Mother Teresa Biography
Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu MC (born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, Albanian: 26 August 1910 – 5 September 1997), better known as Mother Teresa, was an Albanian-Indian Catholic nun and the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. Born in Skopje, then part of the Ottoman Empire, at the age of 18 she moved to Ireland and later to India, where she lived most of her life. On 4 September 2016, she was canonized by the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. The anniversary of her death, 5 September, is her feast day.
Mother Teresa founded Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation, which grew to have over 4,500 nuns across 133 countries as of 2012. The congregation manages homes for people who are dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis. The congregation also runs soup kitchens, dispensaries, mobile clinics, children’s and family counseling programs, as well as orphanages and schools. Members take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience and also profess a fourth vow: to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
Mother Teresa received several honors, including the 1962 Ramon Magsaysay Peace Prize and the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. A controversial figure during her life and after her death, Mother Teresa was admired by many for her charitable work, but was criticized for her views on abortion and contraception, as well as the poor conditions in her houses for the dying. Her authorized biography, written by Navin Chawla, was published in 1992, and she has been the subject of many other works. On 6 September 2017, Mother Teresa and Saint Francis Xavier were named co-patrons of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa Early life
Mother Teresa’s given name was Anjezë Gonxhe (or Gonxha) Bojaxhiu (Anjezë is a cognate of Agnes; Gonxhe means “flower bud” Albanian). She was born on 26 August 1910 into a Kosovar Albanian family in Skopje, Ottoman Empire (now the capital of North Macedonia). She was baptized in Skopje the day after her birth. She later considered 27 August, the day she was baptized, her “true birthday”.
She was the youngest child of Nikollë and Dranafile Bojaxhiu (Bernai). Her father, who was involved in Albanian-community politics in Ottoman North Macedonia, died in 1919 when she was eight years old. He was born in Prizren (today in Kosovo), however, his family was from Mirdita (present-day Albania). Her mother may have been from a village near Gjakova, believed by her offspring to be Bishtazhin.
According to a biography by Joan Graff Clucas, Anjezë was in her early years when she became fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries and their service in Bengal; by age 12, she was convinced that she should commit herself to religious life. Her resolve strengthened on 15 August 1928 as she prayed at the shrine of the Black Madonna of Vitina-Letnice, where she often went on pilgrimages.
Anjezë left home in 1928 at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland, to learn English with the intent of becoming a missionary; English was the language of instruction of the Sisters of Loreto in India. She saw neither her mother nor her sister again. Her family lived in Skopje until 1934 when they moved to Tirana.
She arrived in India in 1929 and began her novitiate in Darjeeling, in the lower Himalayas, where she learned Bengali and taught at St. Teresa’s School near her convent. She took her first religious vows on 24 May 1931. She chose to be named after Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries; because a nun in the convent had already chosen that name, she opted for its Spanish spelling of Teresa.
Teresa took her solemn vows on 14 May 1937 while she was a teacher at the Loreto convent school in Entally, eastern Calcutta, taking the style of ‘Mother’ as part of Loreto’s custom. She served there for nearly twenty years and was appointed its headmistress in 1944. Although Mother Teresa enjoyed teaching at the school, she was increasingly disturbed by the poverty surrounding her in Calcutta. The Bengal famine of 1943 brought misery and death to the city, and the August 1946 Direct Action Day began a period of Muslim-Hindu violence.
In 1946, during a visit to Darjeeling by train, Mother Teresa felt that she heard the call of her inner conscience to serve the poor of India for Jesus. She asked for and received permission to leave the school. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity, choosing a white sari with two blue borders as the order’s habit.
Missionaries of Charity
On 10 September 1946, Teresa experienced what she later described as “the call within the call” when she traveled by train to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling from Calcutta for her annual retreat. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.” Joseph Langford later wrote, “Though no one knew it at the time, Sister Teresa had just become Mother Teresa”.
She began missionary work with the poor in 1948, replacing her traditional Loreto habit with a simple, white cotton sari with a blue border. Mother Teresa adopted Indian citizenship, spent several months in Patna to receive basic medical training at Holy Family Hospital, and ventured into the slums. She founded a school in Motijhil, Calcutta, before she began tending to the poor and hungry. At the beginning of 1949, Mother Teresa was joined in her effort by a group of young women, and she laid the foundation for a new religious community helping the “poorest among the poor”.
Her efforts quickly caught the attention of Indian officials, including the prime minister. Mother Teresa wrote in her diary that her first year was fraught with difficulty. With no income, she begged for food and supplies and experienced doubt, loneliness, and the temptation to return to the comfort of convent life during these early months:
Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. 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. Then, the comfort of Loreto [her former congregation] came to tempt me. “You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again”, the Tempter kept on saying. … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come.
On 7 October 1950, Mother Teresa received Vatican permission for the diocesan congregation, which would become the Missionaries of Charity. In her words, it would care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone”.
In 1952, Mother Teresa opened her first hospice with help from Calcutta officials. She converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the Kalighat Home for the Dying, free for the poor, and renamed it Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart (Nirmal Hriday). Those brought to the home received medical attention and the opportunity to die with dignity in accordance with their faith: Muslims read the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics received extreme unction. “A beautiful death”, Mother Teresa said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.”
She opened a hospice for those with leprosy, calling it Shanti Nagar (City of Peace). The Missionaries of Charity established leprosy outreach clinics throughout Calcutta, providing medication, dressings, and food. The Missionaries of Charity took in an increasing number of homeless children; in 1955, Mother Teresa opened Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart, as a haven for orphans and homeless youth.
The congregation began to attract recruits and donations, and by the 1960s it had opened hospices, orphanages, and leper houses throughout India. Mother Teresa then expanded the congregation abroad, opening a house in Venezuela in 1965 with five sisters. Houses followed in Italy (Rome), Tanzania, and Austria in 1968, and, during the 1970s, the congregation opened houses and foundations in the United States and dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was founded in 1963, and a contemplative branch of the Sisters followed in 1976. Lay Catholics and non-Catholics were enrolled in the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity. Responding to requests by many priests, in 1981, Mother Teresa founded the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests and with Joseph Langford founded the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in 1984 to combine the vocational aims of the Missionaries of Charity with the resources of the priesthood.
By 1997, the 13-member Calcutta congregation had grown to more than 4,000 sisters who managed orphanages, AIDS hospices, and charity centers worldwide, caring for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless and victims of floods, epidemics, and famine. By 2007, the Missionaries of Charity numbered about 450 brothers and 5,000 sisters worldwide, operating 600 missions, schools, and shelters in 120 countries.
Mother Teresa said, “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
Fluent in five languages – Bengali, Albanian, Serbian, English, and Hindi – she made occasional trips outside India for humanitarian reasons. These included, in 1971, a visit with four of her sisters, to Troubles-era Belfast. Her suggestion that the conditions she had found justified an ongoing mission was the cause of some embarrassment. Reportedly under pressure from senior clergy, who believed “the missionary traffic should be in other direction”, and despite local welcome and support, she and her sisters abruptly left the city in 1973.
At the height of the Siege of Beirut in 1982, Mother Teresa rescued 37 children trapped in a front-line hospital by brokering a temporary cease-fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas. Accompanied by Red Cross workers, she traveled through the war zone to the hospital to evacuate the young patients.
When Eastern Europe experienced increased openness in the late 1980s, Mother Teresa expanded her efforts to Communist countries that had rejected the Missionaries of Charity. She began dozens of projects, undeterred by criticism of her stands against abortion and divorce: “No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work.” She visited Armenia after the 1988 earthquake and met with Soviet Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov.
Mother Teresa traveled to assist the hungry in Ethiopia, radiation victims at Chornobyl, and earthquake victims in Armenia. In 1991 she returned to Albania for the first time, opening a Missionaries of Charity Brothers home in Tirana.
By 1996, the Missionaries of Charity operated 517 missions in over 100 countries. The number of sisters in the Missionaries of Charity grew from twelve to thousands, serving the “poorest of the poor” in 450 centres worldwide. The first Missionaries of Charity home in the United States was established in the South Bronx area of New York City, and by 1984 the congregation operated 19 establishments throughout the country.
Declining health and death
Mother Teresa had a heart attack in Rome in 1983 while she was visiting Pope John Paul II. Following a second attack in 1989, she received a pacemaker. In 1991, after a bout of pneumonia in Mexico, she had additional heart problems. Although Mother Teresa offered to resign as head of the Missionaries of Charity, in a secret ballot the sisters of the congregation voted for her to stay, and she agreed to continue.
In April 1996, Mother Teresa fell, breaking her collarbone, and four months later she had malaria and heart failure. Although she underwent heart surgery, her health was clearly declining. According to Archbishop of Calcutta Henry Sebastian D’Souza, he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism (with her permission) when she was first hospitalized with cardiac problems because he thought she might be under attack by the devil. On 13 March 1997, Mother Teresa resigned as head of the Missionaries of Charity. She died on 5 September.
Mother Teresa lay in repose in an open casket in St Thomas, Calcutta, for a week before her funeral. She received a state funeral from the Indian government in gratitude for her service to the poor of all religions in the country. Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, the Pope’s representative, delivered the homily at the service. Mother Teresa’s death was mourned in the secular and religious communities. Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif called her “a rare and unique individual who lived long for higher purposes. Her life-long devotion to the care of the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged was one of the highest examples of service to our humanity. According to former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, “She is the United Nations. She is at peace in the world.