Teresa, Mother (1910–1997)
Teresa, Mother (1910–1997)
Albanian nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity and devoted her life to caring for the homeless and destitute population of Calcutta. Name variations: Agnes Bojaxhiu (1910–1931); Sister Teresa (1931–1950); Mother Teresa (1950–1997); Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu on August 27, 1910, in Skopje, Macedonia (then part of the Ottoman Empire); died of heart failure in Calcutta on September 5, 1997; daughter of Drana Bojaxhiu and Nikola Kole Bojaxhiu (both Albanians); educated in schools in Macedonia; never married; no children.
Joined Sisters of Loreto in Dublin (1928); sailed to India for novitiate (1929); adopted name Teresa with vows as a nun, and began work in St. Mary's School, Calcutta (1931); took final vows (1937); accorded exclaustration to begin work with the poor (1948); founded Missionaries of Charity (1950); opened Nirmal Hriday, home for the dying in Calcutta (1954); at her urging, Missionary Brothers of Charity founded (1963); awarded Nobel Peace Prize (1979).
Mother Teresa was the most famous nun in the world yet most of her work was done in India, a country with only a tiny Christian population. Her uncompromising dedication to the poor, the destitute, and the dying made her a Catholic celebrity throughout Europe and the Americas. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she enjoyed the special favor and protection of Pope John Paul II who saw her as an exemplary figure of contemporary Catholicism.
She was born Agnes Bojaxhiu on August 27, 1910, in Skopje, Macedonia. Her father Drana Bojaxhiu was an Albanian merchant living in Macedonia under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. He had an Italian partner and traveled widely in Europe, was well educated, interested in progressive political movements, and an orthodox Catholic. The Albanian minority in that part of what later became Yugoslavia (and is now a republic) was Catholic, whereas the Macedonian majority belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. A member of Skopje's town council, Drana Bojaxhiu was also part of an anti-Turkish independence movement. In 1912, when Agnes was only two, the Balkan provinces of the Turkish Empire waged a successful war of independence. It was followed almost immediately by the First World War (1914–18) which devastated parts of the region, and in which her father died, possibly the victim of poisoning by his political rivals. The family were impoverished by his death, but Agnes' mother Nikola Bojaxhiu was able to preserve her three children by working as a seamstress.
Agnes, a dedicated young Catholic, influenced by a charismatic Jesuit priest in Skopje, decided at the age of 12 that she had a vocation to the religious life, and in particular to service as a missionary in India. Her resolve hardened during her teens, and, at the age of 18, she joined the Sisters of Loreto, a missionary order which specialized in educating and evangelizing in India. India was then part of the British Empire, however, and Catholic organizations were obliged to work in collaboration with the imperial authorities. It was also an advantage to be able to speak English, the language of the administrators and, increasingly, the lingua franca of India itself. Saying goodbye to her mother and sister for the last time, she went first to Dublin, Ireland, to begin the study of English with the Loreto Sisters. Impressed by her rapid progress, they sent her to India after just six weeks. Her first destination there was Darjeeling, a pretty town in the Himalayan foothills, which was cooler and healthier than the city of Calcutta, in which most of her work would be done.
Agnes took her first vows as a nun in 1931 and adopted the religious name of Sister Teresa, in honor of Thérèse of Lisieux , the 19th-century French nun and visionary. Mother Teresa's final vows, taken in 1937, bound her for life to the order, and included pledges of chastity, poverty, obedience, and enclosure. Her first job in Calcutta, following the Darjeeling novitiate, was to teach history and geography at St. Mary's, a girls' convent school belonging to the order. The convent was comfortable and the students came from prosperous families so Teresa, although she was aware of the horrific squalor around her, rarely came into immediate contact with it.
The 1930s and early 1940s, during which she proved herself an able teacher and administrator, rising to the position of school principal, were also the years of the Indian independence movement. Led by the inspirational Hindu advocate of non-violence, Mohandas K. Gandhi, the movement gained strength especially during the Second World War, and at the war's end, in 1945, Britain's new Labour Party government announced its intention to grant India independence in 1947. Members of the Muslim minority feared that Hindus would dominate the new nation and, despite Gandhi's pleas, communal violence broke out throughout the subcontinent. In Calcutta alone, religious street fighting caused 5,000 deaths. Communications broke down in the city and the Loreto convent found itself stranded and starving. Mother Teresa responded to the emergency by venturing onto the streets in search of food, finally getting some sacks of rice from British soldiers who escorted her back to the convent and warned her of the danger she faced.
The experience catalyzed her growing sense of restlessness at her work. Seeing unclaimed dead bodies scattered through the streets, in addition to the everyday miseries of Calcutta, convinced her that she should be working with Calcutta's poorest and most desperate people, rather than with the rich. Teresa asked her spiritual advisor and her bishop to release her from the vow of enclosure. For a time, it seemed as though she would be discharged as a nun altogether, which she did not want, but in 1948, after communication with Rome, the bishop acceded to her request for "exclaustration." "To leave Loreto" she wrote later, "was my greatest sacrifice, the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was much more difficult than to leave my family and country to enter religious life" because in Loreto "I had received my spiritual training…. I had given my life to Jesus in the Institute."
In the following months, she studied with the Medical Missionary Sisters, founded by another pioneering nun, Mother Anna Dengel , learning basic medical and nutritional techniques, how to deliver babies and how to set dislocated bones. The Medical Missionaries talked Teresa out of her original, impractical, idea of eating only the humblest diet of rice and salt, pointing out that she would soon die of tuberculosis or malnutrition. For the next two years, now wearing a white sari with a blue edge rather than her convent black, Sister Teresa tramped the slums of Calcutta's Motijhil district, setting up an ad hoc school for homeless children, giving first aid to the sick and wounded. In her diary, written as a form of religious meditation and as a way to stave off discouragement, she wrote: "God wants me to be a lonely nun, laden with the poverty of the Cross. Today I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor is so hard. When I was going and going until my legs and arms were paining, I was thinking how they have to suffer to get food and shelter. Then the comfort of Loreto came to tempt me. But God, out of love for you, and by my own free choice, I desire to do whatever be your holy will. Give me courage now, this moment." The solitude she felt in these early years of her work would not persist for long. Along with her self-sacrificing impulses, she possessed great organizational skill.
With the aid of the sympathetic Gomes family, who lived near Motijhil, she began to recruit helpers. The first two, Subhasini Das (Sister Agnes) and Magdalena Gomes (Sister Gertrude), and many subsequent volunteers, were graduates of the Loreto school where she had been a teacher. As the group increased, the Vatican granted it the constitution of a distinct order, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950. Teresa, who had become an Indian citizen the previous year, was made its mother superior, and at an inaugural meeting she read out the sisters' duties, in particular: "seeking out in towns and villages all over the world even amid squalid surroundings the poorest, the abandoned, the sick, the infirm, the leprosy patients, the dying, the desperate, the lost, the outcasts." She added that the work must always be done cheerfully and for its own sake. They did not make Christian evangelization a priority and ensured that Muslim and Hindu patients in their hospitals would each have access to their own religious rites.
In 1954, as the order continued to grow, Mother Teresa persuaded the city authorities of Calcutta to give her an unused building which she converted into a hospice for the dying homeless. The center, the Nirmal Hriday, Place of the Immaculate Heart, became one center of her work. The next year, in a nearby building, she established the Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, an orphanage. The children were disproportionately girls rather than boys, because the widespread Indian preference for sons over daughters led to the abandonment of many baby girls. She also cared for abandoned or runaway teenaged girls, trying to forestall their descent into prostitution, and set up an ambitious program to aid the victims of leprosy, which included a rehabilitation center where leper families could learn crafts and become self-sufficient. Although the growing Catholic literature about her saintly work rarely stressed the point, Mother Teresa was in fact an extremely capable administrator and fund raiser, hard-nosed in negotiations with civic authorities when necessary, systematic in planning and organization, and able after a few years to command and direct a complicated system. As her Indian admirer B. Srinivasa Murthy wrote: "Mother Teresa has utilized practical entrepreneurial genius in setting up service centers around the world with astonishing success…. [She] must have splendid managerial capacity and prudential wisdom, for such achievements are impossible for theoretical idealists." She also had an iron constitution and showed little sign of slowing down either then, in her 40s, nor even 30 years later, in her 70s. The Indian government, unable to provide comprehensive welfare services to its massive population, recognized the value of her work and collaborated where possible with donations of land, buildings, and medical supplies, though the bulk of her funding came from charitable contributions made in the West. Air India, the national airline, helped out by giving her a lifetime free pass for all its flights.
It is Christ you tend in the poor…. It is his wounds you bathe, his sores you clean, his limbs you bandage.
She became a celebrity for American Catholics in 1960 when, on her first visit to the United States, she gave speeches in Las Vegas, New York, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Peoria. On the same trip, she met Dorothy Day , whose Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality did the same kind of work among the destitute of New York that she was doing in Calcutta; the two women became mutual admirers. Although American homelessness and starvation were slight problems by Indian standards, Mother Teresa still saw much work to be done in America's cities. In a Milwaukee speech, she said:
Right here in the United States, I'm sure you know better than I do, there are many poor people that need love and compassion…. People are not hungry just for bread; they are hungry for love. People are not naked only for a piece of cloth; they are naked for that human dignity. People are not only homeless for a room made of bricks; but they are homeless—being rejected, unwanted, unloved. [In America] there is a terrible hunger of love, a terrible loneliness, a terrible rejection. That's a much greater hunger.
Mother Teresa also visited London and Rome, where she asked Pope John XXIII to take her organization under his special protection and permit it to spread beyond India to other parts of the world, where the same kind of work was needed. Vatican bureaucracy often moved slowly and four years were to pass before permission was granted. Despite repeated examples of clerical obstruction, Mother Teresa remained docile and submissive to male authority in the Church and never protested against intra-Catholic impediments to her schemes. Meanwhile, she encouraged a group of Catholic men who admired her work to set up a parallel organization, the Missionary Brothers of Charity, founded in 1963. And in 1969, with the aid of a British admirer and contributor, Ann Blaikie , she founded the International Association of the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, a group of lay volunteers, donors, and publicists, who helped fund the missions.
The early 1960s, era of the Second Vatican Council, relaxed some of the rules governing religious orders and made it easier for a group like the Missionaries of Charity to expand their work. It also followed the lead of groups like hers in downplaying the role of evangelization and stressing the fraternity of all people, whatever their faith. John XXIII's successor, Pope Paul VI, took Mother Teresa's organization under his special protection in 1965, and it began its rapid international diversification. At first, it grew in the Third World, beginning with Venezuela and Tanzania, but at the pope's request it also established a mission in the gruesome slums of Rome itself. Paul VI also granted her a humanitarianism award in 1971, by which time she was becoming an international charity-celebrity. As often happens in such cases, she found, to her alarm, that she could do the most good for her order not by carrying on the daily work in the streets, her first love, but rather by traveling the world, making speeches, meeting politicians and donors. As a prominent Catholic in the Cold War era, she was lionized in the West but despised by the authorities of the Communist nations, including her parents' native Albania, which had suffered a severely repressive Communist regime since the Second World War. Despite her fame, Mother Teresa was unable to arrange exit visas for her mother and sister, both of whom died in the late 1960s without ever seeing her again.
Mother Teresa became controversial in the West when she spoke out against contraception
and abortion, in conformity with Catholic teaching. The 1960s and 1970s saw widespread concern about overpopulation—authors like the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that without severe population control measures the world faced an apocalyptic subsistence crisis.
Although she had battled for years in the overcrowded slums of Calcutta, Mother Teresa completely denied the validity of the "populationists'" proposed remedies. In her view, every life was sacred and beloved by God; she even declared that there could never possibly be too many people, each of whom embodied part of God's mystery. This difference in outlook between her and the secular scientific world was evident also in her attitude to suffering. For most scientists and doctors, pain was something to be avoided and alleviated at all costs. For Mother Teresa, by contrast, pain enabled people to get closer to Jesus and to share in the pain which he suffered to redeem mankind on the Cross. Pain, in her view, was a privilege as well as a burden. These views, expressed with clarity and simplicity in her books A Gift for God and My Life for the Poor, marked her remoteness from the scientific outlook of her times. She also tried hard to avoid politics and merely urged tyrants to emulate Christ. "The President of Mexico sent for me," she wrote in My Life for the Poor. "I told him that he had to become holy as a president: not as a Missionary of Charity, but as a president. He looked at me a bit surprised, but it is like that; we have to become holy, each of us, in the place where God has put us." She showed no interest in the politicized Liberation Theology movement which influenced Latin American Catholicism in the 1970s and 1980s and, to her detractors, she seemed like an advocate of the political status quo. And of course her outspoken opposition to abortion, which she made the centerpiece of her acceptance speech when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, marked her as an agent of the Catholic opposition to American and European pro-choice advocates.
Her work continued through the 1980s, with new establishments throughout the world. At the urging of Pope John Paul II, who held her in particularly high esteem, she went to Lebanon during the war of 1982 and tried to set up relief centers for the thousands of people displaced by the fighting. President Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, and she continued to garner accolades, awards, honorary degrees, and large donations throughout the world, all of which she turned to good account in her expanding charitable empire.
Mother Teresa remained active throughout the early 1990s, slowed only somewhat by old age and increasingly poor health. Although she suffered from heart disease and was hospitalized periodically, she kept up a busy schedule of work and travel, speaking to large groups and heads of state and visiting the various branches of the Missionaries of Charity even after she stepped down as head of the order in March 1997. Succeeding her was her long-time aide Sister Nirmala Joshi , whose conversion in 1958 from Hinduism to Catholicism she had attended. Sister Nirmala, a university-trained political scientist and lawyer, declined to take the title "mother," and Mother Teresa continued working. In June, by then wheelchair-bound, she visited Washington, D.C., where she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Less than three months later, on September 6, 1997, Mother Teresa died of a heart attack at her mission in Calcutta. Her death came on the same day as the funeral for Diana , princess of Wales (who had met with Mother Teresa at her mission in the South Bronx), and an extravagantly grieving world was further saddened, and perhaps sobered. Her body lay in state in one of Calcutta's largest churches for a week while some 60,000 people paid their respects each day. Thousands of dignitaries from church and state crowded that same church for her state funeral—only the second in India granted to a nonpolitician—while hundreds of thousands more akin to those she had loved and served waited in the streets. Her small coffin was then driven through the crowds in a carriage to the Mother House, where she was buried.
Clucas, Joan G. Mother Teresa. NY: Chelsea House, 1988.
Egan, Eileen. Such a vision of the Street. NY: Doubleday, 1985.
Le Joly, Edward. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1977.
Muggeridge, Malcolm. Something Beautiful for God. London: Collins, 1971.
Porter, David. Mother Teresa, the Early Years. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman, 1986.
Teresa, Mother. My Life for the Poor. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.
Sebba, Anne. Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image. NY: Doubleday, 1997.
Teresa, Mother. Mother Teresa: A Simple Path. NY: Ballantine, 1995.
——. Mother Teresa: No Greater Love. New World Library, 1997.
Mother Teresa is the subject of at least ten television documentaries made in Britain, America, India, and Japan.
"Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor" (2-hour cable-television movie), produced by Family Network, starred Geraldine Chaplin , 1997.
Patrick Allitt , Assistant Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia