Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
, OM (August
27, 1910 – September 5, 1997) was an Indian Catholic nun of Albanian origin who
founded the Missionaries of Charity. Her work among the poverty-stricken of Kolkata (Calcutta) made her
one of the world's most famous people, and it is widely thought that she will be
Teresa was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1973, the Nobel Peace Prize in
1979, and India's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna in 1980. She was made
an Honorary Citizen of the United States in 1996 (one of only six). She was
beatified by Pope John Paul II in October 2003, hence she may be properly called
Blessed Teresa by Catholics. She was the first and only person to be
featured on an Indian postage stamp while still alive.
Teresa was also known for her books about Christian spirituality and prayer,
some of which were written together with her close friend Frère Roger. While for
some, Teresa was the embodiment of a "living saint," others such as Christopher
Hitchens, who believed her to be "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud,"
have raised questions about her public statements, working practices, political
connections, and funding.
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Teresa was born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Üsküb, a town in the
Ottoman province of Kosovo (now Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia), where her
father (of Vlach minority) was a successful merchant. Her parents had three
children, and Agnes Gonxha was the youngest. Her parents, Nikollë (Kolë) and
Dranafile Bojaxhiu, came from the city of Prizren in the south of Kosovo. They
were Catholics, even though most Albanians are Muslim and the majority of the
population in their native Macedonia are Macedonian Orthodox.
Little is known of Teresa's early life except from her own reminiscences. She
recounted that she felt a vocation to help the poor from the age of 12, and
decided to train for missionary work in India. She was a member of the youth
group in her local parish called Sodality. At 18, the Vatican granted Teresa
permission to leave Skopje and join the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of
nuns in Rathfarnham with a mission in Calcutta.
She chose the Sisters of Loreto because of their vocation to provide
education for girls. After a few months training at the Institute of the Blessed
Virgin Mary in Dublin she was sent to Darjeeling in India as a novice sister. In
1931, she made her first vows there, choosing the name Sister Mary Teresa in
honour of Teresa of Avila and Thérèse de Lisieux. She took her final vows in May
From 1930 to 1948 Mother Teresa taught geography and catechism at St. Mary's
High School in Calcutta, becoming its principal in 1944. She later said that the
poverty all around left a deep impression on her. In September 1946, by her own
account, she received a calling from God "to serve Him among the poorest of the
In 1948 she received permission from Pope Pius XII, via the Archbishop of
Calcutta, to leave her community and live as an independent nun. She quit the
high school and, after a short course with the Medical Mission Sisters in Patna,
she returned to Calcutta and found temporary lodging with the Little Sisters of
the Poor. She then started an open-air school for homeless children. Soon she
was joined by voluntary helpers, and she received financial support from church
organizations and the municipal authorities.
Foundation of the Missionaries of Charity
In October 1950 Teresa received Vatican permission to start her own order,
which the Vatican originally labelled as the Diocesan Congregation of the
Calcutta Diocese, but which later became known as the Missionaries of
Charity, whose mission was to care for (in her own words) "the hungry, the
naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who
feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become
a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone."
With the help of Indian officials she converted an abandoned Hindu temple
into the Kalighat Home for the Dying, a free hospice for the poor. Soon after
she opened another hospice, Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart), a home for lepers called
Shanti Nagar (City of Peace), and an orphanage. The order soon began to attract
both recruits and charitable donations, and by the 1960s had opened hospices,
orphanages and leper houses all over India.
In 1965, by granting a Decree of Praise, Pope Paul VI granted Mother Teresa's
request to expand her order to other countries. Teresa's order started to
rapidly grow, with new homes opening all over the globe. The order's first house
outside India was in Venezuela, and others followed in Rome and Tanzania, and
eventually in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe, including Albania. In
addition, the first Missionaries of Charity home in the United States was
established in the South Bronx, New York.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu
August 26, 1910(1910-08-26)
Üsküb, Ottoman Empire (today's Skopje, Republic of Macedonia)
5 September 1997 (aged 87)
Roman Catholic nun, humanitarian
Mother Teresa's work inspired other Catholics to affiliate themselves with
her order. The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was founded in 1963, and a
contemplative branch of the Sisters followed in 1976. Lay Catholics and
non-Catholics were enrolled in the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and
Suffering Co-Workers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity. In answer to the
requests of many priests, in 1981 Mother Teresa also began the Corpus Christi
Movement for Priests.
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 by Malcolm Muggeridge and his 1971 book of the same title,
which is still in print. 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 "divine light" from Mother Teresa herself. Others in the crew thought it
more likely ascribable to a new type of Kodak film. Muggeridge later converted
In 1971 Paul VI awarded her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize. Other
awards bestowed upon her included a Kennedy Prize (1971), the Balzan prize 1978
for humanity, peace and brotherhood among peoples, the Albert Schweitzer
International Prize (1975), the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom
(1985) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1994), honorary citizenship of the
United States (November 16, 1996), and honorary degrees from a number of
universities. In 1972 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nehru Prize for her
promotion of international peace and understanding.
In 1979 Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, "for work undertaken in the
struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to
peace." She refused the conventional ceremonial banquet given to laureates, and
asked that the $6,000 funds be diverted to the poor in Calcutta. When Mother
Teresa received the prize, she was asked, "What can we do to promote world
peace?" Her answer was simple: "Go home and love your family." In the same year,
she was also awarded the Balzan Prize for promoting peace and brotherhood among
In 1982, Mother Teresa persuaded Israelis and Palestinians, who were in the
midst of a skirmish, to cease fire long enough to rescue 37 mentally-handicapped
patients from a besieged hospital in Beirut.
Deteriorating health and death
In 1983 Teresa suffered a heart attack in Rome, while visiting Pope John Paul
II. After a second attack in 1989 she received a pacemaker. In 1991, after a
bout of pneumonia while in Mexico, she had further heart problems. In 1991,
returning to her home country, she opened a home in Tirana, Albania.
She offered to resign her position as head of the order. A secret ballot vote
was carried out, and all the nuns, except herself, voted for Mother Teresa to
stay. Mother Teresa agreed to continue her work as head of the Missionaries of
In April 1997, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone. Later that year,
in August, she suffered from malaria, and failure of the left heart ventricle.
She underwent heart surgery, but it was clear that her health was declining. On
March 13, 1997 she stepped down from the head of Missionaries of Charity and
died on September 5, 1997, just 9 days after her 87th birthday. The Archbishop
of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D'Souza, says he ordered a priest to perform an
exorcism on Mother Teresa shortly before she died because he thought she was
being attacked by the devil.
At the time of her death, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity had over
4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay
volunteers, 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, orphanages, and schools.
Mother Teresa was granted a full state funeral by the Indian Government, an
honour normally given to presidents and prime ministers, in gratitude for her
services to the poor of all religions in India. Her death was widely considered
a great tragedy within both secular and religious communities. The former U.N.
Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, for example, said: "She is the United
Nations. She is peace in the world." Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of
Pakistan said that Teresa 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 humanity."
Miracle and beatification
Following Teresa's death in 1997, the Holy See began the process of
beatification, the second step towards possible canonization, or sainthood. This
process requires the documentation of a miracle performed from the intercession
of Mother Teresa. In 2002, the Vatican recognized as a miracle the healing of a
tumour in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, following the
application of a locket containing Teresa's picture. Monica Besra said that a
beam of light emanated from the picture, curing the cancerous tumour.
Besra's husband initially said that the tumour was cured by later hospital
treatment. According to Monica Besra in TIME Asia, records of her
treatment were removed by a member of the order from the hospital and are now
with a nun. The doctors who treated Monica Besra denied the claims of a miracle
healing and said that they had come under pressure from the Missionaries of
Charity to acknowledge that the healing process was the result of a miracle.
Besra's husband later withdrew his objections and attributed the healing to a
miracle. A story in The Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying: "It was her
miracle healing that cured my wife. Our situation was terrible and we didn't
know what to do. Now my children are being educated with the help of the nuns
and I have been able to buy a small piece of land. Everything has changed for
The issue of the alleged miracle proved controversial in India around the
time of Mother Teresa's beatification. Teresa was formally beatified by Pope
John Paul II on October 19, 2003 with the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
A second accepted miracle is required for her to proceed to canonization.
Political and social views
Mother Teresa frequently spoke against abortion and artificial contraception
in meetings with high level government officials. In her Nobel Prize acceptance
speech, she declared, "Abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of
peace... Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from
killing ourselves or one another? Nothing."
In the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War, it was determined that
more than 450,000 women in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had been
systematically raped, giving birth to a few thousand war-babies. Even in these
circumstances, she asserted her rejection of abortion by publicly renouncing
abortion as an option and by calling upon the women left behind to keep their
unborn children. She characterized her views later when asked in 1993 about a
14-year-old rape victim in Ireland, "Abortion can never be necessary... because
it is pure killing."
While this stance is in line with that of the Roman Catholic Church, which
asserts natural family planning is the only acceptable form of birth control,
even in cases where conception is the result of sexual abuse or rape, her
critics assert that Teresa dogmatically refused to acknowledge the related
problems of overpopulation, especially in cities like Calcutta.
Teresa also campaigned tirelessly against divorce, insisting it should be
made illegal; she organized an unsuccessful campaign to keep the Irish ban on
divorce in 1996. However, when Diana, Princess of Wales divorced, she spoke
approvingly of it in a magazine interview.
After Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's suspension of civil liberties in
1975, Mother Teresa said: "People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no
strikes." These approving comments were seen as a result of the friendship
between Teresa and the Congress Party. Mother Teresa's comments were even
criticized outside India within Catholic media. (Chatterjee, p. 276.)
An Indian-born writer living in Britain, Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, who had
briefly worked in one of Mother Teresa's homes, began investigations into the
finances and other practices of Teresa's order. In November 1992, a British
journalist, Christopher Hitchens published an article in the US left-wing
journal, The Nation entitled "The Ghoul of Calcutta" criticizing Mother
Teresa. In 1994, Hitchens and British journalist Tariq Ali, who like Chatterjee
are both atheists, produced a critical TV documentary for the UK's Channel 4,
which was entitled Hell's Angel, based on Chatterjee's work. Chatterjee
has been critical of what he called the "sensationalist" approach of the film,
without disputing its conclusions.
The next year, Hitchens published The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa
in Theory and Practice, a pamphlet which repeated many of the accusations in
the documentary. Chatterjee himself published The Final Verdict in 2003,
a less polemic work than those of Hitchens and Ali, but equally critical of
Neither Mother Teresa nor the Vatican has ever revealed how much money her
order received, nor what it was spent on; estimates range into the hundreds of
millions of dollars. Hitchens alleged that Teresa was glad to suggest to donors
that the money went to aid and the building of healthcare facilities for the
poor in India and elsewhere, while evidence points instead to it being spent
largely on missionary work in Africa, with large funds at Teresa's discretion.
No hospitals were ever built.
Baptisms of the dying
Mother Teresa encouraged members of her order to baptize dying patients,
without regard to the individual's religion. In a speech at the Scripps Clinic
in California in January 1992, she said: "Something very beautiful... not one
has died without receiving the special ticket for St. Peter, as we call it. We
call baptism 'a ticket for St. Peter.' We ask the person, do you want a blessing
by which your sins will be forgiven and you receive God? They have never
refused. So 29,000 have died in that one house [in Kalighat] from the time we
began in 1952."
Critics have argued that patients were not provided sufficient information to
make an informed decision about whether they wanted to be baptized and the
theological significance of a Christian baptism.
Some of Mother Teresa's defenders have argued that baptisms are either
soul-saving or harmless. Simon Leys, in a letter to the New York Review of
Books, wrote: "Either you believe in the supernatural effect of this gesture
– and then you should dearly wish for it. Or you do not believe in it, and the
gesture is as innocent and well-meaning innocuous as chasing a fly away with a
wave of the hand."
Motivation of charitable activities
Christopher Hitchens described Mother Teresa's organization as a cult which
promoted suffering and did not help those in need. In Hitchens' interpretation,
Teresa's own words on poverty proved that "her intention was not to help
people." He quoted Teresa's words at a 1981 press conference in which she was
asked: "Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?" She replied: "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." (Philosophy may be meant to be in line with Jesus's Sermon on the
Chatterjee added that the public image of Mother Teresa as a "helper of the
poor" was misleading, and that only a few hundred people are served by even the
largest of the homes. According to a Stern magazine report about Mother
Teresa, the (Protestant) Assembly of God charity serves 18,000 meals
daily in Calcutta (now called Kolkata), many more than all the Mission of
Charity homes together.
Chatterjee alleged that many operations of the order engage in no charitable
activity at all but instead use their funds for missionary work. He stated, for
example, that none of the eight facilities that the Missionaries of Charity run
in Papua New Guinea have any residents in them, being purely for the purpose of
converting local people to Catholicism. Some defenders of the order argue that
missionary activity—already declared in the name of the order—was a central part
of Teresa's calling.
Quality of medical care
Many of Teresa's donors were evidently under the impression that their money
was being used to build hospitals. In 1991, Dr. Robin Fox, then editor of the
British medical journal The Lancet, visited the Home for Dying Destitute
in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and described the medical care the patients received
as "haphazard". He observed that sisters and volunteers, some of whom had no
medical knowledge, had to make decisions about patient care, because of the lack
of doctors in the hospice. Dr. Fox specifically held Teresa responsible for
conditions in this home, and observed that her order did not distinguish between
curable and incurable patients, so that people who could otherwise survive would
be at risk of dying from infections and lack of treatment.
Fox conceded that the regimen he observed included cleanliness, the tending
of wounds and sores, and kindness, but he noted that the sisters' approach to
managing pain was "disturbingly lacking". The formulary at the facility Fox
visited lacked strong analgesics which he felt clearly separated Mother Teresa's
approach from the hospice movement. There have been a series of other reports
documenting inattention to medical care in the order's facilities. Similar
points of view have also been expressed by some former volunteers who worked for
Teresa's order. Mother Teresa herself referred to the facilities as "Houses of
In contrast to the conditions at her homes, Mother Teresa sought medical
treatment for herself at renowned medical clinics in the United States, Europe,
and India, drawing charges of hypocrisy from critics such as Hitchens.
Destination of donations
It has been alleged by former employees of Mother Teresa's order, including
ex-nun Susan Shields, that Teresa refused to authorize the purchase of medical
equipment, and that donated money was instead transferred to the Vatican Bank
for general use, even if it was specifically earmarked for charitable purposes.
Mother Teresa did not disclose her order's financial situation except where she
was required to do so by law
- Becky Benenate, Joseph Durepos (eds) Mother Teresa: No Greater Love
(Fine Communications, 2000) ISBN 1567314015
- Aroup Chatterjee: Mother Teresa. The Final Verdict (Meteor Books,
2003). ISBN 8188248002 Full text (without pictures). Critical examination of
Agnes Bojaxhiu's life and work.
- Bijal Dwivedi, Mother Teresa: Woman of the Century
- Christopher Hitchens: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory
and Practice (Verso, 1995) ISBN 185984054X. Plus a debate in the New York
Review of Books : Defense of Mother Teresa, Hitchens' answer, Leys' reply.
- Malcolm Muggeridge Something Beautiful for God ISBN 0060660430
- T.T.Mundakel, Blessed Mother Teresa: Her Journey to Your Heart. ISBN
1903650615. ISBN 076481110X. Book Review.
- Susan Shields, "Mother Teresa's House of Illusions". Free Inquiry
Magazine, Volume 18, Number 1. Online copy.
- Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography. ISBN
- Mother Teresa et al, Mother Teresa: In My Own Words. ISBN 0517201690.
- Walter Wüllenweber, "Nehmen ist seliger denn geben. Mutter Teresa – wo sind
ihre Millionen?" Stern (illustrated German weekly), September 10, 1998.