Mother Teresa of Calcutta

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Founder of Missionaries of Charity, teacher, social worker, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; b. Aug. 26, 1910, Shkup, Albania, in the Ottoman Empire (now Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia); d. Sept. 5, 1997, Calcutta, India. Baptized Gonxha (in English, Agnes) Bojaxhiu, she was one of five children of a middle-class family. Her father Nikola, a grocer, died in 1919, and her mother, Dronda, in 1968. At the age of 18, Gonxha joined the Sisters of Loreto with the intention of serving in the missions. En route to India she spent two months in Ireland, studying English. When she entered the novitiate in 1929 at Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas, she became known as Sister Teresa. Professed in 1931, she was sent to teach at St Mary's School for Girls in Calcutta. On Sept. 10, 1946, while riding the train to Darjeeling, Sister Teresa experienced "a second calling,"a vocation to serve the poor of Calcutta. In August 1948, she left the sisters of Loreto with the blessing of her superiors and the permission of the archbishop of Calcutta to live in the slums of Matizhil. She donned the sari and applied for citizenship in her adopted country. Teresa's initial effort was to organize dispensaries and outdoor schools where she fed, clothed, and taught poor children. The women, including some of her former students, whom she enlisted as volunteers to assist in the work became the nucleus of the Missionaries of Charity. In 1950 the order received canonical approval from church authorities.

In 1952 Mother Teresa opened the first of many hospices for the dying. In 1957 she founded a leper colony called Shanti Nagar (Town of Peace) near Asansol, India. Under her guidance the Missionaries of Charity established numerous centers where they ministered to the aged, lepers, cripples, AIDS victims, and the dying. In 1963 the Indian government awarded her the Padmashri ("Lord of the Lotus") for her services. As the Missionaries of Charity expanded their ministry to other countries, Mother Teresa's reputation spread throughout the world. In recognition of her work Pope Paul VI awarded her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, and she received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979. Upon accepting the Nobel honor she said, "I choose the poverty of our poor people. But I am grateful to receive [the Nobel] in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared-for throughout society, people that have become a burden to society and are shunned by everyone."

The sisters continued every six years to reelect her as major superior until early 1997 when, because of her rapidly failing health, they acceded to her wish to step down. In March they elected Nepal-born Sister Nirmala to head the order. Surrounded by sisters of the community Mother Teresa died peacefully on Sept. 5, 1997. On September 13, they buried her in a simple white marble tomb in the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity. In reminiscing about Mother Teresa some weeks after her death Pope John Paul II who had met with her on several occasions said, "I hope she will be a saint." Eighteen months later, he dispensed with the normal five-year waiting period and allowed the archbishop of Calcutta to initiate the formal process for beatification.

See Also: missionaries of charity.

Bibliography: e. egan and k. egan, eds., Mother Teresa and the Beatitudes (San Francisco 1992). c. feldman, Mother Teresa: Love Stays, tr. p. heinegg (New York 1998). m. muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God, 2d ed. (San Francisco 1986).

[b. l. marthaler]