Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, M.C., commonly known as Mother Teresa (26 August 1910 – 5 September 1997), was a Roman Catholic religious sister and missionary who lived most of her life in India. She was born in today’s Macedonia, with her family being of Albanian descent originating in Kosovo.
Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, which in 2012 consisted of over 4,500 sisters and is active in 133 countries. They run hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; dispensaries and mobile clinics; children’s and family counselling programmes; orphanages; and schools. Members must adhere to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience as well as a fourth vow, to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”.
Mother Teresa was the recipient of numerous honours including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2003, she was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”. A second miracle credited to her intercession is required before she can be recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church.
A controversial figure both during her life and after her death, Mother Teresa was widely admired by many for her charitable works, but also widely criticised, particularly for her efforts opposing contraception and for substandard conditions in the hospices for which she was responsible.
An ethnic Albanian born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (Albanian: [a’??z ‘???d?e b?ja’d?iu]) (gonxha meaning “rosebud” or “little flower” in Albanian) on 26 August 1910, she considered 27 August, the day she was baptised, to be her “true birthday”. Her birthplace of Skopje, now capital of the Republic of Macedonia, was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. Her family continued to live in Skopje until 1934 , when they moved to Tirana in Albania.
She was the youngest of the children of Nikollë and Dranafile Bojaxhiu (Bernai). Her father, who was involved in Albanian politics, died in 1919 when she was eight years old. Her father may have been from Prizren, Kosovo while her mother may have been from a village near Yakova.
According to a biography written by Joan Graff Clucas, in her early years Agnes was fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries and their service in Bengal, and by age 12 had become convinced that she should commit herself to a religious life. Her final resolution was taken on 15 August 1928, while praying at the shrine of the Black Madonna of Letnice, where she often went on pilgrimage.
She left home at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary. She never again saw her mother or sister.
Agnes initially went to the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland, to learn English, the language the Sisters of Loreto used to teach school children in India. She arrived in India in 1929, and began her novitiate in Darjeeling, near the Himalayan mountains, where she learnt Bengali and taught at the St. Teresa’s School, a schoolhouse close to her convent. She took her first religious vows as a nun on 24 May 1931. At that time she chose to be named after Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries, but because one nun in the convent had already chosen that name, Agnes opted for the Spanish spelling Teresa.
She took her solemn vows on 14 May 1937, while serving as a teacher at the Loreto convent school in Entally, eastern Calcutta. Teresa served there for almost twenty years and in 1944 was appointed headmistress.
Although Teresa enjoyed teaching at the school, she was increasingly disturbed by the poverty surrounding her in Calcutta (Kolkata). The Bengal famine of 1943 brought misery and death to the city; and the outbreak of Hindu/Muslim violence in August 1946 plunged the city into despair and horror.
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.”
In 1982, at the height of the Siege of Beirut, 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 travelled through the war zone to the devastated hospital to evacuate the young patients.
When Eastern Europe experienced increased openness in the late 1980s, she expanded her efforts to Communist countries that had previously rejected the Missionaries of Charity, embarking on dozens of projects. She was undeterred by criticism about her firm stand against abortion and divorce stating, “No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work.” She visited the Soviet republic of Armenia following the 1988 earthquake, and met with Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
Mother Teresa travelled to assist and minister to the hungry in Ethiopia, radiation victims at Chernobyl, and earthquake victims in Armenia. In 1991, Mother Teresa returned for the first time to her homeland and opened a Missionaries of Charity Brothers home in Tirana, Albania.
By 1996, Mother Teresa was operating 517 missions in more than 100 countries. Over the years, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity grew from twelve to thousands serving the “poorest of the poor” in 450 centres around the world. The first Missionaries of Charity home in the United States was established in the South Bronx, New York; by 1984 the congregation operated 19 establishments throughout the country. Mother Teresa was fluent in five languages: Bengali, Albanian, Serbian, English, and Hindi.
Declining health and death
Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack in Rome in 1983 while visiting Pope John Paul II. After a second attack in 1989, she received an artificial pacemaker. In 1991, after a battle with pneumonia while in Mexico, she suffered further heart problems. She offered to resign her position as head of the Missionaries of Charity, but the sisters of the congregation, in a secret ballot, voted for her to stay. Mother Teresa agreed to continue her work as head of the congregation.
In April 1996, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone. In August she suffered from malaria and failure of the left heart ventricle. She had heart surgery but it was clear that her health was declining. The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D’Souza, said he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism on Mother Teresa with her permission when she was first hospitalised with cardiac problems because he thought she may be under attack by the devil.
On 13 March 1997, she stepped down from the head of Missionaries of Charity. She died on 5 September 1997.
At the time of her death, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, and an associated brotherhood of 300 members, operating 610 missions in 123 countries. These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counselling programs, personal helpers, orphanages, and schools. The Missionaries of Charity were also aided by Co-Workers, who numbered over 1 million by the 1990s.
Mother Teresa lay in repose in St Thomas, Kolkata for one week prior to her funeral, in September 1997. She was granted a state funeral by the Indian government in gratitude for her services to the poor of all religions in India. Her death was mourned in both secular and religious communities. In tribute, Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan said that she was “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.” The former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar said: “She is the United Nations. She is peace in the world.”
Mother Teresa had first been recognised by the Indian government more than a third of a century earlier when she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1962 and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1969. She continued to receive major Indian awards in subsequent years, including India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1980. Her official biography was written by an Indian civil servant, Navin Chawla, and published in 1992.
On 28 August 2010, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, the government of India issued a special 5 Rupee coin, being the sum she first arrived in India with. President Pratibha Patil said of Mother Teresa, “Clad in a white sari with a blue border, she and the sisters of Missionaries of Charity became a symbol of hope to many – the aged, the destitute, the unemployed, the diseased, the terminally ill, and those abandoned by their families.
Indian views on Mother Teresa were not uniformly favourable. Her critic Aroup Chatterjee, who was born and raised in Calcutta but lived in London, reports that “she was not a significant entity in Calcutta in her lifetime”. Chatterjee blames Mother Teresa for promoting a negative image of Calcutta, exaggerating the work done by her Mission, and misusing the funds and privileges at her disposal. Her presence and profile grated in parts of the Indian political world, as she often opposed the Hindu Right. The Bharatiya Janata Party clashed with her over the Christian Dalits, but praised her in death, sending a representative to her funeral. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, on the other hand, opposed the government’s decision to grant her a state funeral. Its secretary Giriraj Kishore said that “her first duty was to the Church and social service was incidental” and accused her of favouring Christians and conducting “secret baptisms” of the dying. But, in its front page tribute, the Indian fortnightly Frontline dismissed these charges as “patently false” and said that they had “made no impact on the public perception of her work, especially in Calcutta”. Although praising her “selfless caring”, energy and bravery, the author of the tribute was critical of Mother Teresa’s public campaigning against abortion and that she claimed to be non-political when doing so.
In the rest of the world
In 1962, Mother Teresa received the Philippines-based Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, given for work in South or East Asia. The citation said that “the Board of Trustees recognizes her merciful cognizance of the abject poor of a foreign land, in whose service she has led a new congregation”. By the early 1970s, Mother Teresa had become an international celebrity. Her fame can be in large part attributed to the 1969 documentary Something Beautiful for God, which was filmed by Malcolm Muggeridge and his 1971 book of the same title. Muggeridge was undergoing a spiritual journey of his own at the time. During the filming of the documentary, footage taken in poor lighting conditions, particularly the Home for the Dying, was thought unlikely to be of usable quality by the crew. After returning from India, however, the footage was found to be extremely well lit. Muggeridge claimed this was a miracle of “divine light” from Mother Teresa herself. Others in the crew thought it was due to a new type of ultra-sensitive Kodak film. Muggeridge later converted to Catholicism.
Around this time, the Catholic world began to honour Mother Teresa publicly. In 1971, Paul VI awarded her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, commending her for her work with the poor, display of Christian charity and efforts for peace. She later received the Pacem in Terris Award (1976). Since her death, Mother Teresa has progressed rapidly along the steps towards sainthood, currently having reached the stage of having been beatified.
Mother Teresa was honoured by both governments and civilian organisations. She was appointed an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia in 1982, “for service to the community of Australia and humanity at large.” The United Kingdom and the United States each repeatedly granted awards, culminating in the Order of Merit in 1983, and honorary citizenship of the United States received on 16 November 1996. Mother Teresa’s Albanian homeland granted her the Golden Honour of the Nation in 1994. Her acceptance of this and the Haitian Legion of Honour proved controversial. Mother Teresa attracted criticism from a number of people for implicitly giving support to the Duvaliers and to corrupt businessmen such as Charles Keating and Robert Maxwell. In Keating’s case she wrote to the judge of his trial asking for clemency to be shown.
Universities in both the West and in India granted her honorary degrees. Other civilian awards include the Balzan Prize for promoting humanity, peace and brotherhood among peoples (1978), and the Albert Schweitzer International Prize (1975).
In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.” She refused the conventional ceremonial banquet given to laureates, and asked that the $192,000 funds be given to the poor in India, stating that earthly rewards were important only if they helped her help the world’s needy. When Mother Teresa received the prize, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She answered “Go home and love your family.” Building on this theme in her Nobel Lecture, she said: “Around the world, not only in the poor countries, but I found the poverty of the West so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society–that poverty is so hurtable [sic] and so much, and I find that very difficult.” She also singled out abortion as “the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child – what is left for me to kill you and you kill me – there is nothing between.”
During her lifetime, Mother Teresa was named 18 times in the yearly Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll as one of the ten women around the world that Americans admired most, finishing first several times in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1999, a poll of Americans ranked her first in Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. In that survey, she out-polled all other volunteered answers by a wide margin, and was in first place in all major demographic categories except the very young.
After the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1979, Mother Teresa’s adherence to the Church’s condemnation of abortion and contraception attracted some negative attention in the Western media. Teresa was criticised for using her celebrity status to promote the Church’s moral teachings on abortion and contraception.
The support, recognition, and donations she received also aroused criticism, particularly from professed atheists who were dismayed at what they considered to be people’s gullibility. Some Bengali critics accused Mother Teresa of exploiting or even fabricating the degraded image of Calcutta in order to win international fame.
Allegations have been made that she knowingly accepted donations from disreputable sources. It was said that in one notorious case she knew or ought to have known that the money was stolen; and that she accepted money from the autocratic and corrupt Duvalier family in Haiti, which she visited in early 1981. In neither case were these aspersions substantiated, although this did not stop her critics from repeating them.
The increasing wealth of the order she founded became yet another grievance. On the one hand, large sums accumulated in checking (non-interest bearing) accounts in the United States, and large sums were being spent on opening new convents and increasing missionary work; on the other, her Home for the Dying continued to maintain the same austere ethos with which it had been founded, that is to say, as a place for those who had nowhere else to go – a point even hostile sources conceded.
She was also criticised for her view on suffering. She felt that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus. At a press conference during her October 1981 visit to Washington D.C, Mother Teresa stated, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”
Critics complained that she did not apply donors’ money on founding a modern medical facility in Calcutta, or transforming her Home for the Dying into a western-style hospice. Two writers in the Western medical press in the mid-1990’s commented adversely on an approach to illness and suffering that disregarded elements of modern medical care, such as systematic diagnosis and strong analgesics. Her defenders pointed out that the Home did not claim to offer primary medical care, but was a refuge for the dying, with nowhere else to go. Apart from the barriers that advanced technologies and the need for specialist physicians to manage pain would interpose between carers and those they cared for (disrupting the ethos of the Home), the use of opioids in India for managing cancer pain remains–ten years after Mother Teresa’s death–highly problematic for legal, regulatory, cultural, and other reasons (including supply interruptions, harsh punishments imposed for even minor infractions of the rules, and the fear of addiction by health workers). Despite the lack of sophisticated analgesic regimes, volunteers (including those with western medical qualifications and experience) reported that her Home for the Dying was a place of joy not sadness. As late as 2001, researchers could write that “pain relief is a new notion in [India]”, and “palliative care training has been available only since 1997”. It was only in 2012 that the government of West Bengal finally amended the applicable regulations simplifying “the process of possession, transport, purchase, sale and import of inter-state of morphine or any preparation containing morphine by ‘Recognized Medical Institution’.”
Notwithstanding these practical considerations, the advanced treatment Mother Teresa received for an increasingly aggravated heart condition (which eventually killed her) was said to evidence her personal hypocrisy, while the factors that impelled the Missionaries of Charity to prolong her active life were ignored. She herself–at an advanced age–attempted to resign as Superior general of the order, but the sisters were unanimous in re-electing her in 1990, when she was already 80 years old.
Miracle and beatification
After Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Holy See began the process of beatification, the third step toward possible canonisation. This process requires the documentation of a miracle performed from the intercession of Mother Teresa.
In 2002, the Vatican recognised as a miracle the healing of a tumor in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, after the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa’s picture. Besra said that a beam of light emanated from the picture, curing the cancerous tumor. Critics–including some of Besra’s medical staff and, initially, Besra’s husband–said that conventional medical treatment had eradicated the tumor. Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who told The New York Times he had treated Besra, said that the cyst was not cancer at all but a cyst caused by tuberculosis. He said, “It was not a miracle…. She took medicines for nine months to one year.” According to Besra’s husband, “My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.”
An opposing perspective of the claim is that Besra’s medical records contain sonograms, prescriptions, and physicians’ notes that could prove whether the cure was a miracle or not. Besra has claimed that Sister Betta of the Missionaries of Charity is holding them. Time magazine received a “no comments” statement from Sister Betta. The officials at the Balurghat Hospital where Besra was seeking medical treatment have claimed that they are being pressured by the Catholic order to declare the cure a miracle.
In the process of examining Teresa’s suitability for beatification and canonisation, the Roman Curia (the Vatican) pored over a great deal of documentation of published and unpublished criticism of her life and work. Concerning allegations raised by journalist Christopher Hitchens, Vatican officials have responded by saying that these have been investigated by the agency charged with such matters, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and that they found no obstacle to Mother Teresa’s beatification. Because of the attacks she has received, some Catholic writers have called her a sign of contradiction. The beatification of Mother Teresa took place on 19 October 2003, thereby bestowing on her the title “Blessed.” A second miracle is required for her to proceed to canonisation.
Mother Teresa inspired a variety of commemorations. She has been memorialised through museums, been named patroness of various churches, and had various structures and roads named after her, including Albania’s international airport. Mother Teresa Day (Dita e Nënë Terezës) on 19 October is a public holiday in Albania. In 2009 the Memorial House of Mother Teresa was opened in her hometown Skopje, in Macedonia. The Roman Catholic cathedral in Pristina is also dedicated in her honour. It’s construction sparked controversy in Muslim circles in 2011; local Muslim leaders claimed that the cathedral was too large for Pristina’s small Catholic community and complained that most Muslim places of worship in the city were far smaller. An initiative to erect a monument to Mother Teresa in the town of Pe? that same year was also protested by some Albanian Muslims. A youth group calling itself the Muslim Youth Forum started a petition demanding that a monument to Albanian veterans of the Kosovo War be erected instead, and collected some 2,000 signatures by May 2011. The Muslim Youth Forum claimed that the building of a Mother Teresa monument would represent an insult to the town’s Muslim community, which makes up about 98 percent of the population. Noli Zhita, the group’s spokesperson, claimed that Mother Teresa was not an Albanian but a Vlach from Macedonia. He described the monument’s planned construction as part of a plot to “Christianize” Kosovo. The Mayor of Pe?, Ali Berisha, voiced support for the monument’s construction and indicated that the head of the Islamic community in the town had not raised any objections.
Mother Teresa Women’s University, Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, has been established in 1984 as a public university by government of Tamil Nadu, India.
Mother Theresa Post Graduate and Research Institute of Health Sciences, Pondicherry has been established in 1999 by Government of Puducherry, India.
The charitable organization Sevalaya runs the Mother Teresa Girls Home, named in her honor and designed to provide poor and orphan girls children in the vicinity of the underserved Kasuva village in Tamil Nadu with free food, clothing, shelter, and education.
Various tributes have been published in Indian newspapers and magazines written by her biographer, Navin Chawla.
Indian Railways introduced a new train, “Mother Express”, named after Mother Teresa, on 26 August 2010 to mark her birth centenary.
The Tamil Nadu State government organised centenary celebrations of Mother Teresa on 4 December 2010 in Chennai, headed by Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi.
Beginning 5 September 2013, the anniversary of her death has been designated as the International Day of Charity by the United Nations General Assembly.
Film and literature
Mother Teresa is the subject of the 1969 documentary film and 1972 book Something Beautiful for God, a 1997 Art Film Festival award winning film starring Geraldine Chaplin called Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor, a 2003 Italian miniseries titled Mother Teresa of Calcutta, (which was re-released in 2007 and received a CAMIE award,) and was portrayed by Megan Fox in a satirical film-within-a-film in the 2007 movie How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Hitchens’ 1994 documentary about her, Hell’s Angel, claims that she urged the poor to accept their fate, while the rich are portrayed as being favoured by God.
- Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center, India – Official Site
- Missionaries of Charity Brothers (Active Branch)
- Mother Teresa and her patron saint, St. Therese of Lisieux
- Mother Teresa Memorial Page
- Mother Teresa Gallery
- Nobel Laureate Biography (Nobel Foundation)
- The TIME 100: The Most Important People of the Century – Mother Teresa
- Mother Teresa collected news and commentary at The New York Times
- Missionaries of Charity Fathers (MC Fathers / MC Priests) – Official Website: Biography of Mother Teresa
- Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith (TIME.com)
- Speech at National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D.C. 3 February 1994
- Peggy Noonan, “Still, Small Voice,” Crisis, 1 February 1998 (account of the National Prayer Breakfast speech)
- Mother Teresa at the Internet Movie Database
- Missionaries of Charity Active and Contemplative Sisters with U.S. contact information (CMSWR member page)
- India to give Mother Teresa state funeral, CNN
- “Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and the Fast-Track Saints” by Michael Parenti, CommonDreams.org, 22 October 2007
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Mother Teresa at the Internet Movie Database
- Works by or about Mother Teresa in libraries (WorldCat catalog)