By Libby Laux
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
Mother Teresa was a humanitarian. She was a tiny woman of just 4 feet 11 inches and less than 100 pounds. Yet, she spent many years lifting and carrying those who were dying or sick. Mother Teresa chose to "serve the poorest of the poor and to live among them and like them." She saw beauty in every human being. She, along with others of the Missionaries of Charity, strove to make the lives and deaths of those around them more peaceful and full of love. She fed, washed, and cared for anyone who needed the assistance.
August 27, 1910, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa) was born in the town of Skopje, Yugoslavia (now Macedonia). Her parents were both Albanian. Agnes was one of 3 children. At the age of 12 Agnes felt that she had a calling to help others.
In 1928, at the age of 18, Agnes left her family to become a missionary in India. She joined the Sisters of Loreto. She was sent to Ireland to learn English because India was ruled by the British at the time. There Agnes took her first vows as a nun in 1929 and changed her name to Sister Mary Teresa. She chose the name Teresa because her favorite saint was Saint Teresa of Lisieux, a patron saint of missionaries.
Sister Teresa began her missionary work in Darjeeling, India where she taught wealthy children. A couple of years later, in 1931, she was sent to Calcutta to teach geography at St. Mary's High School. This was an all girls school run by the Sisters of Loreto. Most of the girls were from middle-class families. St. Mary's was located near the slums of Calcutta, known as Moti Jhil. Moti Jhil was overpopulated with poor and starving people, open sewers, and disease. During Sister Teresa's years at St. Mary's, she was touched by the poverty surrounding the beautiful school. She often went to the slums on Saturdays to help the poor and suffering people of Moti Jhil.
In 1939, Sister Teresa took her final vows to the Sisters of Loreto. In 1946, she was suspected of having tuberculosis and was sent to Darjeeling to rest. It was there that Sister Teresa decided she was being called to "serve the poorest of the poor." Thus, she requested permission to leave the Sisters of Loreto to serve the poor of Calcutta.
In 1948, Sister Teresa was granted permission by Pope Pius XII to leave her order and serve the poor. She said that leaving her family to become a missionary was very difficult but leaving the convent was even more difficult for her because she loved the work she was doing and it was there that she learned how to serve others. Sister Teresa had no place to stay, no food, and only the equivalent of two dollars with her. She began wearing the traditional clothing of India. She chose sandals and a simple, inexpensive white sari trimmed in blue. This clothing was similar to the dress of the common people of India.
During this time, Calcutta had a million poor people, most living in make-shift homes or on the sidewalks themselves. To learn more about how to care for the sick and suffering, she went to Patna, India to receive a few months of medical training from the American Medical Missionaries.
When Sister Teresa returned to Calcutta, she was alone and as poor as those she longed to serve. She once said, "(I) found myself alone on the streets of Calcutta, I experienced a strong feeling of loss and almost of fear that was difficult to overcome." Being the strong woman that she was, she did not let fear stand in her way. She begged for food and supplies to help the poor. She also began teaching children how to care for themselves. Sister Teresa saw a need for children to be educated so she taught them lessons by writing in the dirt because they had no books and nothing to write with. Each day more children gathered around for her lessons. It is during this time that she began to be called "Mother Teresa." Mother Teresa was soon given a single room to live in. She also became a citizen of India.
In 1950, Mother Teresa officially established the Missionaries of Charity with 12 members. A former student from St. Mary's was the first to join her. She was a young Hindu girl who greatly respected Mother Teresa and her work for the poor. Several other members of the Missionaries of Charity were also former wealthy Hindu students of St. Mary's High School. They all lived together in a small building that was donated to them. Today, there are thousands of members (both men and women) of the Missionaries of Charity all around the world.
Due to the difficulty of the work, a woman who wanted to join the Missionaries of Charity was required to work with the poor for six months before deciding whether she would join the order. Upon joining, a woman was required to wait eight years before taking her final vows to be a missionary for the rest of her life. Women who joined the order were required to take the vow of poverty, chastity, obedience, and "whole-hearted free service of the poorest of the poor."
Mother Teresa also required that all members of the Missionaries of Charity be healthy (because the physical work was difficult), able to learn, cheerful and be able to smile. She believed that in order to love the person you are serving, you must serve them cheerfully. She taught the missionaries to "keep the joy of loving the poor and share this joy with all that you meet. (And) remember works of love are works of peace."
Life as a Missionary of Charity was very difficult and required sacrifice. The missionaries worked six days a week, woke up at 4:30 in the morning and went to bed at 10:00 at night. In the beginning, they were only allowed to eat rice seasoned with salt because that is all that the poor people of Calcutta had to eat. However, it was later decided that the members could eat a little fruit and meat so they were able to remain healthy and better able to serve the poor.
Mother Teresa told a story of her works, "One day, in a heap of rubbish, I found a woman who was half dead. Her body had been bitten by rats and by ants. I took her to a hospital, but they had told me that they didn't want her because they couldn't do anything for her. I protested and said that I wouldn't leave unless they hospitalized her. They had a long meeting and finally granted my request. That woman was saved."
Realizing the need for a home to care for those who were dying alone in the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa requested a place from city officials. She was given a building next to the temple. She called the new home for the dying, "Nirmal Hriday" which means the "Pure Heart." Nirmal Hriday was where homeless, dying individuals were washed, given food, and allowed to die with dignity. It was a struggle to get the people of Calcutta to trust her. They were afraid that she was helping people just so she could convert them to Catholicism. This was not her intention. She respected the religions of the people and simply believed that everyone deserved to die in a loving and caring atmosphere. Soon, they realized her true intention and began to bring dying people from the streets to Nirmal Hriday to receive love and care.
Over the years, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity established homes all over the world for the dying, the sick, orphaned children, lepers, the aged, the disabled, and AIDS victims (in New York). Mother Teresa saw beauty in all of these individuals who were abandoned or rejected by others because
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