by Stan Griffin

She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (AG-nes GOHN-jah BOY-yah-jee-oo) in what today is part of Yugoslavia. It was said about her:

" ... In a dark time she (was) a burning and a shining light."

"Even her bitterest critics cannot deny ... she changed the world ... and she did indeed accomplish something beautiful for God."

"(She) ... is good as well as great ..."

"She was the woman who believed every person counts."

"(She is) ... an emancipated soul who has transcended all barriers of race, religion, creed, and nation ..."

We know her as Mother Teresa (tuh-RAY-suh), a woman " ... who made the world a better place ... by providing homes for abandoned babies and for the dying ... , (establishing) ... clinics, training centers, schools, nurseries, ... (orphanages) and mobile dispensaries, ... (supplying) love, food, and shelter for the poor (and) ... caring for lepers." (people with leprosy, a chronic infectious disease causing painful swellings of the skin, disfigurement and deformities).

Today her Missionaries of Charity houses are found in 120 countries, on every one of the world’s populated continents, where 4,500 sisters (and brothers) are working.

Through Mother Teresa’s nearly 4˝ decades of life, a grateful world bestowed upon her many awards. The most distinguished was 1979's Nobel Peace Prize. In 1985 President Reagan presented her with the U. S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Our country also recognized her good works with honorary U. S. citizenship in 1996, only the fifth person to be singled out. She received honorary degrees from Harvard University and from Cambridge University in England. She addressed the United Nations in 1985, on its 40th anniversary. At her funeral, nearly a half-million mourners came to say a final goodbye to the little nun who cast such a big shadow on the world.

This amazing woman was born on August 27, 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia (later Yugoslavia) She was the youngest child of Albanian parents; she had a sister Age and a brother Lazar. Her father, Nikola was a successful businessman, a member of the town council, and a patriot. When Agnes was eight, he had a heart attack and died in the local hospital. Her mother, Drana, was an expert seamstress, a skill that enabled her to support the family. At her dressmaker shop, she embroidered cloth, sewed wedding dresses, and made festival costumes.

Agnes was a sickly child, often stricken with coughs and fevers. She attended a government school, but the Roman Catholic religion was very important to all of her family. They lived next to the parish church of Sacred Heart of Jesus. Agnes sang in the church choir, picked flowers for festivals, and hung flags and banners for pageants.

At the age of 12, she learned about the homeless in India and nuns there who often helped them. On a family trip to the mountains, they stopped to pray at statues along the road. During one of these pauses, Agnes heard a voice saying "follow God ... (and) serve others." She was 15 and felt these words were a call for her to join the Loreto order of Catholic nuns in Bengal, India. Her words: "It was the will of God. It was His choice"

By 1928, at age 18, her decision to be a nun was finalized. She traveled to Ireland and spent time at a Loreto convent near Dublin where she studied English. Later that year she made the voyage to Calcutta, India, arriving in 1929. She was sent to Darjeeling in northern India (near the foothills of the Himalayas) in May to begin her "novitiate" -- no-VISH-ee-it-- (the period of study and prayer a nun undergoes before taking her vows, pledging her life to God). She studied Scripture, rules of the Loreto order, and languages: English, Hindi, and Bengali. Agnes spent 1928-1948 teaching: first at Darjeeling; and later in Calcutta in St. Mary’s School.

By 1937, at age 27, Agnes was prepared and took her final vows as a nun, pledging "poverty, chastity, obedience." She chose as her name "Sister Teresa" after the patron saint of missionaries: Therese of Lisieux, the "Little Flower of Jesus." At St. Mary’s, she taught Latin and geography before becoming principal. The student body of approximately 300 was made up of Indian girls and Anglo-Indian girls, mostly from wealthy parents.

Calcutta was then the fourth largest city in the world and one of the most crowded. Its slums were among the worst. Sister Teresa sometimes looked beyond the walls of St. Mary’s and saw the widespread poverty and plight of the poor outside the convent. Hospitals were crowded and often turned away patients, leaving them to die. On occasion she carried such people off the street, washed them, and made them comfortable.

While traveling on a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling in 1946, Teresa heard another call. This one said to "give up all and follow Him into the slums to serve Him among the poorest of the poor." She called this "Inspiration Day," a "call within a call."

Sister Teresa asked church officials if she could move out of the convent into the city and work among the poor. She also asked for permission to start a new order of nuns to help her. After a short course in nursing, she left the convent. (1948)

Sister Teresa removed her usual nun’s habit and replaced it with a white cotton sari (SAHR-ee), the traditional dress of poor women in India. Hers had a blue border as a reminder of the Virgin Mary. On her left shoulder was a crucifix.

Her first act after reaching the streets of Calcutta’s slums was to start teaching children under a locust tree, without any books or desks. Soon she was joined by other nuns who also wanted to help the poor. In 1950 the Pope gave his official permission to set up a new order. Its name became "Missionaries of Charity." While writing a constitution, she made an addition to the usual vows: " ... and to give wholehearted, free service to the poorest of the poor ..." As mother superior, Sister Teresa became "Mother Teresa."

After living in quarters that were too small, they finally were able to find a three-story building which fit their needs (1953). It was named the "Motherhouse" and remains today as the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity.

By the end of the first five years, Mother Teresa had established a shelter for destitute and dying: "Kalighat Nirmal Hriday." The following year she opened a place for orphans: "Nirmala Shisha Bhavan, the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart" for destitute and dying.

In 1957 the Missionaries of Charity opened "Shanti Nagar," a village where leper families could live and learn new trades. Two years later the sisters took their good works outside of Calcutta for the first time.

Mother Teresa sensed a need for men to take care of boys at schools and the men in the Home for the Dying so she organized the "Missionary Brothers of Charity" (1963). Later they worked in places too dangerous for the sisters, such as Vietnam and Cambodia.

In 1965 the first Missionaries of Charity house outside India was founded in Venezuela (South America). From there they spread to other countries of the world.

A film produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in 1969 made Mother Teresa world famous. After it was shown on television, donations poured in. Many viewers said it had a "profound effect" on their lives. Its title was "Something Beautiful for God." Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who interviewed her for his documentary, believed a miracle took place during its making. Scenes were being shot in the House for the Dying. Technical opinion was there wasn’t enough light for usable footage. However, when the processed film was shown, the scenes were "bathed in a beautiful soft light."

It was 1971 when the Missionaries of Charity began operation of a center for aborigines (native people) in Australia.

Mother Teresa was given the "world’s greatest honor" in 1979 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poor. The Nobel Committee said: "She contributed to international peace by bridging the gulf that exists between the rich nations and the poor nations ... by her confirmation of the inviolability (can’t be taken away) of human dignity ..." A "Washington Post" editorial commented on her selection: " ... Occasionally the ... Nobel Committee uses the Prize to remind the world that there is more than one kind of peace and that politics is not the only way to pursue it ..."

Mother arrived in Oslo, Norway where temperatures are notoriously frigid; but she got off the plane wearing her thin sari and carrying a shopping bag. The presentation was made by the King of Norway.

Part of the Award is a check for $190,000 which Mother Teresa said would go to "feed the poor and help people with leprosy." Part of her acceptance speech follows:

"Personally I am unworthy. I accept in the name of the poor because I believe that by giving me the prize they have recognized the presence of the poor of the world ... People must love one another so no one feels unwanted, especially the children ... Love had to be the basis for establishment of peace in the world ..."

A formal banquet is always part of the festivities in Oslo. For the first time in Nobel history, that banquet was canceled--by request of Mother Teresa. Its cost would have been $6,000, and she preferred to use that money to furnish 15,000 meals to the poor.

Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity set up hospices in California and New York for patients with AIDS. (1987)

In 1990, after over 40 years of almost constant activity, Mother Teresa began to have trouble with her heart. After she had a heart attack in 1989, a pacemaker was inserted. She offered to resign as head of the Missionaries, but no replacement was available. She agreed to remain on the job. Regardless of the fact she was still recovering from a serious illness the previous year, she insisted on keeping up her frantic pace. Traveling through the countries of eastern Europe took two months. She also spent many days at Calcutta’s Home for the Destitute and Dying. Doctors told her she should "slow down." Her reply: "I have all eternity to rest, and there is still much to do ... Life is not worth living unless it is lived for others."

U. S. Presidential Medal of Freedom

By March of 1997, Mother Teresa’s physical condition had deteriorated, and she was too frail to carry on; forcing her to retire. Six months later, September 5, while she was at the Motherhouse in Calcutta, she suffered a fatal heart attack. To show their respect, the Indian government gave her a state funeral. Thousands came to show their love and respect for her. She was buried near the Motherhouse chapel. Her epitaph is a quote from Jesus: "Love one another as I have loved you."

The Missionaries of Charity’s new leader was Sister Nirmala, a 63-year-old nun who was born a Hindu and later became a Catholic. She refused to take the title "Mother" because " ... it is not due me ... no one can ever really replace her ..." but she and the others promised to continue serving the "poorest of the poor."

Six years after her death, Mother Teresa was "beatified" by Pope John Paul II in a ceremony held in Rome on October 19, 2003. This is a "recognition accorded by the Church of a dead person’s ascension to Heaven and (her) capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in (her) name." She can now be: (1) publicly venerated ; (2) called "Blessed Teresa of Calcutta"; (3)granted a feast day; and (4)honored by having her image displayed in places of worship with permission of the Vatican.

Beatification is a first step toward possible canonization (sainthood). It is not unlikely one day Mother Teresa will take that final step.


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