Mother Theresa was an Albanian nun who devoted her life to caring for the poorest and most despised people in the Indian city of Kolkata (Calcutta). Her love, service and self-sacrifice marked her out as one of the best-known and admired Christians of the 20th century. Her life put into action words that Jesus spoke to his 12 closest followers during his time of teaching which are recorded in the Bible book, Mark: ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’.
‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’.
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Bojaxhieu in 1910 in Skopje in what is now North Macedonia. Her family were devout and charitable Roman Catholics of Albanian descent. Her father, a businessman and town councillor, died when she was eight leaving the family in acute poverty. Even then, she remembered her mother giving half their family meal to beggars who came to the gate, explaining to her three children, ‘They are our brothers and sisters. They are God’s children.’
At her Jesuit school, the priests often read letters and reports from missionaries in the Indian city of Calcutta (now Kolkata). This inspired her, from the age of 12, to want to go there. For years she thought and prayed about it. Eventually she felt (the Virgin) Mary telling her to dedicate herself to Jesus as a nun and go to serve to poor in Bengal. On being told Agnes’ plans, her mother shut herself in her room for 24 hours. When she finally emerged they embraced in tears, and she said: ‘My child, offer your hands into the hands of Our Lord Jesus. Live only for God. Our Holy Mother will help you accomplish what he wants.’
Early period in India
Agnes left for a nun’s order in Ireland in 1928 and went to India the following year, serving as a teacher first in Darjeeling then Calcutta. Once in Darjeeling she saw a man carrying what she took to be a bundle of rags with two dry sticks poking out. It turned out to be a dying boy that he planned to leave in the grass. She took the boy and tended him till he died, saying that this gave her a greater joy than she had ever known.
She took her final monastic vows in 1937, when she was named Mother Teresa. But she remained a teacher, becoming school principal in Calcutta in 1944. The returning point came on 10 September 1946, which she called ‘the most important day of my life’. She travelling by train to a retreat and was studying the Bible book, Matthew, where Jesus talks about the judgement of those who had or had not fed, clothed or helped him. Both groups say that they never saw Jesus needing such help, but Jesus explains: ‘Whenever you did this for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me…’. It was a profound moment for Mother Theresa. It was like a second calling.
‘I felt the holy words piercing into the innermost recesses of my heart,’ she later said. ‘She felt irresistibly summoned to give up the nunnery and live amongst the poorest in Calcutta just as they lived, tending to their needs as if each one were Jesus himself. She told herself: ‘You must see your beloved Jesus in each one of these miserable people. You must love that Jesus, serve that Jesus and look after that Jesus’.
Living among the dying
Initially her request to found a new order of nuns was declined, so she joined an existing order. But in 1948, after appealing to the Pope, she was given permission to go ahead. She had a very short period of medical training and then went into Calcutta’s slums, swapping her nun’s habit for the white and blue sari worn by city’s scavenger women. The Missionaries of Charity was formally established in 1950. She set up a school for children, teaching literacy and hygiene. Local people gave her equipment and support and local women started to join her order. They fed slum dwellers and treated them with medical supplies which they had begged from well-wishers.
In 1979 Mother Theresa received the Nobel Peace Prize, which she accepted on behalf of the poor of the world. She died in September 1997.
Mother Teresa insisted that to understand poverty properly and fully demonstrate the love of God, the nuns had to live every bit as meagrely as anyone else. After her first year’s work she reported, ‘You can now hear the children singing in the slums. Their faces brighten up with smiles when the sisters come. Their parents, too, do not ill-treat their children. This is just what I have been longing to see among the poor. Thank God’
The work expands
In 1952, Mother Theresa persuaded local officials to grant her use of an abandoned inn attached to a Hindu temple. She turned it into a hospice where the terminally-ill could die with dignity, surrounded by love and with the rites of their religion. By 1998, 70,000 people had been admitted. Another venture was the creation of a house for abandoned children. The aim was to give them an upbringing like the infant Jesus. By 1997, it had been ‘home’ for 14,000 children, 5,000 of whom had been adopted. Mother Theresa founded such houses in 61 cities around the world. And, in 1957, the leader of West Bengal gave her a 34-acre plot for a tiny rent. It became the site of a hospital for leprosy victims.
In the 1960s, the Pope gave Mother Theresa permission to extend her Order beyond Calcutta. It has since spread all over the world. A member must adhere to vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and to give wholeheartedly free service to the poorest of the poor. The Order carries out a range of work, including caring for refugees, the elderly, abandoned children and people with HIV and leprosy. Volunteers run soup kitchens and schools to educate street children. All services are provided free to anyone, regardless of their status or religion. In 1979 Mother Theresa received the Nobel Peace Prize, which she accepted on behalf of the poor of the world. She died in September 1997.
Canonised - and criticised
Mother Teresa was canonised (made a saint) by Pope Francis in 2016. This process is unique to the Roman Catholic Church. It gives special status to a Christian on the basis of their life and also requires miraculous healings to be attributed to prayers made to them after their death. Mother Teresa was given the name St Teresa of Calcutta.
But Mother Teresa's work in Kolkata has not been without controversy, although coverage of her work was largely unquestioning in her lifetime. Some critics have condemned what they see as the poor standard of medical care provided by her charity and even of glorifying suffering rather than relieving it. Others have raised concerns about whether some patients really did become Christians on their deathbed, as the charity claimed. And others criticised her strong objections to abortion and birth control.