Born in Skopje, Albania, in the Ottoman Empire (now Macedonia), August 26, 1910, Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu considered her baptismal day, August 27, her true birthday. When she was eight, her father died after becoming ill suddenly, possibly the victim of poisoning by his political enemies.
In the course of raising her three children, Lazar, Aga and Agnes, Drana Bojaxhiu extended an open invitation to the city’s poor to dine with her family. She told her daughter, “My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others.” When Agnes asked about the people eating with them, her mother would respond, “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.”
From an early age, young Agnes was fascinated by the lives of missionaries in Bengal, and by the age of 12 had decided that she should pursue a consecrated religious life. She entered the Sisters of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Ireland in 1928, wanting to learn English so she could become a missionary in India. She arrived in Calcutta in 1929 to begin her novitiate. There, she learned Bengali and taught at St. Teresa’s School. When she took first vows in 1931, she wanted to be named after St. Therese of Lisieux, but chose the Spanish spelling of Teresa, and became Sister Mary Teresa. She made her final profession of vows in 1937, becoming, as she said, “the spouse of Jesus” for “all eternity.” She was first called Mother Teresa while teaching at St. Mary’s School in Calcutta.
In September 1946, while traveling by train from Calcutta to Darjeeling for a retreat with her community, Sister Teresa experienced what she later referred to as the call within the call: “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.”
In 1948, she received permission to begin the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa traded in her traditional habit and began wearing the simple cotton sari for which she became so well known; she became an Indian citizen and received basic medical training. By 1949, a group of young women had joined her, and the Missionaries of Charity went on to become officially recognized as a diocesan religious congregation in 1950. They went into the slums of Calcutta to care for the sick and hungry.
The mission of the congregation, then as now, was articulated by Mother Teresa in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979: “In the poor it is the hungry Christ that we are feeding, it is the naked Christ that we are clothing, it is the homeless Christ that we are giving shelter.”
In 1952, Mother Teresa opened Kalighat Home for the Dying in Calcutta, which was a free hospice for the poor housed in an abandoned Hindu temple. All those who came to the home received care consistent with their faith. Next came a home for those with Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy. She established outreach clinics throughout Calcutta for those suffering from the dreaded disease.
Lost children found a home with the Missionaries of Charity at Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, a home for orphans and homeless youth. By 1960, the missionaries were operating orphanages and hospices all over India. In 1965, they expanded their mission to Venezuela with five sisters. Throughout the next decade, more missions followed until they had a presence on every continent.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, the contemplative branch of the sisters, the contemplative branch of the brothers and the Missionaries of Charity Fathers. For the laity, she founded the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and later, the Lay Missionaries of Charity. She also founded the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests in 1981, as a “little way of holiness” for those who wished to share in her charism.
Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.” She planned to use the approximately $190,000 in prize money to build more homes for the poor, “especially for the lepers.”
As of 2015, the Missionaries of Charity numbered approximately 377 brothers and 5,029 sisters worldwide, operating missions, schools and shelters in 137 countries.
In March of 1997, with significant problems impairing her health, Mother Teresa stepped down as Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity. Following a final visit to Rome to visit Pope John Paul II, she returned to Calcutta, where she died on Sept. 5. The government of India gave her a state funeral, and she was buried at the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta.
Beatification and sainthood
In early 1999 ̶ less than two years after Mother Teresa’s death ̶ Pope St. John Paul II waived the usual five-year waiting period and allowed her canonization cause to be opened. This was the first time a canonization cause was not subject to the five-year rule. In 2003, the Holy Father beatified Mother Teresa before a crowd of 300,000 in St. Peter Square. In advancing the cause for canonization, a miracle must be documented performed from the intercession of the blessed. In 2002, the Vatican recognized as a miracle the healing of a tumor in the abdomen of an Indian woman. In 2015, Pope Francis recognized a second miracle attributed to her that involved the healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors. Pope Francis will declare Blessed Teresa of Kolkata a saint at the Vatican Sept. 4.
“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.”
“Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
“God still loves the world and He sends you and me to be His love and His compassion to the poor.”
“Who are the least of my brothers? The poorest of the poor are.”
“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, He will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ Rather He will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?’ ”
“God is the friend of silence. In the silence of our hearts, God speaks of His love; with our silence, we allow Jesus to love us.”
“The child is the beauty of God present in the world; that greatest gift to the family.”