Love is doing small things with great love.
- Mother Teresa (1910 - 1997)
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Albania in 1910, the youngest of three children. From the age of 12, Agnes knew she wanted to dedicate her life to God. She prayed constantly for guidance until, still in her teens, she would hear the voice of God calling her.
She left her home of Skopje in Yugoslavia to join a group of nuns in Dublin, Ireland, and from there she went to India to teach at Calcutta's St Mary's High School (where she would stay for 20 years). In 1937, she took her final vows as a nun and adopted the name 'Teresa' (after Saint Teresa of Lisieux).
The 'Call in a Call'
On 10 September, 1946, known in the Catholic calendar as 'Inspiration Day' - Sister Teresa was on a train journey heading to Darjeeling when she experienced what she later referred to as her 'Call in a Call' and realised what God wanted her to do. She applied for permission from the Vatican to leave her convent so she could tend the sick, starving and homeless people living in Calcutta's slums. Initially, her request was rejected by the Archbishop of Calcutta, but after much praying and campaigning, her request was eventually escalated to the Vatican, where it was finally accepted in August, 1948, almost two years after her initial request.
She realised that she could hardly expect to help the poor without medical knowledge, so she went to Patna to train as a nurse. She took with her just five rupees, gave four of them away to the poor and gave her last to a local priest who was collecting donations for the Catholic press. Walking through the streets with no money to buy food or shelter gave her a unique understanding into the problems of the poor who have to face such hardships every day. Conversely, the people of the slums were surprised by the sight of a European woman who could speak fluent Bengali associating with the poorest of the poor.
Sister Teresa's first reward came that same afternoon when the priest to whom she'd given her last rupee returned and handed her an envelope from a benefactor who had heard of her generosity. The envelope contained 50 rupees and Sister Teresa took this as a sign from God that she was where God wanted her to be.
'We Do it for Jesus'
I never think of [money]. It always comes. The Lord sends it.
Many of her former students followed her, trading in their expensive clothes and wearing instead simple two-piece saris. In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity. Each young woman who joined the mission had to have four qualities - she must be healthy, cheerful, able to learn and possess common sense. All the girls were encouraged to smile as they served. This subsequently extended to other countries.
Initially, Sister Teresa faced opposition from leaders of other religious denominations - and indeed from some from her own faith - until they witnessed how her leadership was non-political and embraced all religions. Such was the success of the Missionary that its work branched out into other countries. Today, there are more than 4000 nuns in this order, working in more than 120 different countries to care for the sick and the dying.
She founded the Kalighat Home for the Dying, in reality two rooms at the side of a Hindu temple. In Calcutta, a leper rehabilitation centre was opened thanks to money raised by raffling a car given to the mission by Pope Paul VI. Money she received from her Nobel Laureate prize was invested in homes and hospitals for Calcutta's lepers.
Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough; money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So, spread your love everywhere you go.
According to the teachings of the Catholic Church, caring for the sick and the dying are two of the seven corporal Acts of Mercy, while comforting the afflicted is one of the seven spiritual Acts of Mercy. These acts were the central principles around which all of Sister Teresa's institutions were founded. However, while the care the sick and dying received was undoubtedly superior to what they might have received on the streets of Calcutta, some critics have taken issue with the ways in which the medical care in her missionaries differed from medicine in Western countries. That extensive and costly life-extending treatments for terminal illnesses were not used is not necessarily surprising - in this field, the standard of care in many Western countries is simply not sustainable elsewhere. However, it has also been alleged that her patients were not allowed effective pain medications, which apparently stemmed from Sister Teresa's personal beliefs that physical suffering would enhance the spiritual growth so necessary to those who were close to death.
'Do Small Things with a Great Heart'
Over the decades, the Missionary projects continued to grow, and despite her often controversial views on contraception1, abortion and the use of modern medicine, the efforts of Mother Teresa (as she would eventually become) were recognised across the globe in many forms. In 1962, she received the Padma Shri award for distinguished service, while in 1971 she was awarded the first 'Pope John XXIII Peace Prize'. The Nobel Peace prize was given to her in 1979, The Medal of Freedom2 in 1985, and, in 1996, Mother Teresa was awarded honorary US citizenship.
In 1992, Mother Teresa prepared to hand over the responsibility of 'Superior General' but was re-elected. However, by 1996, her health began to deteriorate to the point where all had to accept that she was too old to continue her work at such a rate. On 13 March, 1997, Sister Nirmala was elected to take over Mother Teresa's work.
On 5 September, 1997, the 100th anniversary of her namesake's death, Mother Teresa wrote a letter to all the members of her Missionary across the world. In it, she shared the news that St Teresa of Lisieux was to be made a Doctor of the Church by order of His Holiness Pope John Paul II:
Can you imagine - for doing little things with great love - the Church is making her a Doctor, like St Augustine and the big St Teresa! It is just like Jesus Christ said in the Gospel to the one who was seated at the lowest place, 'Friend, come up higher'. So let us keep very small and follow Little Flower's3 way of trust and love and joy, and we will fulfil Mother's promise to give saints to Mother Church.
At 9.30 that same evening, Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack and died. Though it had been expected for some time, her passing was overshadowed by the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, just four days earlier. The contrast between the funerals of the two women could not have been greater.
Mother Teresa's final resting place - a simple grave in her order's spartan headquarters - still receives up to 200 visitors a day.
After Mother Teresa's death, many were worried that her Missionaries of Charity would suffer in her absence. However, a year on, her successor Sister Nirmala confirmed that the Missionary was more successful than ever, helped largely by the huge number of donations that came in from around the world after Teresa's death. Indeed, the order had been able to set up three new houses, while 17 others would be complete by the end of 1998 in countries ranging from Australia to Cuba. Unfortunately, such successes were tainted slightly by controversies over fundraising and a dispute regarding a proposed statue in her honour.
Almost as soon as her death was announced, a campaign began for Teresa's beatification and ultimately for her to be canonised as a saint. According to the Vatican, a person cannot be canonised until five years after their death and, indeed, rumours that Pope John Paul II would break with tradition and speed up her case were strongly denied. Despite these denials, in 1999, Pope John Paul II did grant permission for Teresa's case to be brought forward. In August 2002, a 35,000-page report on her 'reputation of sanctity' was submitted for the Vatican's consideration and in October that year, Teresa made the first step to canonisation when the Vatican approved a 'miracle' attributed to her (the curing of a 30-year-old Indian woman of stomach cancer) after the evidence was examined by doctors and officials from the Catholic Congregation for the Causes of Saints4.
However, on 19, October, 2003, following Pope John Paul's waiving of the standard waiting period, thousands gathered in St Peter's Square in Rome to witness the beatification of Mother Teresa. Beatification means that she may now be publicly venerated. However, for actual sainthood, proof of at least two miracles is required. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was declared a saint in 2016.
This poem was written by Mother Teresa and is engraved on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centred;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
As someone whose choices in life (both her own and those of others in her care) might seem odd, inexplicable or even willfully perverse, many of our own reactions to her actions are inevitably influenced by the very privileged lives we lead in comparison. As an example of the many voices, both in support and criticism of her, read more about the pros and cons of being a high-profile nun.