Aug 26, 2010
It was exactly hundred years ago that one of the great servants of humanity, Blessed Mother Teresa was born in a foreign land and later joining a religious order she came to India and eventually became an Indian citizen. Witnessing the miserable condition of the poor, sick, destitute and neglected and lonely, Mother Teresa found her second calling in helping and caring for these unfortunate people. Mother Teresa, by her unconditional service to the destitute and dying earned the epithet as the ‘Saint of the Gutters’ and following her death in September 1997, was beatified by Pope John Paul II as ‘Blessed Mother Teresa’ in 2003. On the occasion of the centenary of her birth, it would be appropriate to review briefly her life and work that has inspired a large number of people all over the world.
Mother Teresa was born to Nikollë and Drana Bojaxhiu of Albanian ethnicity on 26 August 1910 in Skopje in Serbia as their youngest of three children and was named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Her father, who was involved in Albanian politics died in 1919 when his daughter Agnes was just eight years old. After her father's death, her mother raised her as a Roman Catholic. According to a biography, in her early years Agnes was fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries and their service, and when she was twelve years old, Agnes was convinced that she should commit herself to a religious life. With the passage of time she strongly felt the Divine call and at the age of eighteen Agnes left her parental home in Skopje and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. Agnes was sent to Dublin in Ireland for training in English language and after few months she was sent to India.
Arriving in India in 1929, Agnes began her novitiate in Darjeeling and took her first religious vows as a nun on 24 May 1931. At that time she chose the name ‘Teresa’ after Theresa of Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries. Later, she took her final vows on 14 May 1937, while serving as a teacher at the Loreto Convent School in eastern Kolkata.
From 1931 to 1948, Mother Teresa taught geography and catechism in St. Mary's High School in Kolkata. Although Mother Teresa enjoyed teaching at the school, she was increasingly disturbed by the poverty surrounding her in Kolkata. The Bengal Famine of 1943 brought misery and death to the city; and the outbreak of Hindu-Muslim riots in August 1946, plunged the city into despair and horror. During this period Mother Teresa became thoroughly acquainted with the sufferings of the poor and the marginalized section of the people of Kolkata. The sight of misery and sufferings of the deprived and downtrodden outside the walls of her convent pinched her conscience and she felt an urge to do something for these unfortunate people to the extent of moving out of the four walls of the convent and living with and serving the poor.
Mother Teresa felt strongly that she had a second Divine call to reach out to the poor and destitute. This was what she later described as "the call within the call" while traveling to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling from Kolkata for her annual retreat during which she made up her mind to devote herself to work among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata. When approached to her convent superiors with a request to be allowed to leave the convent to carry on her new mission, her superiors gave her permission to follow her ‘second calling’.
When Mother Teresa moved out of the secured precinct of the convent to serve the poor, she had no funds. However, she depended fully on Divine Providence. After a short course with the Medical Mission Sisters in Patna, Mother Teresa returned to Kolkata and found temporary lodging with the Little Sisters of the Poor. She began her missionary work with the poor in 1948, replacing her traditional Loreto habit with a simple white cotton sari decorated with a blue border, which later became the habit of the Missionaries of Charity, adopted Indian citizenship, and ventured out into the slums of Kolkata.
Initially Mother Teresa opened a school for street children and soon she started tending to the needs of the destitute and starving. However, she had to face lot many difficulties and even started doubting whether she would be able to continue her mission. Mother Teresa wrote in her diary that her first year was fraught with difficulties. She had no income and had to resort to begging for food and supplies. She experienced doubt, loneliness and the temptation to return to the comfort of convent life during these early months.
Fortunately for Mother Teresa, her efforts quickly caught the attention of Indian officials, including the prime minister, who expressed his appreciation at the type of work that she was doing. Soon Mother Teresa was joined by voluntary helpers, and financial support also began to arrive from church organizations, municipal authorities, charitable institutions and philanthropists. This made it possible for Mother Teresa to extend the scope of her work.
As more young volunteers, especially women came forward to join Mother Teresa, she felt the need to start a new congregation dedicated to the type of work she has been already doing and the future projects that she intended to undertake. Thus, on 7 October 1950, Mother Teresa received permission from the Pope to start her own order under the name of ‘The Missionaries of Charity’. Its mission was to care for, in the words of Mother Teresa, "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, and 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."
In 1952 Mother Teresa opened the first Home for the Dying in a place made available by the Municipal authorities of Kolkata.
With the help of officials she converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the ‘Kalighat Home for the Dying’, a free hospice for the poor. Later, she renamed it as ‘Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart’ (Nirmal Hriday). Those destitute who were in the last stages of their lives and were brought to the home received medical attention and were afforded the opportunity to die with dignity according to the rituals of their faith. Muslims were read the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics received the Last Rites.
Mother Teresa soon opened a home for those suffering from leprosy, and called the hospice ‘Shanti Nagar’ (City of Peace). The Missionaries of Charity also established several leprosy outreach clinics throughout Kolkata, providing medication, bandages and food. In 1955, Mother Teresa opened the Nirmala Shishu Bhavan to take care of abandoned infants and the Children's Home of the Immaculate Heart as a shelter for orphans and homeless youth.
The Missionaries of Charity, which began as a small Order with twelve members in Kolkata in 1950, soon began to attract both volunteers and charitable donations, and by the 1960s under the direction of Mother Teresa, the order opened hospices, orphanages and leper houses all over India. Mother Teresa then expanded the order throughout the globe. Its first house outside India was opened in Venezuela in 1965 with five sisters. Others followed in Rome, Tanzania, and Austria in 1968. During the 1970s, the Missionaries of Charity opened houses and centers in dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. Gradually, the Missionaries of Charity grew in number and by 2007 their congregation had approximately 450 brothers and 5,000 nuns worldwide, operating 600 missions, schools and shelters in 120 countries.
By the 1970s, Mother Teresa came to be known internationally as a humanitarian and advocate for the poor and helpless due in part to a documentary and book titled ‘Something Beautiful for God’ by Malcolm Muggeridge.
Mother Teresa would personally go to those regions where the need of her presence was felt. She traveled to assist and help the hungry in Ethiopia, radiation victims at Chernobyl and earthquake victims in Armenia. In 1991, Mother Teresa returned for the first time to her homeland and opened a Missionaries of Charity Brothers home at Tirana in Albania.
Hectic work and advancing age had adverse effect on the health of Mother Teresa. She suffered a heart attack in Rome in 1983, while visiting Pope John Paul II. After a second attack in 1989, she received an artificial pacemaker. In 1991, after a battle with pneumonia while in Mexico, she suffered further heart problems. Mother Teresa offered to resign her position as head of the Missionaries of Charity. But the nuns of the order, in a secret ballot voted for her to stay following which Mother Teresa agreed to continue her work as head of the order.
In April 1996, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone. In August she suffered from malaria and failure of the left heart ventricle. She had heart surgery but it was clear that her health was declining fast. On 13 March 1997, Mother Teresa stepped down from the head of the Missionaries of Charity and was succeeded by Sister Nirmala. Mother Teresa after a long period of service to the poor and marginalized died on 5 September 1997.
Mother Teresa had first been recognized by the Indian government when she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1962. She continued to receive major Indian rewards in successive decades including the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding (1972) and India's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (1980). She also received many awards from other countries. The most important among them being the Philippines-based Ramon Magsaysay Award (1962) for International Understanding, given for work in South or East Asia and the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize (1971). In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, "for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace." She was also recognized by many Universities both within India and abroad by conferring on her honorary degree of Doctorate.
Following Mother Teresa's death in September 1997, Vatican began the process of her beatification, a step towards canonization. This process required the documentation of the holiness and that of a miracle performed from the intercession of Mother Teresa. As a procedure towards the beatification of Mother Teresa two tribunals were constituted-one on the holiness of the Mother and the other on a miracle attributed to her. Both these tribunals were headed by a native of Moodubelle, Rt. Rev. Salvadore Lobo, Bishop of Baruipur in West Bengal. In 2002, the Vatican recognized as a miracle the healing of a tumor in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, after the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa's picture. Besra said that a beam of light emanated from the picture, curing the cancerous tumor. Mother Teresa was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II on 19 October 2003 with the title ‘Blessed Teresa of Kolkata’. A second miracle is required for her to proceed to canonization.
The official biography of Mother Teresa was authored by an Indian civil servant, Navin Chawla which was published in 1992. There have been a number of commemorations to immortalize Mother Teresa. She has been remembered through museums, has been named patroness of various churches, and had many structures and roads named after her. On the occasion of her birth centenary on 26 August 2010, the Indian Railways will introduce a new train, "Mother Express", named after Mother Teresa.
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