Mother Teresa MC, known in the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta (born in Skopje, Macedonia; Albanian 26 August 1910 –5 September 1997), was an Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic nun and missionary. She was born in Skopje (now the capital of the Republic of Macedonia), then part of the Kosovo Vilayet of the Ottoman Empire. After living in Macedonia for eighteen years she moved to Ireland and then to India, where she lived for most of her life.
Mother Teresa was the founder of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to helping the poor. Considered one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century, she was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta in 2016.
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Mother Teresa taught in India for 17 years before in 1946 she experienced her “call within a call” to devote herself to caring for the sick and poor. Her order established a hospice; centers for the blind, aged, and disabled; and a leper colony. In 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work. She died in September 1997 and was beatified in October 2003. In December 2015, Pope Francis recognized a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, clearing the way for her to be canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta on September 4, 2016.
Catholic nun and missionary Mother Teresa was born on August 26, 1910, in Skopje, the current capital of the Republic of Macedonia. The following day, she was baptized as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Her parents, Nikola and Dranafile Bojaxhiu, were of Albanian descent; her father was an entrepreneur who worked as a construction contractor and a trader of medicines and other goods. The Bojaxhius were a devoutly Catholic family, and Nikola was deeply involved in the local church as well as in city politics as a vocal proponent of Albanian independence.
In 1919, when Agnes was only 8 years old, her father suddenly fell ill and died. While the cause of his death remains unknown, many have speculated that political enemies poisoned him. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Agnes became extraordinarily close to her mother, a pious and compassionate woman who instilled in her daughter a deep commitment to charity.
Although by no means wealthy, Drana Bojaxhiu extended an open invitation to the city’s destitute to dine with her family. “My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others,” she counseled her daughter. When Agnes asked who the people eating with them were, her mother uniformly responded, “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.”
According to a biography by Joan Graff Clucas, during her early years Teresa was 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.
Teresa left home in 1928 at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland, to learn English with the view of becoming a missionary; English was the language of instruction of the Sisters of Loreto in India. She never saw her mother or 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 learnt Bengali and taught at St. Teresa’s School near her convent. Teresa 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, Agnes opted for its Spanish spelling (Teresa).
Teresa took her solemn vows on 14 May 1937 while she was a teacher at the Loreto convent school in Entally, eastern Calcutta. She served there for nearly twenty years, and was appointed its headmistress in 1944. Although 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.
The Missionaries of Charity
Mother Teresa quickly translated this somewhat vague calling into concrete actions to help the city’s poor. She began an open-air school and established a home for the dying destitute in a dilapidated building she convinced the city government to donate to her cause. In October 1950, she won canonical recognition for a new congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded with only a handful of members—most of them former teachers or pupils from St. Mary’s School.
As the ranks of her congregation swelled and donations poured in from around India and across the globe, the scope of Mother Teresa’s charitable activities expanded exponentially. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, she established a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile health clinics.
In 1971, Mother Teresa traveled to New York City to open her first American-based house of charity, and in the summer of 1982, she secretly went to Beirut, Lebanon, where she crossed between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut to aid children of both faiths. In 1985, Mother Teresa returned to New York and spoke at the 40th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly. While there, she also opened Gift of Love, a home to care for those infected with HIV/AIDS.
International Charity and Recognition
In February 1965, Pope Paul VI bestowed the Decree of Praise upon the Missionaries of Charity, which prompted Mother Teresa to begin expanding internationally. By the time of her death in 1997, the Missionaries of Charity numbered more than 4,000—in addition to thousands more lay volunteers—with 610 foundations in 123 countries around the world.
The Decree of Praise was just the beginning, as Mother Teresa received various honors for her tireless and effective charity. She was awarded the Jewel of India, the highest honor bestowed on Indian civilians, as well as the now-defunct Soviet Union’s Gold Medal of the Soviet Peace Committee. In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work “in bringing help to suffering humanity.”
Despite this widespread praise, Mother Teresa’s life and work have not gone without its controversies. In particular, she has drawn criticism for her vocal endorsement of some of the Catholic Church’s more controversial doctrines, such as opposition to contraception and abortion. “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” Mother Teresa said in her 1979 Nobel lecture.
In 1995, she publicly advocated a “no” vote in the Irish referendum to end the country’s constitutional ban on divorce and remarriage. The most scathing criticism of Mother Teresa can be found in Christopher Hitchens’s book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, in which Hitchens argued that Mother Teresa glorified poverty for her own ends and provided a justification for the preservation of institutions and beliefs that sustained widespread poverty.
Death and Sainthood
After several years of deteriorating health, in which she suffered from heart, lung and kidney problems, Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997, at the age of 87. In 2002, the Vatican recognized a miracle involving an Indian woman named Monica Besra, who said she was cured of an abdominal tumor through Mother Teresa’s intercession on the one year anniversary of her death in 1998. She was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” on October 19, 2003 in a ceremony led by Pope John Paul II.
Since her death, Mother Teresa has remained in the public spotlight. In particular, the publication of her private correspondence in 2003 caused a wholesale re-evaluation of her life by revealing the crisis of faith she suffered for most of the last 50 years of her life.
In one despairing letter to a confidant, she wrote, “Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness—My God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart—& make me suffer untold agony.” While such revelations are shocking considering her public image, they have also made Mother Teresa a more relatable and human figure to all those who experience doubt in their beliefs.
For her unwavering commitment to aiding those most in need, Mother Teresa stands out as one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century. She combined profound empathy and a fervent commitment to her cause with incredible organizational and managerial skills that allowed her to develop a vast and effective international organization of missionaries to help impoverished citizens all across the globe.
However, despite the enormous scale of her charitable activities and the millions of lives she touched, to her dying day she held only the most humble conception of her own achievements. Summing up her life in characteristically self-effacing fashion, 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.”
On December 17, 2015, Pope Francis issued a decree that recognized a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, clearing the way for her to be canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. The second miracle involved the healing of Marcilio Andrino, a Brazilian man who was diagnosed with a viral brain infection and lapsed into a coma. His wife, family and friends prayed to Mother Teresa, and when the man was brought to the operating room for emergency surgery, he woke up without pain and was cured of his symptoms, according to a statement from the Missionaries of Charity Father.
Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint on September 4, 2016, a day before the 19th anniversary of her death. Pope Francis led the canonization Mass, which was held in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
Tens of thousands of Catholics and pilgrims from around the world attended the canonization to celebrate the woman who had been called “the saint of the gutters” during her lifetime because of her charitable work with the poor.
“After due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint, and we enroll her among the saints, decreeing that she is to be venerated as such by the whole church,” Pope Francis said in Latin.
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The Pope spoke about Mother Teresa’s life of service in the homily. ”Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded,” he said. “She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity. She made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created.”
He also told the faithful to follow her example and practice compassion. “Mercy was the salt which gave flavor to her work, it was the light which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering,” he said, adding. “May she be your model of holiness.”