Mother Teresa was born into a loving family. Her parents, Nicholas and Rosa, nurtured their children and the young Bojaxhiu family flourished. During the day, their devoted mother cared for the children while their father was at work. When evening approached, Rosa would rush about and prepare to greet Nicholas. No matter what had happened during the day, Rosa was always smiling when Nicholas returned home. Growing up in the midst of this joyful existence was a pleasure for Aga, Lazar, and Agnes.
These days of bliss were numbered, however. Nicholas was a prominent businessman involved in local politics. His political activity may have been connected to his sudden death, which many suspected was due to poisoning. Agnes was only seven years old. Rosa was now entirely responsible for her children, and while the home had always been a devout one, it now began to radiate even more clearly the light of the faith.
The Bojaxhius were active in the parish church across the street from their home, Sacred Heart of Jesus. The widow and her children regularly participated in church meetings, religious services, and the choir. Agnes was a gifted soprano and the soloist for the choir. She was also an active member of the Daughters of Mary, and she faithfully attended her catechism classes. She relished every opportunity to learn about her favorite topics: the lives of the saints and the work of missionaries.
The faith of the family extended beyond the walls of the church. When poor beggars came to the door of the Bojaxhiu home, Rosa never allowed them to go away hungry. She explained to her three children that these people, poor though they were, were their brothers and sisters, too. This Christian perspective made an impact on the youngsters, who grew up serving the poor. Agnes would eventually make this her life’s work.
A Heart for Service
Agnes had a special interest in missionary service. As a young girl she eagerly absorbed any news of missionary activity. Whenever she heard of a new missionary endeavor, she would locate the mission site on a map of the world that hung in her house and record little notes next to it. She followed the reports of Christian men and women working in far-off places, hoping one day to join their company.
When she was 12 years old, Agnes told her mother she wanted to be a missionary, but Rosa said she needed to wait until she was older. Six years later, Agnes was ready to assert that her long-standing desire was more than a child’s fancy. While offering prayers at an altar in honor of Mary, the patroness of Skopje, Agnes felt her vocation confirmed in her heart. She believed that Mary had interceded for her to help her know her vocation with certainty. Agnes’ call to religious life and attraction to missionary service would soon lead her to her home in India.
At 18 years of age, Agnes waved good-bye to her little family, whom she would never see again, and she stepped onto the train alone. Traveling through Yugoslavia, Austria, Switzerland, France, and England, she arrived safely at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Our Lady of Loretto in Dublin, Ireland. This was the missionary teaching order she had decided to join.
Agnes studied English for two months before boarding a ship for India, which arrived there 37 days later. After spending one week in Calcutta, Agnes traveled to the novitiate house in Darjeeling, India. Two years more, and Agnes took her religious name, Mary Teresa (after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux).
After making her temporary vows, Sister Teresa went to Calcutta for her first assignment. She moved to the pristine campus of St. Mary’s High School, which served girls from wealthy Indian families. During her first years there, Sister Teresa taught history and geography. Later she served as the director of studies. Sister Teresa was quite content at St. Mary’s, where she would spend 17 years. She embraced her new home and culture to such an extent that she would later declare herself to be “Indian by choice.” She considered herself the happiest nun in the community, though her life there was one of routine responsibility. She prayed and taught, and then she did it again the next day. The sisters who lived with her considered her to be ordinary, quiet, and shy.
But on September 10, 1946, something out of the ordinary took place in Sister Teresa’s life. On this day, which she later referred to as “Inspiration Day,” she heard God speak to her while she was traveling by train to Darjeeling. She understood that God was asking her to start a new order of missionary sisters who would work among the poorest of the poor in India. But she did not know how she was to carry out this divine directive.
“I knew where I belonged,” she later said, “but I did not know how to get there.”
This dramatic “call within a call” persisted. Sister Teresa felt that God was asking her, “Wouldst thou not help?” This was not her own whim or idea: She firmly believed Jesus was making this request, and she wanted to respond with generous love.
In a letter to Archbishop Perier dated January of 1947, Sister Teresa explained how she had heard God asking her to begin an order of Indian sisters to serve the poor, and she asked for the archbishop’s permission to do so. In spite of her desire to begin this work, however, she respectfully wrote, “At one word that Your Grace would say, I am ready never to consider again any of those strange thoughts which have been coming continually.” Thankfully, Archbishop Perier did not tell her to abandon the idea. But it would be some time before she was able to carry out the call God had placed in her heart.
Sister Teresa had no intention of giving up her religious vows, but she did need permission to leave her religious community. She planned to start an entirely new order, which required additional ecclesiastical sanction. After several years marked by letters and visits to obtain special permission from the archbishop of Calcutta, the mother general of the Loretto nuns, and the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, Sister Teresa was finally ready to say farewell to her convent home.
On August 17, 1948, Sister Teresa left behind the beautiful buildings and gardens of St. Mary’s School, the community of sisters and students who had become her friends, and the comfort of stability and routine. She took off the religious habit she had worn for twenty years, donned the white sari of the poorest Indian women, and walked out into the streets of Calcutta.
Once again she was beginning an unknown journey alone. In fact, Mother Teresa later said that this was the most difficult thing she ever did in her life; it was more challenging even than leaving her family and her country to become a nun. And she did it for the love of God.
Champion of the Poor
After taking a course in nursing, Sister Teresa conducted classes for children. Gathering them together in the open air, she taught the basics of personal hygiene and then gave lessons in the faith. At the beginning, this makeshift school was truly humble: dirt and sticks had to suffice in place of paper and pencils. In spite of the scarcity of proper materials, however, the children came to love Sister Teresa, and the crowds grew each day.
Soon Sister Teresa was paying personal visits to the children’s families. As she walked through the slums on these missions of charity, she witnessed extreme destitution. Those families who dwelt in ramshackle huts were the lucky ones; many people were living on the streets or in the gutters. Most of these forgotten men and women were on the verge of death, laying miserably without so much as a sympathetic glance from another human being to bring them comfort. But Sister Teresa did not ignore them. Her attentiveness to people in the direst situations became the hallmark of her work.
She recalled the moment when she first picked up a woman whom she saw in the street. “I could not have been a Missionary of Charity if I had passed by when I saw and smelt that woman who was eaten up by rats—her face, her legs. But I returned, picked her up and took her to a hospital.” It was not as simple as handing the woman over to the doctors, however; at first the hospital would not admit the woman. But Sister Teresa refused to move until they accepted the dying patient.
Sister Teresa approached the city authorities and asked for a place to bring the suffering people she was passing in the streets. They gave her an empty building in a Hindu temple, which she filled with patients within 24 hours.
A Growing Need
And so the Society of the Missionaries of Charity was born. In the next months several young women came to join in Sister Teresa’s work, all of them her former students from St. Mary’s. They were eager to give themselves to God through this special mission. With their help Sister Teresa soon set up her first school. Then came a home for the sick and the dying, Nirmal Hriday, “Home of the Pure Heart.” The building immediately filled to capacity with suffering people for whom the sisters lovingly cared. It didn’t take long for Sister Teresa to become known as Mother Teresa, or simply Mother.
The sisters did not have a convent at first; they lived simply in a rented apartment. Within two years the Missionaries of Charity, with its 12 original members, had gained pontifical approval. Trusting entirely in God’s providence to sustain their work, in only three years they had built a motherhouse, established an orphanage, and set up a program to serve lepers throughout the city of Calcutta. Twelve years later they opened their first home outside of India. By 1971 the order ran 50 homes throughout the world, and many more were yet to come. Mother Teresa once told several sisters who were about to begin a new mission, “If there are poor people on the moon, we will go there.”
She went on to help found the Missionary Brothers of Charity and two contemplative branches, the Missionary Brothers and Sisters of the Word. She also worked to establish the Coworkers, who support the Missionaries of Charity by offering prayers and resources for the work of the order.
With such productivity one might assume everything came easily to Mother Teresa. Not so. She dealt with opposition and resistance from political authorities, as well as the ongoing challenge of caring for the poor and sick without any regular income for her order. On a personal level, she also endured decades of intense spiritual darkness, as well as physical pain and trauma.
When she was 78, she suffered from heart problems, likely aggravated by exhaustion from her work. Her doctors installed a pacemaker, and Pope John Paul II asked her to take concern for her health. She took six months of rest. Within another year she stepped down as superior general of the order, but five months later she was reinstalled.
Mother Teresa never fully recovered her health. She suffered five heart attacks before she finally rested in peace. She died on September 5, 1997, at the motherhouse in Calcutta, which had long since become her home.
This is an excerpt from the book Thirsting for God: Daily Meditations, edited by Angelo D. Scolozzi, M.C.III.O., a close associate of Mother Teresa. He is the cofounder, with Mother Teresa, of the universal fraternity of the Word—Missionaries of Charity Third Order, M.C.III.O.