Mother Teresa

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Telling the story

This brief life of Mother Teresa is told in four episodes:

  • An education in charity
  • Seeing Jesus begging
  • Life among the dying
  • Building Nazareth

An education in charity

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was one of the most famous, admired and loved Christians of the 20th century, depite the fact that she devoted her life to living among the poorest, most despised and forgotten people of India.

 Skopje in 1909

She was a reminder perhaps of what Jesus said: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Bojaxhieu, in the town of Skopje in Yugoslavia, in 1910, into a devout and charitable Catholic family. Her father, a businessman and town councillor, died - poisoned, allegedly - when she was 8, and because of his business partner’s embezzlement the family was suddenly left in acute poverty.

Even in these conditions, she remembered her mother giving half their family meal to beggars who came to the gate, explaining to her three children, “They are our brothers and sisters. They are God’s children.”

At her Jesuit school, the priests often read letters and reports from missionaries in Calcutta, and this is what inspired her, from the age of 12, to want to go there. For years she thought and prayed about it, and eventually at the age of she felt Mary telling her to dedicate herself to Jesus as a nun and go to serve to poor in Bengal.

Her mother, when Agnes told her, shut herself in her room for 24 hours. When she finally emerged they embraced in tears, and she said: “My child, offer your hands into the hands of Our Lord Jesus. Live only for God. Our Holy Mother will help you accomplish what he wants.”

Seeing Jesus begging

Agnes left for India in 1928, and served as a novice in Darjeeling until 1931. She was employed as a teacher there and then Calcutta.

 Calcutta 1945

Once in Darjeeling she saw a man carrying what she took to be a bundle of rags with two dry sticks poking out. It turned out to be a dying boy that he proposed to leave in the grass. She took the boy and tended him till he died, saying that this gave her a greater joy than she had ever known.

She took her final monastic vows in 1937, which is when she was named Mother Teresa. But it was still many years before she was able to fulfill her calling to devote herself to the poor. Her superiors continued to employ her as a teacher in Calcutta, and from 1944 as the principal of the school.

The returning point came on Tuesday 10 September 1946, “the most important day of my life”.

Travelling by train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she read in her Bible Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats. In this story, at judgement day, Jesus divides his true followers from the false (like sheep and goats) on the basis of whether or not they fed him when he was hungry, gave him water when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked and visited him in prison. Both groups say that they never saw Jesus in such a state, but Jesus explains: “Whenever you did this for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

“I felt the holy words peircing into the innermost recesses of my heart,” Teresa said. She felt irresistably summoned to give up even the meagre comforts of the nunnery and live amongst the poorest in Calcutta just as they lived, tending to their needs as if each one of them were Jesus himself.

She told herself: “You must see your beloved Jesus in each one of these miserable people. You must love that Jesus, serve that Jesus and look after that Jesus.”

Life among the dying

After her great calling in 1946, Mother Teresa applied to her Archbishop for permission to found a new order of nuns to work among the poorest of the poor in the Calcutta slums.

 Mother Teresa by Bill Knowland

But even now she was declined permission, and told instead to join an existing order that worked with the poor – though not with such desparate cases nor in such sacrificial poverty as Mother Teresa wanted.

She followed this instruction, and then in 1948, after an appeal to the Pope, she was finally granted the permission she sought.

She moved into the slums, swapping her nun’s habit for the white and blue sari worn by Calcutta scavenger women. She set up a school for children, first showing them the alphabet with a stick in the mud, and then in a vacant room where they learned literacy and hygiene.

Local people gave her what equipment and support they could, and local women started to join her new order, the Missionaries of Charity. They fed the slum dwellers and treated them with food and medical supplies which they themselves begged from wellwishers.

Mother Teresa insisted that to understand poverty properly and fully demonstrate the love of God, they had to live every bit as meagrely as anyone else. Sometimes after an exhauting day they would have nothing to eat but raw wheat, tough usually they managed rice and vegetables.

After her first year’s work in there she reported:

You can now hear the children singing in the slums. Their faces brighten up with smiles when the sisters come. Their parents, too, do not ill-treat their children. This is just what I have been longing to see among the poor. Thank God.

Building Nazareth

In 1952, with 25 sisters in her order, Mother Teresa persuaded local officials to grant her use of an abandoned inn, attached to the Hindu temple of Kalighat.

 Mother Teresa by Bruni

She turned this into a hospice where the detitute and terminally ill can die with dignity and surrounded by love, and with the rites of their own religion. By the end of 1998, 70,000 people had been admitted there.

In 1955, she founded a house called Shishu Bhavan for abandoned children. It was to be a “Nazareth”, where every child who applied would be brought up as an infant Jesus. By 1997, there had been 14,000 children through the Shishu Bhavan in Calcutta, 5000 of whom had been adopted. Mother Theresa has established such houses in 61 cities across the world.

In 1957, she was awarded a 34-acre plot by the Communist chief minister of West Bengal, for a rent of one rupee a year. This became Shanti Nagar (Peace Town), a hospital for leprosy victims where by 1998 10,500 people had undergone successful operations.

In 1960, Mother Theresa was granted papal permission to extend her order beyond Calcutta, and it has spread all over the world.

In 1962, the Prime Minister Pandit Nehru awarded Mother Theresa the Padmashree, one of India’s highest civilian honours, the first time it had gone to someone born abroad. In 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize, which she accepted on behalf of the poor of the world.

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About this module

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was one of the most famous Christians of the 20th century, depite living and working among the poorest people of India and treating them as if they were Jesus himself.

These pages were written by Steve Tomkins.

Categories: Lives, Biographical,


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