If the term “living saint” could ever be sincerely and truthfully applied, then Nobel laureate and Roman Catholic nun and missionary, Mother Teresa, was certainly one of the most justifiable of candidates. For more than sixty years of service to humanity, Mother Teresa earned worldwide attention for her efforts with the plight of the poor and dying in India.
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on 26 August 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia, in the former Yugoslavia as the youngest of three children. Her parents were of Albanian descent. When she was only twelve, she felt strongly the call of God, and became a member of a youth group in her local parish called Sodality. She knew she had to become a missionary to be able to spread the love of Christ.
Through her involvement with Sodality’s activities a Jesuit priest to fulfil this dream guided her. She responded to her first call of a vocation as a Catholic missionary nun, and at the age of 18 she left her parent’s home in Skopje to join the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. After being trained in Dublin for a few months, she was sent to India. When she took her vows as a Sister of Loretto on 24 May 1931, she chose the name Teresa after St. Therese of Lisieux, the patron saint of foreign missionaries.
In 1931 Mother Teresa started to teach geography and catechism at St. Mary’s High School for the children of the poor in a slum area in Calcutta, India. During 1944 she became the principal of St. Mary’s. Living in the poor condition she soon contracted tuberculosis and could not continue teaching She was sent to Darjeeling for rest and recuperation. While she was travelling by train from Calcutta to Darjeeling to engage in 8 days of spiritual exercises, she received her second call – “the call within the call” Ã¢€”as she recalled later. “I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged but I did not know how to get there.”
The suffering and poverty that she saw outside the convent made a very deep impression on her, and in 1948 she was granted permission by the Vatican to leave the convent school and devote her time to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. She left the Sisters of Loretto to pursue her calling under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Calcutta Though she had no funds, she relied on Divine Providence, and established an open-air school for children the children of the slum. In 1948 she became an Indian citizen.
Voluntary helpers soon joined her, and financial support was also in the offing. This helped her to extend the scale of her work. In this situation she found it necessary to learn basic medicine and went into the homes of the sick to treat them. By 1949 some of her former pupils joined her at her school. In 1952 Mother Teresa opened the Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. Her group of people went out on the streets, and brought back dying men, women, and children who were rejected by local hospitals. They rented a room so they could look after helpless people who were otherwise condemned to die on the street.
Mother Theresa’s own Order
On 7 October 1950, Mother Teresa received permission from the Holy See to start her own order, “The Missionaries of Charity”, whose primary task was to love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after. The assisting became a Diocesan Congregation of the Calcutta Diocese. In 1965 the Society became an International Religious Family by a decree of Pope Paul VI. Nowadays the order consists of Active and Contemplative branches of Sisters and Brothers in many countries. In 1963 both the Contemplative branch of the Sisters and the Active branch of the Brothers was founded. In 1979 the Contemplative branch of the Brothers was added, and in 1984 the Priest branch was established. They are all working tirelessly to create hospitals, schools and orphanages in many countries.
The Society of Missionaries became international, and spread all over the world, including such poor areas as the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. They further offer effective assistance to the poorest of people in some of the poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and they also do relief work in the aftermath of natural catastrophes such as floods, epidemics, and famine, and for refugees. Today more than 5000 sisters, brothers, and volunteers run more or less 500 centres worldwide, feeds some 500,000 families and helps approximately 90,000 lepers every year.
Mother Teresa’s work has been recognised and gained acclaim throughout the world for her tireless efforts on behalf of world peace. Her work brought her numerous humanitarian awards, including the Padma Shri award for distinguished service in 1962, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize (1971) and the Nehru Prize for her promotion of international peace and understanding (1972). She was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 1979, and she also received the Balzan Prize (1979), the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997, and the Templeton and Magsaysay awards.
She had to scale down on her activities in 1990 because of her declining health. On 13 March 1997, she stepped down as the head of the order and Sister Nirmala succeed her as leader of the Missionaries of Charity. On 5 September 1997, at the ripe age of 87, this wonderful humanitarian of the century passed away. Her funeral took place on 13 September 1997. The Thanksgiving Mass for the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was held on Monday 20 October 2003.