It was on 7 October 1950 that Mother Teresa received the permission of the Vatican to start the Missionaries of Charity. Beginning in Calcutta as a small order with only 13 members, it had grown by the turn of the century into a congregation of thousands of sisters running orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centres worldwide.
Mother Teresa: A Short Biography
Mother Teresa was born as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (Agnes) to Albanian parents on 26 August 1910 in the town of Skopje, which was at that time part of the Ottoman Empire. Raised as a Roman Catholic by her mother, Agnes left home when she was 18 to become a missionary with the Sisters of Loreto.
Arriving in India in 1929, she began her novitiate at Darjeeling in Bengal, learnt Bengali and taught at a school. On 24 May 1931 she took her first religious vows as a nun. From then on she would be called Teresa. For more than two decades she taught at a school in Calcutta. Around this time Teresa became acutely conscious of the poverty and misery around her in her adopted city. Bengal was ravaged by a famine and Partition in the 1940s. Death and destruction haunted Calcutta.
In 1948 Teresa received permission to leave the convent school and devote herself to the service of the destitute and the unfortunate of Calcutta’s slums. In her own words, she experienced “the call within the call” for this mission while on a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling in 1946. There was no looking back after that. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them,” she later recalled. “It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
After a short course in Patna with the Medical Mission Sisters, she returned to Calcutta, visiting slums where she washed the sores of, and provided solace to, the sick and poor. She would step out each day to find and serve Jesus in the “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for” of Calcutta. Soon her former students started to join her in her mission.
Her initial years were, however, difficult and full of self-doubt. She had no source of income and food supplies were hard to come by. Her diary entry says: “Today I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health.”
She opened the first Home for the Dying in Calcutta in 1952, a space that provided the poorest people of Calcutta of all faiths medical attention and the possibility of dying with dignity. She later renamed it Nirmal Hriday (The Home of the Pure Heart).
In 1955, she started the Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, which served as a refuge for homeless children and orphans.
By the 1960s, Mother Teresa started sending her Sisters first to other parts of India, then to the rest of the world, starting from a house in Venezuela and spreading to more than a hundred countries.
For her tireless work and service to humanity, she received several awards, including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, the Nehru Prize for Promotion of International Peace and Understanding, the Balzan Prize, and the Templeton and Magsaysay awards.
In 1979 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “A feature of her work has been respect for the individual human being, for his or her dignity and innate value,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said. “The loneliest, the most wretched and the dying have, at her hands, received compassion without condescension, based on reverence for man.”
She received India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1980.
In 1991 Mother Teresa returned to her native place, Albania for the first time in her life, and started a home in Tirana. She went to several countries, helping radiation victims at Chernobyl, earthquake survivors in Armenia, the hungry in Africa, and so forth. She reached out to Communist countries in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
A strong opponent of abortion, she told an audience at a prayer meet in the United States in 1994, “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Give the child to me.”
Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack 1983 during a visit to Rome to meet Pope John Paul II. A second attack occurred in 1989, after which she had to depend on an artificial pacemaker. Further health problems continued, making her resign from her position as the head of the Mission. However, the sisters overturned her resignation, voting for her to stay.
She died on 5 September 1997.
Mother Teresa had her critics, especially towards the end of her life. Her views on suffering and philosophy towards patient care came under some pointed criticism. But her life and devotion to her cause continue to inspire people from around the world, and the good work she did is being taken forward by thousands of people who followed in her footsteps. They take inspiration from her words: “When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.”
Also on this day:
1914 — Begum Akhtar, Ghazal and Thumri singer, was born
1975 — Devanahalli Venkataramanaiah Gundappa, Kannada writer and philosopher, passed away
1978 — Zaheer Khan, Indian cricketer, was born