionaries of Charity do not preach religion but teach by example.

Mother Teresa was an extremely practical woman with one goal in life: to serve the poor. While in charge of her order, she fed her sisters well, on the advice of the medical sisters who gave her her early training, so that they could resist contagion as they dress the sores of lepers or treat other sick people. Perhaps the most impressive phenomenon associated with Mother Teresa is the small social revolution that she instigated in her adopted homeland. In India, girls of very old and well-to-do castes are becoming sisters to give succor to the so-called Untouchables. They have said that they were first brought to the order by a desire to work beside Mother Teresa.


Doig, Desmond, Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Mother Teresa insisted that this book, originally intended to be a biography, be written instead about the Missionaries of Charity. The book does contain a useful chronological table of events relative to Mother Teresa. Illustrated with both color and black-and-white photographs.

Gonzalez-Balado, José-Luis, and Janet N. Playfoot, eds. My Life for the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Mother Teresa’s personality comes through in this book, because it is written in the words of Mother herself. She is shown to be a highly practical person with infinite faith in God. Readers will find her concise speech refreshing.

Le Joly, Edward. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Written by a priest and close colleague of Mother Teresa, this book does not offer as much biographical information as its title promises. It does give detailed information on the Missionaries of Charity, along with much religious editorializing. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

Rae, Daphne. Love Until It Hurts. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. This is primarily a pictorial tribute to the Missionaries of Charity. The book is aptly named; readers may find some photographs disturbing.

Tower, Courtney. “Mother Teresa’s Work of Grace.” Reader’s Digest 131 (December, 1987): 163-75. Packed with information on Mother Teresa’s work in India and around the world. Gives a clear picture of the organizational structure of the Missionaries of Charity. Pleasurable reading for a general audience.