Mother Teresa has dedicated her life to helping the poor, the sick, and the dying around the world, particularly those in India.
Mother Teresa is among the most well-known and highly respected women in the world in the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1948 she founded a religious order of nuns in Calcutta, India, called the Missionaries of Charity. Through this order, she has dedicated her life to helping the poor, the sick, and the dying around the world, particularly those in India. Her selfless work with the needy has brought her much acclaim and many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, Yugoslavia (what is now Macedonia). Her parents, Nikola and Dronda Bojaxhiu, were Albanians who settled in Skopje shortly after the beginning of the century. Since her father was co-owner of a construction firm, her family lived comfortably while she was growing up. In 1928 she suddenly decided to become a nun and traveled to Dublin, Ireland, to join the Sisters of Loreto, a religious order founded in the seventeenth century. After studying at the convent for less than a year, she left to join the Loreto convent in the city of Darjeeling in northeast India. On May 24, 1931, she took the name of "Teresa" in honor of St. Teresa of Lisieux.
In 1929 Mother Teresa had been assigned to teach geography at St. Mary's High School for Girls in Calcutta, south of Darjeeling. At the time, the streets of Calcutta were crowded with beggars, lepers, and the homeless. Unwanted infants were regularly left to die on the streets or in garbage bins. On a train back to Darjeeling in 1946, Mother Teresa felt the need to abandon her position at St. Mary's to care for the needy in the slums of Calcutta. After receiving the consent of her archbishop, she began her work.
In 1948 Pope Pius XII granted Mother Teresa permission to live as an independent nun. That same year, she became an Indian citizen. After studying nursing for three months with the American Medical Missionaries in the Indian city of Patna, she returned to Calcutta to found the Missionaries of Charity. For her habit she chose a plain white sari with a blue border and a simple cross pinned to her left shoulder.
Mother Teresa initially focused her efforts on poor children in the streets, teaching them how to read and how to care for themselves. In 1949 she was joined by her first recruit, a young girl from the city of Bengal. Many of those who joined her order over the next few years were former students from St. Mary's. Each recruit was required to devote her life to serving the poor without accepting any material reward in return.
In 1952 Mother Teresa began work for which the Missionaries of Charity has been noted ever since. Her order received permission from Calcutta officials to use a portion of the abandoned temple to the goddess Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Here Mother Teresa founded the Kalighat Home for the Dying. She and her fellow nuns gathered dying Indians off the streets of Calcutta and brought them to this home to care for them during the days before they died.
In the mid-1950s, Mother Teresa began to help victims of leprosy. The Indian government gave the Missionaries of Charity a 34-acre plot of land near the city of Asansol. Under Mother Teresa's guidance, a leper colony was established here, called Shanti Nagar (Town of Peace). For her work among the people of India, the Indian government gave her the Padmashree ("Magnificent Lotus") Award in September of 1962.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI placed the Missionaries of Charity directly under the control of the papacy (the office of the pope). He also authorized Mother Teresa to expand the order outside of India. Centers to treat lepers, the blind, the disabled, the aged, and the dying were soon opened worldwide, including one in Rome in 1968. Mother Teresa also organized schools and orphanages for the poor. The Brothers of Charity, the male companion to the Sisters of Charity, was formed in the mid-1960s to run the homes for the dying.
In 1971 Pope Paul VI honored Mother Teresa by awarding her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize. The following year the government of India presented her with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. In 1979 she received her greatest award, the Nobel Peace Prize. Mother Teresa accepted all of these awards on behalf of the poor, using any money that accompanied them to fund her centers. By 1990 over 3,000 nuns belonged to the Missionaries of Charity, running centers in 25 countries.
In 1988 Mother Teresa sent her Missionaries of Charity into Russia and also opened a home for AIDS patients in San Francisco, California. In 1991 she returned home to Albania and opened a home in Tirana, the capital. At this time, there were 168 homes operating in India. Later in 1995, plans materialized to open homes in China.
In the 1980s and 1990s Mother Teresa's health problems became a concern. She suffered a heart attack while visiting Pope John Paul II in 1983. She had a near fatal heart attack in 1989 and began wearing a pacemaker.
In August 1996 the world prayed for Mother Teresa's recovery. At the age of 86, Mother Teresa was on a respirator in a hospital, suffering from heart failure and malaria. Doctors were not sure she would recover. Within days she was fully conscious, asked to receive communion, and requested that the doctors send her home. When she was sent home a few weeks later in early September, a doctor said she firmly believed, "God will take care of me."
In late November of that same year, Mother Teresa was again hospitalized. She had angioplasty surgery to clear two blocked arteries. She was also given a mild electric shock to correct an irregular heartbeat. She was released after spending almost a month in the hospital.
In March 1997, after an eight week selection process, 63-year-old Sister Nirmala was named as the new leader of the Missionaries of Charity. Although Mother Teresa had been trying to cut back on her duties for some time (because of her health problems), she stayed on in an advisory role to Sister Nirmala.
In April 1997 filming began on the movie Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor with actress Geraldine Chaplin playing the title role. The movie aired in the fall of 1997 on "The Family Channel" even though, after viewing the movie, Mother Teresa refused to endorse it. Mother Teresa celebrated her 87th birthday in August, and died shortly thereafter of a heart attack on September 5, 1997. The world grieved her loss and one mourner noted, "It was Mother herself who poor people respected. When they bury her, we will have lost something that cannot be replaced."
In appearance Mother Teresa was both tiny (only about five feet tall) and energetic. Her face was quite wrinkled, but her dark eyes commanded attention, radiating an energy and intelligence that shone without expressing nervousness or impatience. Many of her recruits came from people attracted by her own aura of sanctity, and she seemed little changed by the worldwide attention she received. Conservatives within the Catholic Church sometimes used her as a symbol of traditional religious values that they felt lacking in their churches. By popular consensus she was a saint for the times, and a spate of almost adoring books and articles started to canonize her in the 1980s and well into the 1990s. She herself tried to deflect all attention away from what she did to either the works of her group or to the god who was her inspiration. She continued to combine energetic administrative activities with a demanding life of prayer, and if she accepted opportunities to publicize her work they had little of the cult of personality about them.
In the wake of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Peace she received many other international honors, but she sometimes disconcerted humanitarian groups by expressing her horror at abortion or her own preference for prayer rather than politics. When asked what would happen to her group and work after her death, she told people that God would surely provide a successor a person humbler and more faithful than she. The Missionaries of Charity, who had brothers as well as sisters by the mid-1980s, are guided by the constitution she wrote for them. They have their vivid memories of the love for the poor that created the phenomenon of Mother Teresa in the first place. So the final part of her story will be the lasting impact her memory has on the next generations of missionaries, as well as in the world as a whole.
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Zambonini, Franca, Teresa of Calcutta: A Pencil in God's Hand, Alba House, 1993.