An Albanian nun who devoted her life to working among the sick and poor of Calcutta, Mother Teresa built up a worldwide order of more than 3,000 Missionaries of Charity in eighty-seven countries and was revered as a living “saint of the gutters”; her elevation to official sainthood now awaits the approval of the Roman Catholic Church. Everything about Mother Teresa’s outward frailty—the diminutive, stooped figure and the soft voice—belied a resilience and tenacity that enabled her to serve Indian people during a long life of rigorous self-denial in some of the world’s worst slums.
Mother Teresa’s deep and unshakeable sense of vocation was engendered at an early age. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, the daughter of an ethnic Albanian merchant who lived in Skopje, Macedonia, she was inspired by the work of Yugoslav Jesuits in India as a young girl and had already decided by the age of twelve that she wanted to serve the church. When she was eighteen, she traveled to Ireland to enter the novitiate and then left for Calcutta, where she joined the Sisters of Loreto—an Irish order established in India since the 1840s—and spent the next eighteen years teaching geography and history at a convent school for the daughters of the Bengali elite.
In 1946, divine revelation changed the course of Mother Teresa’s life and work, when she heard the voice of God calling her to go and work with the underprivileged. She undertook some rudimentary medical training in Paris and, with modest financial backing from an Indian Catholic businessman, took up the nursing of the sick and dying in Calcutta’s slums. By 1948 Mother Teresa had gathered around her a group of acolytes, and in 1950 she became an Indian citizen. She established her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, who soon became familiar for their adoption of an adapted form of the Indian sari. Two years later, she set up a hospice for the dying and in 1957 a leper colony known as the “Town of Peace.” In 1965 the order finally opened its first branch, in Venezuela.
Mother Teresa always made a point of underlining the fact that she was but the instrument of divine will in all her philanthropic work: “By blood and origin I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus” (obituary, Independent, 6 September 1997, 11). Her order, despite its humanitarian concerns, remained primarily a religious one. In 1965 the Pope promoted it to the status of a pontifical congregation.
Mother Teresa might have continued her life of good works in pious obscurity had it not been for her discovery by the media in 1970, after the British broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge made a documentary about her work in Calcutta, entitled Something Beautiful for God. In 1973, the award to Mother Teresa of the first Templeton Prize for Religion enabled her to donate all £34,000 of the prize money to fund her work with the order and expand its operation. She began opening up missions in major cities and countries around the world and found herself looked upon as something of an international guru on the plight of the underprivileged.
In her lifetime, this modest, dedicated humanitarian was heaped with awards, including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and the British Order of Merit in 1983. She extended her work to help the victims of the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984 and those suffering from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Yet despite such heartfelt dedication, Mother Teresa was not without her critics during, and even more so after, her lifetime. Many were suspicious that beneath the humility and self-denial there lurked the makings of a personality cult. Her detractors cited the contradictions between her own work and her opposition to other women working, as well as her fervent condemnation of divorce, abortion, and artificial contraception. In a radio interview in 1983, she stated: “I would not give a baby from one of my homes for adoption to a couple who use contraception. People who use contraceptives do not understand love.” Her critics meanwhile argued that such remarks flew in the face of the abject misery brought on by overpopulation and overcrowding that she herself witnessed day in and day out in her work in the overrun slums of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa was forced to relinquish her leadership as superior general of the Missionaries of Charity in 1996 because of heart problems. After her death, she was accorded a grand state funeral by the Indian authorities. Her loss came only days after the death of her admirer and fellow humanitarian, Diana, Princess of Wales, who had herself visited Mother Teresa at her mission a short time before her own death. Within weeks, the mythologizing of Mother Teresa’s life and works had begun, with the release of a U.S. television movie entitled Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor. In the meantime, her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta have been criticized for placing limits on Mother’s Teresa’s own unqualified and unconditional charity by turning some people away from their doors. Without the firm, if not dictatorial, leadership of its charismatic founder, the Home for the Destitute and Dying is now coming under fire over its effective role in mitigating poverty and disease. And the revisionists have begun work on Mother Teresa’s own reputation, suggesting that she accepted financial support from dubious figures such as Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier and business tycoon Robert Maxwell. Meanwhile, claims of miracles associated with her name have already been submitted for Vatican approval, as a preliminary to what her admirers see as her inevitable elevation to the sainthood, which the Congregation for the Causes of Saints continues to deliberate in the Vatican. The official Mother Teresa website is www.tisv.be/mt/indmt.
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