Mother Teresa

views updated May 17 2018

Mother Teresa

BORN: August 26, 1910 • Skopje, Republic of Macedonia

DIED: September 5, 1997 • Calcutta, India

Macedonia-born Roman Catholic nun

Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 and accepted it on behalf of the "unwanted, unloved, and uncared for." In 1950, she founded an order of nuns called the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India. She served as its director for nearly fifty years. Teresa founded five additional branches of the Missionaries of Charity that included the Missionary Brothers of Charity, the Contemplative Brothers, the Mission of Charity Fathers, the International Association of Co-Workers, and the Contemplative Sisters. Her order's work for the poor expanded across the globe and could be found in more than one hundred countries in the early twenty-first century.

"We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked, and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty."

Born in the Republic of Macedonia, Mother Teresa adopted Calcutta as her home and became an Indian citizen. Her personal mission was to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the poorest of the poor while living among them. Her efforts earned her the name Saint of the Gutters. Although she was Roman Catholic, Teresa showed no discrimination (treating some people differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices) as she worked with Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and those having no religious beliefs. Much of her early work focused on giving comfort to the dying, but she soon added orphanages, soup kitchens, and medical clinics as others joined her order. At the time of her death, the Missionaries of Charity included more than three thousand members.

From Macedonia to Calcutta

Mother Teresa began life as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She was born on August 26, 1910, to devout Roman Catholic parents in Skopje, Macedonia. Agnes was the youngest of three children and was called Gonxha, or flower bud, by her elder sister Aga and brother Lazar. Religion played an important part in the family's life. Agnes was christened into the church on August 27, a date which later would be confused with her actual birth date. As she grew up, Agnes and her sister took part in many church activities including the choir, religious services, and missionary presentations. Agnes had a passion for music and poetry and had a real gift for communication as well. She threw herself wholeheartedly into every activity she undertook and became a central figure in organizing activities with her parish.

Agnes's parents, Nikola and Dranafile (Drana) Bojaxhiu, were both Albanian (see box) but had been drawn to Skopje because it was a commercial (trade) center. They were prominent (active and important) members in the community and took a keen interest in their children's education. The family home was a happy place. It was always open to anyone who needed help, especially the poor. Nikola was a successful businessman who spoke five languages and sat on the town council. Agnes was only eight years old when her father died suddenly. Drana was left without financial security and took work as a seamstress to support her family. Despite their circumstances, the family home continued to be a gathering place for those even poorer than themselves. Drana repeatedly instructed her children to "be only all for God."

Agnes received her early education at a convent-run primary school. However, after her father's death, she attended a state secondary school in neighboring Croatia, which was also largely Roman Catholic. It was there that Agnes first learned about the work of Catholic missionaries in India and was inspired to the mission field herself. The Bojaxhiu family had participated in the annual pilgrimage (spiritual journey) to the chapel of the Madonna of Letnice on the slopes of Skopje's Black Mountain for many years. Groups of the faithful would make their way up the hillside in what became the highlight of the church year. Because of Agnes's delicate health as a child the family would go in a horse-drawn carriage and visit the shrine when it was less crowded. When she was twelve years old, Agnes spent time once again praying in the chapel on the annual pilgrimage. She informed her mother that she felt herself called to a religious life. She intended to be a missionary and to give the life of Christ to the people.

The pursuit of her dream began with an application to join the Sisters of Loreto, the Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Agnes chose this community of nuns because she had heard of their work among the poor in Calcutta, India. In 1928, she joined the pilgrimage to Letnice for the last time and left her family behind to join the Loreto Order in Rathfarnham, Ireland (near Dublin). She would never see her mother again.


When a woman enters a convent she faces a trial period that lasts a number of years. It is a time spent in prayer and meditation in order to determine if she is prepared to voluntarily leave mainstream society. At the end of the novitiate, she takes her final vows. Convents typically have walls separating the nuns from the outside world. They are usually restricted from leaving their cloister, or religious residence, unless engaged in limited activities such as teaching. There are parlors within the convent to allow nuns to have outside visitors, but those visitors are not allowed to associate freely within the convent itself. A nun who is elected to head her convent is usually referred to as the Mother Superior.

In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a distinction between nuns and religious sisters. They are distinguished by the type of vows they take and the focus of their work. The religious community of a nun is referred to as a religious order and the religious community of a sister is called a congregation. However, both sisters and nuns are addressed as Sister. Women who belong to orders like the Sisters of Charity are religious sisters, not nuns, and they live among the people they serve. Mother Teresa developed a program called Come and See that allowed young women to come and try out their suitability for the Missionaries of Charity.

Agnes had inherited her father's gift for languages and quickly learned English, the language in which her spiritual studies were conducted. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu took the name of Sister Mary Teresa of the Child Jesus after the French Teresa of Lisieux. The French Teresa had been known as the Little Flower because it was said she did no great things, only small things with great love. On December 1, 1928, Teresa left Ireland and traveled by boat on her long voyage through the Suez Canal, across the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal before finally arriving in Calcutta, India, on January 6, 1929. One week later, she boarded a train to the Himalayan station of Darjeeling where she would begin a two-year course of studies. It was there that Teresa was made a Loreto novitiate (see box) and received her nun's black habit (uniform) and veil. Her preparation for the religious life included the practical task of learning the Hindi and Bengali languages of her new home.

The call within a call

Sister Teresa made her first vows, known as temporary vows, on May 24, 1931, and began teaching in the Loreto convent school of Darjeeling. For a brief time, she was able to work helping the nursing staff at a small medical station in Darjeeling as well. Sister Teresa was soon sent to Loreto Entally, one of six schools operated by the Sisters in Calcutta. In the same compound at Loreto Entally was St. Mary's high school for Bengali girls, where lessons were conducted in Bengali and English was taught as a second language. Teresa taught geography and history in English. The Loreto nuns believed the best way to overcome the problems of poverty in India was through education, and so Teresa also taught at St. Teresa's primary school outside the compound of Loreto Entally. The slum children she taught at St. Teresa's lived in poverty-stricken conditions but were eager to learn. They called her Ma, which means Mother. Sister Teresa took her final vows of poverty, chastity (sexual purity), and obedience as a nun on May 24, 1937. She became Mother Teresa in accordance with the tradition of the Loreto nuns. She eventually became the principal of the school at St. Mary's.

Beyond Loreto Entally's protective walls was the worst slum in Calcutta, Moti Jheel (which means Pearl Lake). Every Sunday, Teresa visited the poor who lived in the slums and the patients in a local hospital of Moti Jheel. She had little material wealth to offer but she shared her faith with Christians, Hindus, and Muslims alike. Millions died and many more sought help during the war years of World War II (1939–45) and the famine (mass starvation) of 1943 in India. Orphans and "war babies" were left on the doorsteps of Loreto in increasing numbers. Hundreds of children were evacuated to convents outside the city for their safety while Japanese forces occupied nearby Burma during the war.

After the war, Teresa returned to the convent with her charges but found a shortage of teachers and food for the children. She continued to teach and daily went outside the convent to beg for food. The year 1946 brought increasing conflict between Hindus and Muslims and eventually ended in the partition and independence of India. However, its immediate effect was bloodshed in the streets of Calcutta where Teresa went to beg. On August 16, 1946, the Muslim League declared Direct Action Day. The city witnessed more than five thousand citizens killed and another fifteen thousand wounded before it was over.

Teresa's health had never significantly improved and she was directed to take a summer retreat for a period of spiritual renewal and a physical break from work. She boarded a dusty train for Darjeeling on September 10, 1946. It was then that she received her "call within a call." Teresa heard the call of God to leave the convent and help the poorest of the poor while living among them. She took it as an order. To deny the call would have been to break the faith. The date was celebrated later by the Catholic Church as Inspiration Day.

Returning to Entally in October, Teresa sought permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and begin a new congregation that would care for the unwanted and abandoned in the slums of Calcutta. She waited patiently for permission to begin her new order. It was granted two years later by Pope Pius XII (1876–1958) on April 12, 1948. Mother Teresa would call her religious order the Missionaries of Charity.

Home for the dying destitute

To prepare for her mission, Mother Teresa received training in medicine at Holy Family Hospital northwest of Calcutta. She studied with those who specialized in obstetrics (care of women during pregnancy, childbirth, and the recovery period), emergency medicine, and infectious diseases. Returning to Calcutta, she exchanged her nun's habit for a simple white cotton sari with a blue border and left the convent to work alone in the slums. Without any funding, Teresa started an open-air school for slum children and began to teach them the Bengali alphabet and basic hygiene (cleanliness). The school soon grew in numbers and she was joined by several of her former students. Local people saw her work and donated school supplies, a house to teach in, and financial support.

Every day, Teresa saw tragedy in the lives of the dying in Calcutta. Those too weak to move were being eaten by rats in the streets. The bodies of those who died during the night were hauled away in the morning by garbage collectors. Teresa sought help from Indian government officials to secure a place for the dying to end their days with dignity. In 1952, she secured a house in an abandoned Hindu temple to Kali, the Goddess of Death. Teresa renamed it Nirmal Hriday (Place of the Pure Heart) and began gathering the deserted and dying that she found on the streets.

Those with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, suffered an especially cruel fate in Indian society. People afflicted with leprosy were shunned by family and strangers alike for fear of contracting the mysterious and dreaded disease. Leprosy is a bacterial disease that attacks the skin and results in the loss of soft tissue and bones such as noses, ears, and lips. Although it is only a slightly contagious disease, the physical deformities it inflicts make it a frightening disorder for both those who suffer from it and those who witness it. For the poor, the rotting flesh that marked a leper resulted in a life of separation and begging. Teresa committed herself to gathering the lepers to Nirmal Hriday. She obtained a mobile medical clinic to reach those too ill to travel to the home. She arranged for the latest anti-leprosy treatments that could contain the disease and ensure it would not be passed on to others. In Calcutta, Teresa became known as the Saint of the Gutters because of her work with the poorest of the poor who were diseased and dying.

Seeking the heart of God

Mother Teresa was joined by a number of Sisters and in February 1953, the Missionaries of Charity moved into a building that became known as the Mother House. Everyone began addressing Teresa simply as Mother. In the fall of 1955, Teresa founded her first orphanage for abandoned babies and children. She called it Shishu Bhavan (Sowing Joy). The home also had a soup kitchen, clinic, and shelter for expectant mothers who had been rejected by family and society.

In 1965, the Indian government offered Teresa land to start a leper colony that would be entirely self-sufficient. She named it Shanti Nagar (Place of Peace) and used it to teach those who came to stay the practical skills necessary to restore their dignity and confidence. She would eventually give the same human face to those who suffered from AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) around the world. Teresa also set up centers around India to provide emergency aid to survivors of natural and human disasters such as floods, epidemics, and riots.

Teresa had the ability to gain attention and support for her cause of helping the poor from both ordinary citizens and world leaders. People around the world heard of the work done by the Missionaries of Charity and wanted to help. They offered material supplies and financial donations that eventually allowed Teresa to establish branches around the globe. In 1967, Teresa established the Missionary Brothers of Charity, who supplemented the work done by the Sisters. Teresa eventually founded four more branches of the Missionaries of Charity. They consist of the Contemplative Brothers, the Mission of Charity Fathers, the International Association of Co-Workers, and the Contemplative Sisters.

Mother Teresa received numerous awards and honors (see box), including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, for her work with the poor and suffering. She experienced declining health but continued her life's work until her death in 1997. She received a state funeral in India with dignitaries from around the world in attendance. Tens of thousands of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims lined the streets of Calcutta to pay their respects to Mother Teresa as her body passed by. In 2003, Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the initial step toward sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Awards and Honors

The following is a partial list of the awards and honors bestowed upon Mother Teresa.

  • 1962: The Padma Sri (Order of the Lotus), by the Indian government.
  • 1962: The Magsaysay Prize, by the Conference of Asiatic States.
  • 1970: Good Samaritan Prize and the Kennedy Foundation Prize, in the United States.
  • 1971: Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, by the Vatican.
  • 1972: Pandit Nehru Award for International Understanding.
  • 1973: Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, by the British government.
  • 1975: Albert Schweitzer Award for humanitarian work, in the United States.
  • 1977: Honorary doctorate, by Cambridge University, England.
  • 1979: Balzan Prize, by the Italian government.
  • 1979: The Nobel Peace Prize.
  • 1985: Presidential Medal of Honor, by the U.S. government.
  • 1987: Soviet Peace Committee Gold Medal for promoting peace and friendship among people.
  • 1990: International Leo Tolstoy Medal, by the Soviet government.
  • 1992: Peace Education Prize from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).
  • 1996: Made an honorary citizen of the United States, by the U.S. government.

For More Information


Brantl, George, ed. Catholicism. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1962.

Egan, Eileen. Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa—The Spirit and the Work. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1985.

Mother Teresa. A Simple Path. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Schaefer, Linda. Come and See: A Photojournalist's Journey into the World of Mother Teresa. Sanford, FL: DC Press, 2003.

Spink, Kathryn. Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.


"Mother Teresa—Biography." (accessed on December 11, 2006).

"Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910–1997)." The Vatican. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Mother Teresa

views updated Jun 08 2018

Mother Teresa

BORN: August 27, 1910 • Üsküb, Kosovo

DIED: September 5, 1997 • Calcutta, India

Kosovar nun

Mother Teresa was a Catholic missionary nun who became known for her work with the poor. Although she assisted poverty-stricken people throughout the world, she is most closely identified with her work in the crowded slums of Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata), India, which earned her the informal title "Saint of the Gutters." In 1982, during the siege of Beirut, Lebanon, she negotiated a cease-fire between Israeli and Palestinian forces. This cease-fire allowed her to evacuate mentally handicapped patients from a hospital on the front lines of the battle. During her lifetime she received several major awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. After her death she was beatified (blessed) by the Catholic Church. Beatification is an early step in the canonization process, after which one becomes recognized as a saint. She is now formally referred to as Blessed Mother Teresa.

"In these twenty years of work among the people, I have come more and more to realize that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience."

Early life

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 27, 1910, in the town of Üsküb, in Kosovo, which at the time was a province in the Turkish Empire. (In modern times the town is called Skopje and is the capital of the Republic of Macedonia.) She was the youngest of three surviving daughters born to Nikollë Bojaxhiu, a successful contractor, and his wife, Dranafile. Both parents were Albanian. Although most Albanians are Muslims (followers of the Islamic faith) and most of the people of Kosovo Province were Christian and members of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Bojaxhiu family was Roman Catholic.

Agnes's early years were relatively uneventful and her family life happy. She later noted that she felt a strong religious calling at age twelve and wanted to help the poor by becoming a missionary. A missionary is someone who undertakes a religious task. At age eighteen she received permission from the Vatican, the seat of authority of the Roman Catholic Church, to join the Sisters of Loreto, more formally referred to as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Sisters of Loreto, located in Rathfarnham, a residential suburb of Dublin, Ireland, was an order of nuns whose chief mission was the education of girls. When Agnes completed her training, the order sent her to Darjeeling, India. At this time she was a novice, or a person who has received religious education but has not taken her vows to the order. She took her first vows in 1931, when she adopted the name Sister Mary Teresa in honor of Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) and Thérèse de Lisieux (1873–1897), both Catholic saints. In 1937 she took her final vows and became Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa began her career at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta, where she taught catechism (the teachings and principles of the Catholic faith), history, and geography from 1930 to 1944. From 1944 to 1948 she served as principal of the school. The people she worked with at St. Mary's would later recall little about her, stressing that she seemed ordinary, quiet, and humble. During these years she would look out upon the streets and slums of Calcutta and think about her early goal of performing missionary work among the poor. In 1946 she was riding on a train when she experienced a calling from God to serve among the poorest of the poor.

Founded the Missionaries of Charity

In 1948 Mother Teresa petitioned the pope, Pius XII (1876–1958), to live as an independent nun. She resigned her position at the high school and traveled to Patna, India, where she completed a course with the Medical Mission Sisters. She then returned to Calcutta, where she took up residence with the Little Sisters of the Poor. She established an outdoor school for poor children, and in time she attracted both volunteer help and financial support from church groups and city officials in Calcutta.

Mother Teresa's next step in her mission to help the poor was to petition the Vatican in 1950 for permission to establish a new order of nuns. The Vatican agreed, at first calling the order the Diocesan Congregation of the Calcutta Diocese. (A diocese is a district.) Soon the order took the name Missionaries of Charity. The goal of the Missionaries of harity, according to Mother Teresa, was to provide care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, and those affected by the skin disease leprosy. She sought to assist all those people who were unwanted, unloved, and uncared for by society. She located an abandoned Hindu temple and, with the help of local authorities, converted it into a hospice called the Kalighat Home for the Dying. A hospice is a facility that provides care to the dying. Later she opened three additional institutions: another hospice, called Nirmal Hriday, which means "pure heart"; a hospital for lepers called Shanti Nagar, which means "city of peace"; and an orphanage.

Continued growth

By the 1960s Mother Teresa's order had attracted numerous financial donations and recruits, and maintained a full network of charitable institutions throughout India. The humble and soft-spoken nun had become, in effect, the chief executive officer of a large and growing organization in India, one that was destined to become international in scope. In 1965 Mother Teresa received permission from the pope, then Paul VI (1897–1978), to expand her order of nuns to other nations. The first Missionaries of Charity house outside of India was established in Venezuela. It was followed by houses in Tanzania and Italy. Soon the Missionaries of Charity had houses throughout Africa, Asia, and western Europe. In the early 1990s Mother Teresa was also able to introduce operations to eastern Europe. The first such house in the United States was established in the Bronx section of New York City.

As the organization's charitable work expanded, so did its influence as a religious order. In 1963 the Missionaries of Charity Brothers was established. (In the Catholic Church, brothers are members of religious orders who are not priests; usually, orders of brothers, like nuns, perform work in schools, hospitals, missions, etc.) In 1976 a contemplative branch of the nuns was formed, in which members devote themselves to prayer and penance, often maintaining silence and living in convents. Lay workers (people who were not members of the clergy) and volunteers were organized into three groups: the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity. In 1981, with the support of the pope, Mother Teresa launched the Corpus Christi Movement, a movement to create spiritual renewal among diocesan priests, or priests attached to local dioceses rather than to specific religious orders. As part of the movement, nuns spiritually "adopt" priests, something Saint Thérèse de Lisieux had done in nineteenth-century France.

Mother Teresa and her work became more familiar to people throughout the world due to the 1969 documentary film Something Beautiful for God, which was produced by the well-known British writer and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990). A book by the same title followed in 1971 and remains in print in the early twenty-first century. One story told about the production of the documentary concerns filming that took place at an Indian hospice. The film crew believed that the lighting in the building was so poor that the footage they shot there would turn out to be of little use. When they developed the film, however, they found that everything appeared brightly lit. Muggeridge, who later converted to Catholicism, claimed that the lighting was the product of "divine light" from Mother Teresa herself. Some members of the crew argued that it was simply the result of a new, improved type of film. Muggeridge was not alone in his belief, however, as throughout her lifetime many people testified that they witnessed a mysterious light associated with Mother Teresa.

Awards and prizes

The 1970s and years following brought many awards and much recognition for Mother Teresa and her work. In 1971 Pope Paul VI awarded her the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize. She sold the Lincoln Continental automobile given to her by the pope and used the money to help the poor. Mother Teresa also won the Kennedy Prize in 1971, the Nehru Prize in 1972, the Albert Schweitzer International Prize in 1975, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, "for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to peace." She donated all of her prize money to the poor of Calcutta. Also in 1979, she won the Balzan Prize, given to those who promote brotherhood and peace among nations. Later awards included the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1994. In 1996 an act of the U.S. Congress made her an honorary citizen of the United States, a gesture of respect extended to only six people throughout U.S. history.

Decline and death

The 1980s marked the beginning of the final stages of Mother Teresa's life. In 1983, while visiting Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) in Rome, Italy, she suffered a heart attack. A second heart attack followed in 1989, and in 1991 she was stricken with pneumonia while traveling in Mexico. She offered to resign as head of the Missionaries of Charity, but when a vote was taken among all members of the order, the only ballot supporting her resignation was the one she cast herself.

Mother Teresa's health continued to decline through the 1990s, and she eventually became unable to continue with her work. On March 13, 1997, she resigned as the head of her order, which by then included 4,000 nuns, 100,000 lay volunteers, and 610 missions in 123 countries. The next month she fell and broke her collarbone. Later that year she contracted malaria and also had to undergo heart surgery. She died on September 5, 1997. The Indian government gave her a full state funeral, an honor usually reserved for such dignitaries as prime ministers. Religious and political leaders around the world commented on the sadness of her passing.

The twenty-first century: beatification

Mother Teresa's story continued after her death, with her beatification (blessing) and the drive mounted by Catholics to persuade the Vatican to name her a saint. In the Catholic faith a saint is a person whose admirable life makes it certain that his or her soul is in heaven. Members of the Catholic Church are said to "venerate" saints, meaning that saints are honored and are thought to be able to speak with God on behalf of the living. Catholics do not worship saints, however, as worship is given only to God.

After the death of a person such as Mother Teresa, a local bishop or other church authority begins the process of canonization (the process leading to sainthood) by conducting an investigation into the person's life. The first step toward sainthood is to be regarded as a servant of God; the second is to be regarded as venerable, or commanding of respect and reverence. Then the Vatican takes over the investigation. According to church law, for the next step, beatification, to occur, the candidate for sainthood has to have performed one documented miracle. Historically, the church has beatified many people who were not later made saints, including the emperor Charlemagne (742-814), of France. For the final step, canonization, to occur, at least one additional miracle has to be documented. The chief difference between beatification and canonization is that while beatification represents the church's "permission" for the faithful to venerate the person, canonization transforms that permission into a matter of universal church law. Therefore, beatification typically involves veneration by members of a local community, such as a region or a country, while a canonized saint is venerated worldwide as a matter of church principle.

The miracle attributed to Mother Teresa concerned a woman named Monica Besra, who is said to have been healed of cancer when a locket containing a picture of Mother Teresa was applied to her tumor. The issue of the miracle became controversial when Besra and her husband later denied that she had been healed by a miracle, and when her hospital records could not be found. Later, however, the husband supported the claim of the miraculous healing, and Mother Teresa was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 2003.


Mother Teresa's life was not without controversy. Many people, including Catholics and non-Catholics alike, criticized her for her strict opposition to artificial birth control, especially in consideration of the massive overpopulation of such places as Calcutta. She also attracted some criticism for her uncompromising opposition to abortion, or terminating pregnancy. Others found fault with a statement she made in the mid-1970s, after the Indian government suspended civil liberties in the country. She said the people were happier without their liberties because there were more jobs and no strikes. Comments such as these led some observers to believe that Mother Teresa was more interested in maintaining a close relationship with the Indian government, which provided her with financial support, than in speaking out against its abuses.

Other criticisms include financial mismanagement of funds, with donations not going to the projects for which they were intended, and the number of people served by the Missionaries of Charity. Some investigators claim to have found that the largest of its missions served a few hundred people at most. While Mother Teresa received worldwide praise for her work, other religious organizations in India serve up to tens of thousands of people each day and receive little attention. Such criticism has created a level of controversy about Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, but she continued to carry out her lifelong goal of working with the poor.

For More Information


Muggeridge, Malcolm. Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1977.

Scott, David. A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresa. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2005.

Spink, Kathryn. Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.


Hunter, Michael Wayne. "Mother Teresa on Death Row." (accessed on April 18, 2006).

"Mother Teresa: Angel of Mercy." (accessed on May 26, 2006).

"Mother Teresa—Biography." (accessed on May 26, 2006).

"The Nobel Peace Prize 1979." (accessed on May 26, 2006).

Mother Teresa

views updated May 23 2018

Mother Teresa

Born: August 27, 1910
Skopje, Macedonia

Died: September 5, 1997
Calcutta, India

Albanian nun

Mother Teresa's devotional work among the poor and dying of India won her the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979. She is also known as the founder of the only Catholic religious order still growing in membership.

Early life

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia, on August 27, 1910. At the time of her birth Skopje was located within the Ottoman Empire, a vast empire controlled by the Turks in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Agnes was the last of three children born to Nikola and Dranafile Bojaxhiu, Albanian grocers. When Agnes was nine years old, her happy, comfortable, close-knit family life was upset when her father died. She attended public school in Skopje, and first showed religious interests as a member of a school society that focused on foreign missions (groups that travel to foreign countries to spread their religious beliefs). By the age of twelve she felt she had a calling to help the poor.

This calling took sharper focus through Mother Teresa's teenage years, when she was especially inspired by reports of work being done in India by Yugoslav Jesuit missionaries serving in Bengal, India. When she was eighteen, Mother Teresa left home to join a community of Irish nuns, the Sisters of Loretto, who had a mission in Calcutta, India. She received training in Dublin, Ireland, and in Darjeeling, India, taking her first religious vows in 1928 and her final religious vows in 1937.

One of Mother Teresa's first assignments was to teach, and eventually to serve as principal, in a girls' high school in Calcutta. Although the school was close to the slums (terribly poor sections), the students were mainly wealthy. In 1946 Mother Teresa experienced what she called a second vocation or "call within a call." She felt an inner urging to leave the convent life (life of a nun) and work directly with the poor. In 1948 the Vatican (residence of the pope in Vatican City, Italy) gave her permission to leave the Sisters of Loretto and to start a new work under the guidance of the Archbishop of Calcutta.

Founding the Missionaries of Charity

To prepare to work with the poor, Mother Teresa took an intensive medical training with the American Medical Missionary Sisters in Patna, India. Her first venture in Calcutta was to gather unschooled children from the slums and start to teach them. She quickly attracted both financial support and volunteers. In 1950 her group, now called the Missionaries of Charity, received official status as a religious community within the Archdiocese of Calcutta. Members took the traditional vows of poverty, chastity (purity), and obedience, but they added a fourth vowto give free service to the most poor.

The Missionaries of Charity received considerable publicity, and Mother Teresa used it to benefit her work. In 1957 they began to work with lepers (those suffering from leprosy, a terrible infectious disease) and slowly expanded their educational work, at one point running nine elementary schools in Calcutta. They also opened a home for orphans and abandoned children. Before long they had a presence in more than twenty-two Indian cities. Mother Teresa also visited other countries such as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Australia, Tanzania, Venezuela, and Italy to begin new foundations.

Dedication to the very poor

Mother Teresa's group continued to expand throughout the 1970s, opening new missions in places such as Amman, Jordan; London, England; and New York, New York. She received both recognition and financial support through such awards as the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize and a grant from the Joseph Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Benefactors, or those donating money, regularly would arrive to support works in progress or to encourage the Sisters to open new ventures.

By 1979 Mother Teresa's groups had more than two hundred different operations in over twenty-five countries around the world, with dozens more ventures on the horizon. The same year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. In 1986 she persuaded President Fidel Castro (1926) to allow a mission in Cuba. The characteristics of all of Mother Teresa's worksshelters for the dying, orphanages, and homes for the mentally illcontinued to be of service to the very poor.

In 1988 Mother Teresa sent her Missionaries of Charity into Russia and opened a home for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS; an incurable disease that weakens the immune system) 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.

Saint Teresa

Despite the appeal of this saintly work, all commentators remarked that Mother Teresa herself was the most important reason for the growth of her order and the fame that came to it. Unlike many "social critics," she did not find it necessary to attack the economic or political structures of the cultures that were producing the terribly poor people she was serving. For her, the primary rule was a constant love, and when social critics or religious reformers (improvers) chose to demonstrate anger at the evils of structures underlying poverty and suffering, that was between them and God.

In the 1980s and 1990s Mother Teresa's health problems became a concern. She suffered a heart attack while visiting Pope John Paul II (1920) in 1983. She had a near fatal heart attack in 1989 and began wearing a pacemaker, a device that regulates the heartbeat.

In March 1997, after an eight week selection process, sixty-three-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, she stayed on in an advisory role to Sister Nirmala.

Mother Teresa celebrated her eighty-seventh 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."

Legacy of Mother Teresa

In appearance Mother Teresa was both tiny 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. Conservatives within the Catholic Church sometimes used her as a symbol of traditional religious values that they felt were lacking in their churches. By most accounts she was a saint for the times, and several almost adoring books and articles started to canonize (declare a saint) 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.

The Missionaries of Charity, who had brothers as well as sisters by the mid-1980s, are guided by the constitution Mother Teresa wrote for them. They have their vivid memo ries of the love for the poor that created the phenomenon of Mother Teresa in the first place. The final part of her story will be the lasting impact her memory has on the next generations of missionaries, as well as on the world as a whole.

For More Information

Egan, Eileen. Such a Vision of the Street. Gar den City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

Le Joly, Edward. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983.

Mother Teresa. In My Own Words. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1996.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. Something Beautiful for God. New York: Walker and Company, 1984.

Spink, Kathryn. Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997.

Teresa, Mother

views updated Jun 27 2018

Teresa, Mother (1910–97). Founder of the Missionaries of Charity, winner of the Templeton Prize and of the Nobel Peace Prize (1979). Born Agnes Gonxha Boyaxhiu she joined the Sisters of Loreto to work in India, where she went after a brief period in Ireland. Upon completing her noviceship in Darjeeling, she was sent to teach in Calcutta. In her spare time she worked among the very poor and the sick, and in 1948 she left the Sisters of Loreto, gained some medical knowledge, and returned to Calcutta to found her order. Her nuns, in their distinctive sari-like habit, are now to be found all over the world, working with the poorest in society. Mother Teresa became also a constant campaigner against both artificial birth control and abortion.

Teresa, Mother

views updated Jun 27 2018

Teresa, Mother ( Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu) (1910–97) Macedonian Roman Catholic missionary. She began her missionary work as a teacher in Calcutta, India. In 1948 the Vatican granted her permission to leave her convent in order to tend the homeless, starving, and sick in Calcutta's slums. In 1950 she established the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, which subsequently extended to other countries. She received the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. In 2003, Mother Teresa was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

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