Her official name in the Congregation for Causes of Saints is St. Teresa of Calcutta, but for the generation of Catholics growing up in the late 20th century, she will always be “Mother” Teresa, the tireless advocate for the poorest of the poor all over the world.
Born in Albania on Aug. 26, 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe (Agnes Rose) Bojaxhiu was the daughter of a Albanian politician. As a chlld, Anjezë was moved by stories of missionaries, and by the time she was twelve, knew that she wanted that to be her life’s work.
Her religious life began when she travelled to Ireland to join the Little Sisters of Loreto at Rathfarnham. She chose the order because they were a missionary order and she would be able to learn English, the language they used in their work in India.
In 1929, the young postulant went to India, and served her novitiate teaching in Darjeeling. When it came time to chose her religious name, she was inspired by Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of missionaries. (She chose the Spanish spelling of Teresa for her religious name.)
While she was on retreat in 1946, Sister Teresa felt her her “call within a call.” She believed God was calling her to go more intensely into charity work. She felt God wanted her to leave convent life and instead live among the poor people she served. In 1948 she replaced her traditional religious habit with a simple white sari with a blue stripe, became an Indian citizen, and took medical training at Holy Family Hospital in Patna to better serve the needs of the people.
In 1950, Mother Teresa officially founded a new religious order, devoted to serving “the poorest of the poor:” The Missionaries of Charity. She described the mission of the order as caring 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.”
And the Missionaries of Charity did just that. They started with a hospice for lepers and clinics for leprosy sufferers. They founded the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart for orphans and homeless youth, and many other orphanages. Soon they began to get recognition for their work, and the number of donations and volunteers interested in serving the poor grew.
In the 1960s, Mother Teresa expanded the order’s work to South America. They later expanded worldwide to Rome, Tanzania, Austria, United States, and more countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. When the AIDS crisis happened, the Missionaries of Charity immediately opened up hospices to care for the often-rejected victims of the disease.
The number of people involved in the good work of the Missionaries of Charity was expanding too, with the founding of the Brothers of Charity and many lay volunteers. By 2007, there were more than 5,000 sisters and 400 brothers working worldwide, serving over 600 missions, schools and shelters in 120 countries.
Although humble in manner and appearance, she was a powerful world figure. Because of her missionary work, Mother Teresa was fluent in five languages, which helped her to serve worldwide. Most people were surprised to find out that the nun they so strongly associated with India was actually European. When asked what nationality she most closely identified as, she 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.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this woman who lived her faith so publicly and spread God’s love so far, was that she often had what St. John of the Cross called “a dark night of the soul.” She frequently felt disconnected from God and felt doubts about his existence. According to biographers, she battled these doubts most of her life.
In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work.
During the siege of Beirut in 1982, Mother Teresa intervened in the war zone to rescue children from a hospital on the front lines by brokering a temporary ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians. She took her sisters to communist countries, and was there for emergences at Chernobyl and assisted after many natural disasters all over the world.
Tirelessly serving the poor took its toll on her health. While visiting Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1983 she had a heart attack; a second attack followed in 1989 and she received a pacemaker. In 1996, she battled malaria, a broken collarbone and heart failure.
In March 1997, she stepped down as head of the Missionaries of Charity. She was gone from earthly life six month later, dying on Sept. 5, 1997.
India held a state funeral in her honor in gratitude for her service to the poor, regardless of religion, in their country. People all over the world mourned the loss of what some people called “a living saint.”
She was canonized Sept. 4, 2016. A prominent atheist was called to, in effect, testify against her cause, however his observations did not give adequate cause to withhold her canonization.
One of her most attributed quotes is “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
St. Teresa of Calcutta is the patron of the Archdiocese of Kolkata (Calcutta).
She is the subject of the 1969 documentary, “Something Beautiful for God” by Malcolm Muggeridge. The film is often credited for bringing attention to her work to the world.
In 1997, Geraldine Chaplin played Mother Teresa in the film: “Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor” which received an Art Film Festival in 1997. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0136414/
Find out more about the Missionaries of Charity’s work in Philadelphia here
The main website of the Missionaries of Charity: https://www.motherteresa.org/missionaries-of-charity.html
Her official Vatican biography can be found here: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20031019_madre-teresa_en.html
Read more about her heroics in the war of Lebanon and the cease fire here: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Mother-Teresa%2C-the-war-in-Lebanon-and-the-rescue-of-100-orphans-and-children-with-disabilities-38470.html