Few names in recent history summon to mind the selfless dedication and love of God of Mother Teresa, a humble nun who spent much of her life serving the unwanted and hopeless of the world. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, on the way to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and founder of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa is well known. Her early life, however, remains largely unknown.
Born Gonxha (a foreign form of Agnes) Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia (part of Yugoslavia), on August 27, 1910 Mother Teresa was one of five children although just three survived. Gonxha or Agnes was the youngest child with an older sister, Aga, and one brother, Lazar. Although some accounts describe Mother Teresa’s origins as peasants, family members dispute the story. The family owned not one but two homes. Nikola, Agnes’ father, was a successful builder and co-owner of a construction business. He died, possibly because of political rivalry, when Agnes was just seven years old. Her father’s sudden death impacted Agnes’ family and drew them closer to their Roman Catholic faith.
Young Agnes did not dream of becoming a nun but she was fascinated with stories of missionaries in other lands. By the age of 18, she could pinpoint many mission sites on the globe and while 18, she felt a call to the religious life.
She chose the Loreto Sisters in Dublin, Ireland. The Loretos were an old, respected order of nuns that had been founded in the 17th century. Agnes left behind her mother, family, and home. She would not see her mother again. The young woman traveled to distant Ireland although she spoke little English. At the convent, she was remembered as small and timid, an ordinary noviate. Nothing about her indicated that she would one day found her own order or that she would gain fame for her work among the lowest realms of society.
A few months after her arrival in Ireland, Agnes was sent to Darjeeling, India to the Sisters of Loreto there. In 1931 she took her vows as a nun. At that time she took the name Teresa to honor two Catholic saints, Therese of Lisieux (The Little Flower) and Teresa of Avila. Sister Teresa was assigned to teach at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta. She taught history and geography from 1931 until 1948. Her students were the daughters of wealthy residents of the huge city and her world was insulated from the horrors of poverty found in the streets of Calcutta.
On a religious retreat to Darjeeling during 1946, she received a new divine call and a desire to work with the unwanted human refuse of the streets was born. Two years later, Sister Teresa had managed to be released from her vows and gained permission to live outside the Loreto Sisters Convent. The Archbishop of Calcutta granted permission for her to work with Calcutta’s poor on the streets. After taking a nursing course of study to prepare for her life’s work, she was also granted permission by Pope Pius XII to work alone in Calcutta.
Leaving the safe confines of the convent was a large step but Sister Teresa followed her heart in obedience to the will of God. She decided to abandon her nun’s habit for the common clothing of a poor Indian woman – a white sari and sandals. She wore this clothing until her death.
She rented a small room and went to work. Without a plan, a supervisor, or any assistance, she began with the children of the streets. She taught children to read by drawing in the dirt. Some of her most important lessons were to teach children basic hygiene. Cleanliness helps prevent disease and soon, as children began to love and trust Sister Teresa, she was invited into some of the poorest homes in Calcutta.
In less than a year, help began to arrive. Young women who wanted to serve as Sister Teresa served began seeking her out to offer their services. Many of these young women would become part of the order founded by Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity. Offers of food, supplies, clothing, medical supplies, and buildings to use began arriving. As more hands joined with Teresa in her work, she decided to found a new order.
On October 7, 1950, the Pope authorized the new Missionaries of Charity and Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa. Over the past half-century, the Missionaries of Charity grew and spread. Today, this order offers both men and women the opportunity to serve in Asia, Africa, and Latin America where workers help the poorest of the poor, the least of God’s children. In the United States and in Europe, Missionaries of Charity work with AIDS victims. Worldwide, the Missionaries of Charity respond to natural disasters and other catasphrophes.
Although Mother Teresa was a small woman who suffered from many ailments, she continued to work in the fields of the Lord throughout her life. Notables such as Princess Diana and First Lady Nancy Reagan visited Mother Teresa. In 1971, Mother Teresa received the Peace Prize from Pope John and she received the Noble Peace Prize in 1979.
She died on September 5, 1997, just a few months after resigning her position as head of the Missionaries of Charity. Although she died, her work continues today in many nations, helping lepers, AIDS patients, orphans, the dying, homeless, and anyone in need.
Mother Teresa is expected to one day be listed as a Roman Catholic saint, an honor that no one, of any faith, can dispute she earned with a lifetime of service to the most helpless residents of our world.