She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia. Her family belonged to the Albanian community. In this region where peace has long been fought for and never realized, this child was baptized one day later, August 27, 1910. Although they were Catholic, the majority of Albanians at that time were Muslims. The recent cleansing in Kosovo demonstrates the atmosphere into which Agnes Bojaxhiu was born. Certainly, the ethnic diversity, the ever-present poverty of the area, and the clash of religious beliefs, played a large part in forming Agnes' young heart. She was the youngest of three children. Her father's name was Kole, and it was he who taught Agnes her first lessons in charity, together with Drana, his wife and Agnes' mother.
When she was only nine, Agnes' father died, leaving Drana to raise her three children: Aga, born in 1904; three years later Lazar had been born in 1907; and Gonxh came into this life in 1910. To meet their needs, Drana sewed wedding dresses and made embroidery. Agnes' mother worked hard, but she never neglected the education of her children. Together, they prayed every evening, attended Mass every day, and said the Rosary together during the month of May. Poor though they were, they gave assistance to the poor and needy of their town.
Agnes liked being in church. There she read, prayed and sang. Drana set the stage for Agnes' real vocation, for it was she who tended to people, particularly an alcoholic woman. When Drana could not go, Agnes took her place.This woman had six children. When the woman died, Drana took the six children into her home, to raise them in a warm loving home. Agnes eventually would be schooled at the Lyceum, where she was remembered as a good student who was very conscientious.
The Legion of Mary also played a large part in Agnes' life. She was adept at the various languages spoken in that region of the former Yugoslavia. She taught catechism, and spent long hours reading about Slovenia and Croatia, and missionaries to India. At the age of twelve Agnes desired to spend her life for God's work. She prayed much over this desire, talking it over with her entire family. It was her father who answered her question "How can I be sure?" His reply to Agnes was "Through your JOY!". And so, even today, we know when something is of God and for Him through our joy, which comes from God. Agnes recognized the truth in her father's words. Her father went on to advise her: "The deep inner joy that you feel is the compass that indicates your direction in life."
With her question answered, Agnes sought direction from the Jesuit priest who headed the Sodality to which she belonged. At the age of seventeen, she answered Our Lord's call, entering the Irish community of the Sisters of Loretto, a community known for their missionary life in India. When she took her vows she took the name of Teresa, after Saint Therese of Lisieux. Transferred to Calcutta, Sister Teresa taught geography and catechism at St. Mary's High School. By 1944 she was principal of St. Mary's. Shortly after this, Sister Teresa contracted tuberculosis. This prevented her from teaching so she was sent to Darjeeling for rest and recuperation.
It was while traveling via train to this destination that Our Lord spoke to her heart, instructing her that "I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged but I did not know how to get there."
But Our Lord knew, and He guided His servant in the transition that was to follow. She began inquiry from her own order. In time, her burning desire to live as Christ had commanded her brought her request to the Holy See. In 1948, the Vatican gave permission for Sister Teresa to leave the Sisters of Loretto. She was to pursue her calling under the direction of the Archbishop of Calcutta.
Never one to waste God's time, Sister Teresa began immediately by opening a school in the slums to teach the children of the poor. She taught herself basic medicine, enabling her to go into the homes of the very poor to give them care, which they did not have from any other source. Her shining example was a light to some of her former students. In 1949 some of these students joined her in her work in the slums of Calcutta. With faith, Sister Teresa rented a room where she and her fellow sisters took the poorest of the poor off the streets, so none would have to die alone and hated in the gutters of Calcutta. One year later, the Diocese of Calcutta recognized Sister Teresa's work and desire to found a new congregation. With Diocesan approval the small group of sisters became known as the Missionaries of Charity.
Sister Teresa experienced great sorrow in her life. The first true sorrow was leaving behind her family when she entered the Sisters of Loretto. Here she had consecrated herself to Our Lord. Now, on August 16, 1948, she had to leave behind her second family, to find herself literally on the streets of Calcutta. Now Mother Teresa, she began her vocation to the poorest of the poor, people whose bodies were often in the most appalling state. Throughout her life, she would recognize, and teach her fellow sisters to recognize, that the wretched bodies they cared for would one day be glorified as was Our Lord's and His Blessed Mother's in Heaven. When she left the Sisters of Loretto, it was the first time in eighteen years that she had been without the religious habit. Dressed in street clothing, the reality of her new state became crystal clear. Like the people she was to serve, Mother Teresa found herself just as they were, without a home, without any visible means of support. Not a layperson, she was still a nun committed to Our Lord through the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She had only obtained permission from Pope Pius XII to live outside the convent in order to found a new religious order.
Mother Teresa was the one who designed the new habit that she and her fellow sisters would wear. She chose a simple white sari and sandals, the most common form of dress in India. White was the most common color worn by the common people in India and held up well under the scorching heat of that region. Knowing how badly the poorest of the poor needed proper medical care, Mother Teresa took a course in nursing. To accomplish this goal she moved to Patina, in the middle of the Ganges delta. There the Medicall Missionary Sisters ran a hospital and offered nursing courses. In four months she learned what others took a year to learn. Now with a nursing degree, Mother Teresa moved back to Calcutta, to the slum behind St. Mary's High School. It was Christmas Day when she arrived. One woman rented her a miserable shack for five rupees a month. This was to be Mother Teresa's first home as a Missionary of Charity. The very next day, she gathered around her five children and began to teach them the Bengali alphabet. With no furniture, she wrote on the dirt floor in order to teach her children. She had to contend with vermine of every type, cockroaches, rats and the like. Another factor she had to adjust to was the overwhelming heat. Inside her wretched hut the temperature soared to 115 degrees, with the humidity surpassing 95%.
It was a tremendous adjustment for a nun who had known cleanliness in her former convent, where she taught the daughters of the rich. She felt as though she had passed from Heaven to hell. As Mother Teresa remarked: "The change was extremely difficult. In the convent I had lived without knowing what difficulties were. I had lacked nothing. Now everything was different. I slept where I happened to be, on the ground, often in hovels infested by rats. I ate what the people I was serving ate, and only when there was a little food. But I had chosen that lifestyle in order to literally live out the Gospel, especially where it says, 'I was hungry and you gave Me to eat, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was in prison and you came to find Me.' Among the poorest of the poor of Calcutta, I loved Jesus. When I love like that, I don't feel suffering or fatigue. On the other hand, after the very beginning, I didn't have time to get bored. The five children that I had gathered on the first day increased. Three days later there were 25, and by the end of the year there were 41."
Mother Teresa's Order was first recognized on the Diocesan level in 1950. Later it was granted Pontifical status, being guided by the Holy Father. In addition to the basic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a fourth vow was required pledging service to the poor, whom Mother Teresa described as the embodiment of Christ. Later, when Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity were well established, and her name was a household word not only in India but abroad, Mother Teresa remarked: "Through the children, I began to penetrate those labyrinths of the most squalid misery in Calcutta. At that time, the number of homeless in the city was about one million. I went from hut to hut, trying to be useful. I helped those who slept on the sides of the street, who lived on garbage. I found the most atrocious suffering: the blind, the crippled, lepers, people with disfigured faces and deformed bodies, creatures who couldn't stand upright and who followed me on all fours asking for a little food."
The rich of Calcutta, not to mention the rest of the world, turned their noses up at the mere image of these poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa saw Our Lord in each person, but to the rich, and those who led comfortable lives in the west, these people were more than the dredges of society. They were a part of society that was best left alone, unspoken about, in the hope that they would simply disappear off the face of the earth. By the grace of God, Mother Teresa's viewpoint was in stark contrast. She says of those early days: "One day, in a heap of rubbish, I found a woman who was half dead. Her body had been bitten by rats and by ants. I took her to a hospital, but they told me that they didn't want her because they couldn't do anything for her. I protested and said that I wouldn't leave unless they hospitalized her. They had a long meeting and they finally granted my request. That woman was saved. Afterwards, when thanking me for what I had done for her, she said, 'And to think that it was my son who threw me in the garbage.'"
Even with these experiences under her sari, so to speak, Mother Teresa was just beginning to understand the depth of the poverty of the souls whom she was called to serve. She relates: "On another occasion, I absolutely needed to find a hut where I could shelter some people who had been abandoned. To find one, I walked for hours and hours under the scorching sun. By evening I felt as if I were going to faint from fatigue. Only then did I understand the degree of exhaustion that poor people reach looking for a little food, a little medicine, or a roof for their heads. I gave my life completely to God, and He was the one who guided me. I felt His presence at every moment, and I saw His direct intervention. One day, while I was walking along the streets of Calcutta, a priest came up to me, asking me to give a contribution for some worthy project. That morning I had left the house with all the money I had, five rupees, which amounted to about 30 cents. During the day, I had spent four on the poor. I had only one rupee to live on the next day and the following days if something didn't happen. Trusting in God, I gave my last rupee to that priest. In my mind I prayed, 'Lord, I don't have anything more, (but) I must think of You.' That evening a person whom I didn't know came to my shack. He gave me an envelope and said, 'This is for your work.' I was surprised because I had started my apostolate only a few days before and nobody knew me yet. I opened the envelope and found 50 rupees. At that moment, I felt as though God wanted to give me a tangible sign of His approval for everything I was doing."
God never abandoned His servant, Mother Teresa. She opened her first Home for the Dying in 1952. The home was a gift from the city of Calcutta. It was to be but one of hundreds of homes Mother Teresa would found in her lifetime. She didn't know that then, for she left the future to God, and concentrated on her calling with the wretched poor whom she served with utmost charity, unquestioned love, and eternal Hope in Our Lord to help her at every step. There was no disease that frightened her. She was among the first to establish homes for AIDS victims. She made no judgments upon the people she served. She simply served, as Christ served. This was her breath, her very heartbeat.
It was in the early sixties that a British journalist sought her out, having heard of the wondrous, selfless work she had been doing in Calcutta and the lure of her order since so many women had joined the Missionaries of Charity. That man was Malcolm Muggeridge. He was not a Catholic then but was fascinated and curious as to what prompted women the world over to join her and don the blue and white sari. He interviewed her, watched her work with the poorest of the poor and delved deeper into the phenomena of the Missionaries of Charity. The more he researched the more he realized she was for real and something greater was motivating her to sacrifice her all for others. The more time he spent with her, the more he realized the truth he had been searching for. He produced "Something Beautiful for God" and the world discovered a modern saint. But Mother, though she had become famous internationally, did not look at it as a publicity opportunity, but rather as an opportunity to bring Muggeridge into the Church without pressuring him, rather prodding his conscience until he finally saw the light. His program and subsequent writing of Mother made her an international celebrity, something she shied away from but which helped her not only recruit those who had a vocation, but also badly needed funds and opened doors worldwide.
By 1966 Mother Teresa had established the Missionaries of Charity Brothers. This enabled more homes to be established, not only in Calcutta, but throughout the world. These Brothers opened homes in Rome, Tanzania, and Australia. It was in 1971 that the first home in the United States was established in the South Bronx, New York. The world began to sit up and take note of this humble nun. The collective conscience of the world was tweaked by this unassuming nun, bent from her labors, yet always with a smile of peace that no one could deny.
When in 1979 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa was the first to change the ceremony that henceforth had been traditional to persons receiving this prestigious award. She insisted that the funds for the banquet, some $6,000, be donated instead to the poor of Calcutta. She said that earthly rewards were important only if they helped her to help the world's needy. This would be her refrain for the rest of her life. She was not afraid to accept donations from anyone as long as the funds went for the poor. Mother was anything but proud.
In 1991 Mother Teresa returned to her native Albania (now part of Serbia) and opened a home in Tirana. By this time, Mother had opened a total of 168 houses in India alone. She traveled the globe. teaching her nuns all that Our Lord had taught her. Her order grew into the thousands, but the work was never alleviated. For as Scripture tells us: "For the poor you will have always with you..." (Matthew 26: 11). Mother recognized this, but instead of being overwhelmed, she turned to Our Lord and begged of Him the necessary vocations to continue the apostolate of serving the poorest of the poor. She did not stop at those victims of poverty whose bodies were eaten by disease. She recognized the poverty of nations who condoned and promoted abortion and birth control. She fought against this culture of death with her entire being. On February 3, 1994, at a National Prayer Breakfast, sponsored by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, in Washington, DC, Mother Teresa challenged the audience on such topics as family life and abortion. She pleaded, "Please don't kill the child. I want the child. Give the child to me." Without pointing fingers, without judging individuals, Mother Teresa, in those few words, brought home to countless souls the dignity of life, the infinite value of the immortal soul, the very fact that God alone is the giver of life, and he alone has the right to take it.
When natural disasters struck, when war ravaged people, Mother Teresa was there. She went to Ethiopia to ease the starvation of this nation. When the nuclear accident of Chernobyl occurred, Mother Teresa was there. Her apostolate, God's very Own hands, knew no boundaries, recognized no racial difficulties. All were God's children, and she, as Mother Teresa, was a true mother to all in need, spiritually and physically.
In November 1996 Mother Teresa received honorary U.S. citizenship. At the ceremony, a letter was read to Mother from Pope John Paul II. He said: "On the happy occasion of your forthcoming Birthday, I join all the Missionaries of Charity in thanking Almighty God for the witness of your religious consecration and your untiring service of the poorest of the poor. As a pledge of strength and joy in Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I gladly impart my Apostolic Blessing." She would meet with His Holiness often and at every opportunity it was the Pope who was in awe of this stoop-shouldered, frail earthly angel who emanated sanctity.
Mother Teresa never failed in her duty to instruct people in the way of our Lord. She repeated often: "Keep the joy of loving God in your heart and share this joy with all you meet especially your family. Be holy." She also related more than once various stories of the poorest of the poor such as the one about the woman whose life she saved as we documented earlier in this profile. She recalls, "I once picked up a woman from a garbage dump and she was burning with fever; she was in her last days and her only lament was: 'My son did this to me.' I begged her: You must forgive your son. In a moment of madness, when he was not himself, he did a thing he regrets. Be a mother to him, forgive him. It took me a long time to make her say: 'I forgive my son.' Just before she died in my arms, she was able to say that with a real forgiveness. She was not concerned that she was dying. The breaking of the heart was that her son did not want her. This is something you and I can understand."
One of Mother Teresa's mottos, given to all of her nuns, and to the whole world, was: "Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin." Mother Teresa took the words of the Gospel into her heart, and gave the Gospel to people of every religion, teaching: "There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I've always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic. We believe our work should be our example to people. We have among us 475 souls - 30 families are Catholics and the rest are all Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs - all different religions. But they all come to our prayers. There are so many religions and each one has its different ways of following God. I follow Christ: Jesus is my God, Jesus is my Spouse, Jesus is my Life, Jesus is my only Love, Jesus is my All in All; Jesus is my Everything."
Father Andrew Apostoli, CFR, Yonkers, NY, a close associate of Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR, recounts a meeting he had with Mother Teresa. Father Andrew has given retreats for the Contemplative Missionaries of Charity in the South Bronx. Mother Teresa, at the time of their meeting, handed Father Andrew a Rosary, commenting: "The Blessed Mother is all over the world bringing people to her Son." She went on to tell Father Andrew this story. "Whenever I need a special favor, I do an Express Novena. An Express Novena is 9 Memorares in a row. In 1983, one of our Superior sisters had gotten sick in Eastern Berlin. Mother Teresa had to appoint a replacement that could handle the Communist government. The sister that they appointed as the successor for the Eastern Berlin home needed a Visa. Mother Teresa gathered her nuns and started praying the Express Novena (9 Memorares). On the 8th Memorare, the phone rang. It was a Communist official stating that it would be six months until they would receive the Visa. After the 9th Memorare, Mother Teresa started the novena again. On the 8th Memorare the second time, the telephone rang. It was a Communist official who stated you will have your Visa immediately" So great was Mother Teresa's love for God that she stated to Fr. Andrew: "I never refused God anything."
This editor had the opportunity to see Mother in person in 1990 when she was in San Diego to open a new house in Tijuana. We were part of the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Honor Guard and it was truly an honor to raise our swords to this living saint. She would return to San Diego several years later and be hospitalized for pneumonia. It was then that most realized she wouldn't be with us much longer. Her own health had begun deteriorating in 1993 for she was then 83. On March 13, 1997 she stepped down as head of the order and Sister Hermana Nirmala was chosen to succeed her as leader of the Missionaries of Charity on the second time Mother had stepped down. The first time, her council voted unanimously for her to stay on and the only dissenting vote was Mother's. Obediently she stayed on, but as her health declined more, she realized and was able to convince her fellow sisters that she couldn't handle the demanding duties of Mother General of the order.
On September 5, 1997, at the age of 87, the best loved woman of the century passed away. Her funeral service was on September 13, 1997, the 51st anniversary of her receiving her Divine mission from God on that train ride that not only changed her life, but saved the lives of millions. Tributes poured in throughout the world and the sad part is that the funeral received so little attention for Princess Diana had been tragically killed in a car crash in Paris just a few days before Mother's death and the world was fixed on this worldly goddess while it seemed the media practically ignored the passing of the saint of the gutters. Interestingly, Diana had met with Mother numerous times and agreed to finance some of Mother's work and had even begun studying the catechism to eventually convert to Catholicism. Had she lived many believe, through Mother's spiritual influence, Diana would have become a Roman Catholic. We truly believe, from her time with Mother, that Diana would have been appalled at the attention lavished on her at her funeral and Mother so ignored. Diana would have had it the other way around for the Princess of England knew only too well how her contributions paled in comparison to Mother Teresa's.
But Mother was not forgotten in the Church and soon after her death cries went out for the Pope to waive the standard five year waiting period to begin the process toward canonization. Surprisingly the leading candidate of this campaign was the liberal Archbishop of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony. To his credit the petition was heard and the Holy Father announced a Motu Proprio that he was suspending the five year waiting period because of the special circumstances surrounding this living saint. The Archbishop of Calcutta Archbishop Henry D'Souza was appointed the postulator for her cause and investigation was begun at the Diocesan level which has now been completed and turned over to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints as their investigation begins.