Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)
Feast Day: September 5
Patron of World Youth Day
Beatified By: Pope John Paul II
“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. ”
The remarkable woman who would be known as Mother Theresa began life named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Born on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia, she was the youngest child born to Nikola and Drane Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa was born on August 26, 1910, but she later considered 27 August, the day she was baptized, to be her "true birthday."
Receiving her First Communion at the age of five, she was confirmed in November 1916. For most of her life, Mother Teresa helped the poor. However, contrary to some popular beliefs, she herself was not born into a poor family. Her father died while she was only eight years old leaving her family in financial straits. She spent her adolescence deeply involved in parish activities. Agnes was fascinated with missionaries from an early age, and by 12 she knew that she would commit herself to a religious vocation.
Gonxha left her home in September 1928 at the age of 18 to join the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the Sisters of Loreto, in Ireland. After that, she never saw her mother or her sisters again. She received the name Sister Mary Teresa after St. Therese of Lisieux. Because one nun in the convent had already chosen that name, she opted for the Spanish spelling of Teresa. Sister Teresa made her Final Profession of Vows, on May 24, 1937, becoming, as she said, the "spouse of Jesus" for "all eternity." From that time on she was called Mother Teresa.
On 10 September 1946, on a train journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa received what she termed the "call within a call," which was to give rise to the Missionaries of Charity family of Sisters, Brothers, Fathers, and Co-Workers. The content of this inspiration is revealed in the aim and mission she would give to her new institute: "to quench the infinite thirst of Jesus on the cross for love and souls" by "laboring at the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor." In 1948 Sister Teresa set aside her nun’s habit – adopting instead the simple sari and sandals worn by the women she would be living among – and moved to a small rented hovel in the slums to begin her work. On October 7, 1950, the new congregation of the Missionaries of Charity was officially erected as a religious institute for the Archdiocese of Calcutta.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Mother Teresa expanded the work of the Missionaries of Charity both within Calcutta and throughout India. In 1952, 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 were read the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics received extreme unction. "A beautiful death", Teresa said, "is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted."
From the late 1960s until 1980, the Missionaries of Charity expanded both in their reach across the globe and in their number of members. Mother Teresa opened houses in Australia, the Middle East, and North America, and the first novitiate outside Calcutta in London. In 1979 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By that same year there were 158 Missionaries of Charity foundations.
The Missionaries of Charity reached Communist countries in 1979 with a house in Zagreb, Croatia, and in 1980 with a house in East Berlin, and continued to expand through the 1980s and 1990s with houses in almost all Communist nations, including 15 foundations in the former Soviet Union. Despite repeated efforts, however, Mother Teresa was never able to open a foundation in China.
Mother Teresa spoke at the fortieth anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly in October 1985. On Christmas Eve of that year, Mother Teresa opened "Gift of Love" in New York, her first house for AIDS patients. In the coming years, this home would be followed by others, in the United States and elsewhere, devoted specifically for those with AIDS. From the late 1980s through the 1990s, despite increasing health problems, Mother Teresa traveled across the world for the profession of novices, opening of new houses, and service to the poor and disaster-stricken.
During the last years of her life, despite increasingly severe health problems, Mother Teresa continued to govern her Society and respond to the needs of the poor and the Church. In her later years Mother Teresa spoke out against divorce, contraception, and abortion. 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 an artificial pacemaker. In 1991, after a bout of pneumonia in Mexico, she had additional heart problems. Although 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 she fell, breaking her collarbone, and four months later she had malaria and heart failure. Although Teresa had 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.
By 1997, Mother Teresa’s Sisters numbered nearly 4,000 members and were established in 610 foundations in 123 countries of the world. These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children's- and family-counselling programs, orphanages and schools. The Missionaries of Charity were aided by co-workers numbering over one million by the 1990s. In March 1997 she blessed her newly-elected successor as Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity and then made one more trip abroad. After meeting Pope John Paul II for the last time, she returned to Calcutta in July, 1997 and spent her final weeks receiving visitors and instructing her Sisters.
At 9:30 PM, on 5 September, Mother Teresa died at the Motherhouse. Her body was transferred to St Thomas's Church, next to the Loreto convent where she had first arrived nearly 69 years earlier. She was given the honor of a state funeral by the Government of India and her body was buried in the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. Her tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage and prayer for people of all faiths, rich and poor alike. Mother Teresa left a testament of unshakable faith, invincible hope and extraordinary charity.
Among the 124 awards received:
- Padmashree Award (from the President of India) August 1962
- Pope John XXIII Peace Prize January 1971
- John F. Kennedy International Award September 1971
- Jawahalal Nehru Award for International Understanding November 1972
- Templeton Prize for "Progress in Religion" April 1973
- Nobel Peace Prize December 1979
- Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) March 1980
- Order of Merit (from Queen Elizabeth) November 1983
- Gold Medal of the Soviet Peace Committee August 1987
- United States Congressional Gold Medal June 1997
Less than two years after her death, in view of Mother Teresa’s widespread reputation of holiness and the favors being reported, Pope John Paul II permitted the opening of her Cause of Canonization. On 20 December 2002 he approved the decrees of her heroic virtues and miracles. Mother Teresa was canonized on Sep. 4, 2016. At a Roman Catholic canonization service held on the St. Peter’s Square in Vatican, in front of hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a saint. There is no denying the fact that Mother Teresa was one of the most famous, respected, influential, and admired personalities of the 20th century, but to many people, she was known just as “a nun who helped the poor and sick.” Pope Francis declared her a saint, yet noted, "With great spontaneity, I think we will continue to call her Mother Teresa." On September 5, 2017, St. Teresa Cathedral, the first Roman Catholic cathedral named in Teresa's honor, was consecrated in Kosovo. The Cathedral is also Kosovo's first Roman Catholic cathedral as well.