Mother Teresa (born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu), was a Roman Catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work. For over forty years, she ministered to the needs of the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in Kolkata (Calcutta), India.
As the Missionaries of Charity grew under Mother Teresa’s leadership, they expanded their ministry to other countries. By the 1970s she had become internationally famed as a humanitarian and advocate for the poor and helpless, due in part to a documentary, and book, Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge.
Following her death she was beatified by Pope John Paul II and given the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on 26 August 1910, in Skopje, which today is capital of the Republic of Macedonia. Agnes was raised as a Roman Catholic by her Albanian mother, after her Aromunian Orthodox Christian father died when she was about eight years old.
According to a biography by Joan Graff Clucas, during her early years, Agnes was fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries and their service, and by the time she was twelve, she was convinced that she should commit herself to a religious life. She left her home at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary. Agnes would never again set eyes on her mother or sister.
Agnes initially went to the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland in order to learn English, which was the language the Sisters of Loreto used when instructing school children in India. Arriving in India in 1929, she began her novitiate in Darjeeling, near the Himalayan mountains. She took her first vows as a nun on 24 May 1931. At that time she chose the name Teresa after the patron saint of missionaries. She took her solemn vows on 14 May 1937, while serving as a teacher at the Loreto convent school in eastern Calcutta.
Although Teresa enjoyed teaching at the school she was increasingly disturbed by the poverty surrounding her in Calcutta. A famine in 1943 brought misery and death to the city; and the outbreak of Hindu/Muslim violence in August 1946 plunged the city into despair and horror.
On September 10, 1946, Teresa experienced what she later described as “the call within the call” while traveling to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling for her annual retreat. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.” She began her missionary work with the poor in 1948, replacing her long, traditional Loreto habit with a simple white cotton sari decorated with a blue border and then venturing out into the slums.” Initially she started a school in Motijhil; shortly thereafter, she started tending to the needs of the destitute and starving. Her efforts quickly caught the attention of Indian officials, including the Prime Minister, who expressed his appreciation.
Teresa received Vatican permission on October 7, 1950 to start the diocesan congregation that would become the Missionaries of Charity. Its mission was to care for, in her own words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” It began as a small order with 13 members in Calcutta; today it has more than 4,000 nuns running orphanages, AIDS hospices, and charity centers worldwide, and caring for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless, and victims of floods, epidemics, and famine.
In 1952 Mother Teresa opened the first Home for the Dying in space made available by the City of Calcutta. With the help of Indian officials she converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the Kalighat Home for the Dying, a free hospice for the poor. She renamed it Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart (Nirmal Hriday). Those brought to the home received medical attention and were afforded the opportunity to die with dignity, according to the rituals of their faith; Muslims were read the Quoran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics received the Last Rites. “A beautiful death,” she said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels — loved and wanted.” The quality of care offered to terminally ill patients in the Homes for the Dying has been criticised in both The Lancet and the British Medical Journal, noting poor living conditions, such as the use of cold baths for all patients, reused hypodermic needles and an anti-materialist approach that precludes the use of systematic diagnosis.
She soon opened a home for those suffering from Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy, and called the hospice Shanti Nagar (City of Peace). The Missionaries of Charity also established several leprosy outreach clinics throughout Calcutta, providing medication, bandages and food.
As the Missionaries of Charity took in increasing numbers of lost children, Mother Teresa felt the need to create a home for them. In 1955 she opened the Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart, as a haven for orphans and homeless youth.
The order soon began to attract both recruits and charitable donations, and by the 1960s had opened hospices, orphanages, and leper houses all over India.
Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack in Rome during 1983, while visiting Pope John Paul II. After a second attack in 1989, she received a pacemaker. In 1991, after a battle with pneumonia while in Mexico, she suffered further heart problems. She offered to resign her position as head of the Missionaries of Charity. However, the nuns of the order, in a secret ballot, voted for her to stay. Mother Teresa agreed to continue her work as head of the order.
In April 1996, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone. In August of that year she suffered from malaria and failure of the left heart ventricle. She underwent heart surgery, but it was clear that her health was declining. On March 13, 1997, she stepped down from the head of Missionaries of Charity and died on September 5, 1997, nine days after her 87th birthday.
The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D’Souza, said he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism on Mother Teresa with her permission when she was first hospitalized with cardiac problems because he thought she may be under attack by the devil.
At the time of her death, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers, operating 610 missions in 123 countries. These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, orphanages, and schools.