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Mother Teresa

In fighting for the dignity of the destitute in a foreign land, she gave the world a moral example that bridged divides of culture, class and religion
By BHARATI MUKHERJEE for Time Magazine


The Bengali chauvinist in me got a thrill: "This is Peter Jennings, tonight live from Calcutta." For the first and only time in my life, the great city I was born and raised in hit the big time. Bengalis love to celebrate their language, their culture, their politics, their fierce attachment to a city that has been famously "dying" for more than a century. They resent with equal ferocity the reflex stereotyping that labels any civic dysfunction anywhere in the world "another Calcutta." And why were the American media in Calcutta? For the funeral of an 87-year-old Albanian immigrant by the name of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu.

In this era of "ethnic cleansing," identity politics and dislocation of communities, it is heartening that one of the most marginalized people in recent history — a minority Albanian inside Slavic Macedonia, a minority Roman Catholic among Muslims and Orthodox Christians — should find a home, citizenship and acceptance in an Indian city of countless non-Christians. She blurred the line between insider and outsider that so many today are trying to deepen.

Bojaxhiu was born of Roman Catholic Albanian parents in 1910 in Shkup (now Skopje), a town that straddled the ethnic, linguistic, religious and geological fault line in the then Turkish province, later Yugoslav republic, now absurdly unnameable independent state of FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). When she was seven, her father was murdered. Bojaxhiu chose emigration over political activism and at the age of 18 entered the Sisters of Loreto's convent in Ireland as a novice. The Sisters of Loreto, a teaching order, sent her to Bengal in 1929. She spoke broken English and had yet to take her first vows.

I first saw Mother Teresa in the summer of 1951, when I started school at Loreto House in Calcutta. The school was run by the Sisters of Loreto according to directives sent from its principal convent in Ireland. During the British raj, Loreto House had admitted very few Indians. By the time I became a student there, the majority of students were Hindu Bengalis, the daughters of Calcutta's elite families, but the majority of teachers continued to be Irish-born nuns. Mother Teresa was no longer affiliated with the Sisters of Loreto, but she came around to our campus every now and then. She had left teaching at another of the Sisters' schools three years before in order to, as she put it, "follow Christ into the slums." The break, as far as we schoolgirls could tell, had not been totally amicable, at least not on the part of the Loreto nuns.

The picture of Mother Teresa that I remember from my childhood is of a short, sari-wearing woman scurrying down a red gravel path between manicured lawns. She would have in tow one or two slower-footed, sari-clad young Indian nuns. We thought her a freak. Probably we'd picked up on unvoiced opinions of our Loreto nuns. We weren't quite sure what an Albanian was except that she wasn't as fully European as our Irish nuns. Or perhaps she seemed odd to us because we had never encountered a nun who wore a sari. There was only one Anglo-Indian nun in our school, and she wore the customary habit. The government had made antimissionary noises but hadn't yet cracked down on missionaries' visa applications.

In the early '50s, we non-Christian students at Loreto House were suspicious of Mother Teresa's motives in helping street children and orphans. Was she rescuing these children to convert them? Her antiabortion campaigns among homeless women were as easy for us to ignore as were the antiabortion lectures our nuns delivered twice weekly. The government had made even very young women aware of the consequences of population explosion.

But the project of Mother Teresa's that confused us most was her care of the terminally ill destitute who came to the Kalighat Temple to die near a holy place. She wasn't interested in prolonging their life. What she railed against was the squalor and loneliness of their last hours. Her apparent dread of mortality and her obsession with dignified dying were at odds with Hindu concepts of reincarnation and death as a hoped-for release from maya, the illusory reality of worldly existence.

It wasn't until she had set up a leprosarium outside Calcutta on land provided by the government that I began to see her as an idealist rather than an eccentric. Lepers were a common sight all over India and in every part of Calcutta, but extending help beyond dropping a coin or two into their rag-wrapped stumps was not. As a child I was convinced even touching a spot a leper had rubbed against would lead to infection. The ultimate terror the city held had nothing to do with violence. It was fear of the Other, the poor, the dying--or to evoke a word with biblical authority — the pestilential. And so I could no longer be cynical about her motives. She wasn't just another Christian proselytizer. Her care of lepers changed the mind of many Calcuttans. Young physicians, one of them the uncle of a classmate, began to sign up as volunteers. It all made Mother Teresa seem less remote. The very people whom she had deserted when she broke with the Loreto nuns were now seeking her out.

I left Calcutta as a teenager and did not return to live there for any length of time until 1973. The Calcutta I went back to was vociferously in love with Mother Teresa. The women I had been close to in Loreto House, women who in the '70s had become socialite wives and volunteer social workers, were devoted to Mother Teresa and her projects, especially the leprosarium. Years later, I learned that the volunteer Mother Teresa came to rely on was a Loreto House graduate.

It is the fate of moral crusaders to be vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy or have the arbitrary selectiveness of their campaigns held against them. Mother Teresa's detractors have accused her of overemphasizing Calcuttans' destitution and of coercing conversion from the defenseless. In the context of lost causes, Mother Teresa took on battles she knew she could win. Taken together, it seems to me, the criticisms of her work do not undermine or topple her overall achievement. The real test might be, Did she inspire followers, skeptics and even opponents to larger acts of kindness or greater visions of possibility? If the church demands hard evidence of a miracle for sainthood, the transformation of many hearts might make the strongest case.


For her work among the poor and dying of India, Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a Roman Catholic nun who founded the only Catholic religious order still growing in membership, was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Yugoslavia, on August 27, 1910. Her parents were Albanian grocers, and at the time of her birth Skopje lay within the Ottoman Empire. She attended public school in Skopje, and first showed religious interests as a member of a school sodality that focused on foreign missions. By the age of 12 she felt she had a calling to help the poor.

This calling took sharper focus through her teenage years, when she was especially inspired by reports of work being done in India by Yugoslav Jesuit missionaries serving in Bengal. When she was 18 Mother Teresa left home to join a community of Irish nuns, the Sisters of Loretto, who had a mission in Calcutta, India. She received training in Dublin, Ireland, and in Darjeeling, India, taking her first religious vows in 1928 and her final religious vows in 1937.

One of Mother Teresa's first assignments was to teach, and eventually to serve as principal, in a girls' high school in Calcutta. Although the school lay close to the teeming slums, the students were mainly wealthy. In 1946 Mother Teresa experienced what she called a second vocation or "call within a call." She felt an inner urging to leave the convent life and work directly with the poor. In 1948 the Vatican gave her permission to leave the Sisters of Loretto and to start a new work under the guidance of the Archbishop of Calcutta.

Founding the Missionaries of Charity

To prepare to work with the poor, Mother Teresa took an intensive medical training with the American Medical Missionary Sisters in Patna, India. Her first venture in Calcutta was to gather unschooled children from the slums and start to teach them. She quickly attracted both financial support and volunteers, and in 1950 her group, now called the Missionaries of Charity, received official status as a religious community within the Archdiocese of Calcutta. Members took the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they added a fourth vow - to give free service to the most abjectly poor. In Mother Teresa's own view, the work of her group was very different from that of secular welfare agencies. She saw her nuns ministering to Jesus, whom they encounter as suffering in the poor, especially those who are dying alone or who are abandoned children.

The Missionaries of Charity began their distinctive work of ministering to the dying in 1952, when they took over a temple in Calcutta that previously had been dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. The sisters working there had, as their main goal, filling with dignity and love the last days of poor people who were dying. The physical conditions of this shelter were not imposing, although they were completely clean; but the emotional atmosphere of love and concern struck most visitors as truly saintly. When the sisters were criticized or disparaged because of the small scale of their work (in the context of India's tens of millions of desperately poor and suffering people), Mother Teresa tended to respond very simply. She considered any governmental help a benefit, but she was content to have her sisters do what they could for specific suffering people, since she regarded each individual as infinitely precious in God's sight.

The Missionaries of Charity received considerable publicity, and Mother Teresa used it rather adroitly to benefit her work. In 1957 they began to work with lepers and slowly expanded their educational work, at one point running nine elementary schools in Calcutta. They also opened a home for orphans and abandoned children. In 1959 they began to expand outside of Calcutta, starting works in other Indian cities. As in Calcutta, their focus was the poorest of the poor: orphans, the dying, and those ostracized by diseases such as leprosy. Before long they had a presence in more than 22 Indian cities, and Mother Teresa had visited such other countries as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Australia, Tanzania, Venezuela, and Italy to begin foundations. Although in most of these countries the problems of the poor seemed compounded by uncontrolled population growth, the Sisters held strongly negative views on both abortion and contraception. Their overriding conviction was that all lives are precious, and sometimes they seemed to imply that the more human beings there were, the better God's plan was flourishing.

In 1969 Mother Teresa allowed a group called the International Association of Co-Workers of Mother Teresa to affiliate itself with the Missionaries of Charity. This was a sort of "third order, " as Catholics sometimes call basically lay groups that affiliate with religious orders both to help the orders in their work and to participate in their idealistic spirituality. These Co-Workers were drawn to Mother Teresa's work with the very poor, and their constitution specified that they wanted to help serve the poorest of the poor, without regard to caste or creed, in a spirit of prayer and sacrifice.

Dedication to the Very Poor

Mother Teresa's group continued to expand throughout the 1970s, opening works in such new countries as Jordan (Amman), England (London), and the United States (Harlem, New York City). She received both recognition and financial support through such awards as the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize and a grant from the Joseph Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Benefactors regularly would arrive to support works in progress or to stimulate the Sisters to open new ventures. Mother Teresa received increasing attention in the media, especially through a British Broadcasting Corporation special interview that Malcolm Muggeridge conducted with her in London in 1968. In 1971, on the occasion of visiting some of her sisters in London, she went to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to pray with the Irish women for peace and to meet with lan Paisley, a militant Protestant leader. In the same year she opened a home in Bangladesh for women raped by Pakistani soldiers in the conflicts of that time. By 1979 her groups had more than 200 different operations in over 25 countries around the world, with dozens more ventures on the horizon. In 1986 she persuaded President Fidel Castro to allow a mission in Cuba. The hallmark of all of Mother Teresa's works - from shelters for the dying to orphanages and homes for the mentally ill - continued to be service to the very poor.

In 1988 Mother Teresa sent her Missionaries of Charity into Russia and also opened a home for AIDS patients in San Francisco, California. In 1991 she returned home to Albania and opened a home in Tirana, the capital. At this time, there were 168 homes operating in India. Later in 1995, plans materialized to open homes in China.

Despite the appeal of this saintly work, all commentators remarked that Mother Teresa herself was the most important reason for the growth of her order and the fame that came to it. Muggeridge was struck by her pleasant directness and by the otherworldly character of her values. He saw her as having her feet completely on the ground, yet she seemed almost unable to comprehend his suggestion (meant as an interviewer's controversial prod) that trying to save a few of India's abandoned children was almost meaningless, in the face of the hordes whom no one was helping. He realized that Mother Teresa had virtually no understanding of a cynical or godless point of view that could consider any human being less than absolutely valuable.

Another British interviewer, Polly Toynbee, was especially struck by Mother Teresa's lack of rage or indignation. Unlike many "social critics, " she did not find it necessary to attack the economic or political structures of the cultures that were producing the abjectly poor people she was serving. For her the primary rule was a constant love, and when social critics or religious reformers chose to vent anger at the evils of structures underlying poverty and suffering, that was between them and God. Indeed, in later interviews Mother Teresa continued to strike an apolitical pose, refusing to take a stand on anything other than strictly religious matters. One sensed that to her mind politics, economics, and other this-worldly matters were other people's business. The business given by God to her and her group was simply serving the very poor with as much love and skill as they could muster.

In the 1980s and 1990s Mother Teresa's health problems became a concern. She suffered a heart attack while visiting Pope John Paul II in 1983. She had a near fatal heart attack in 1989 and began wearing a pacemaker.

In August 1996 the world prayed for Mother Teresa's recovery. At the age of 86, Mother Teresa was on a respirator in a hospital, suffering from heart failure and malaria. Doctors were not sure she would recover. Within days she was fully conscious, asked to receive communion, and requested that the doctors send her home. When she was sent home a few weeks later in early September, a doctor said she firmly believed, "God will take care of me."

In late November of that same year, Mother Teresa was again hospitalized. She had angioplasty surgery to clear two blocked arteries. She was also given a mild electric shock to correct an irregular heartbeat. She was released after spending almost a month in the hospital.

In March 1997, after an eight week selection process, 63-year-old Sister Nirmala was named as the new leader of the Missionaries of Charity. Although Mother Teresa had been trying to cut back on her duties for some time (because of her health problems), she stayed on in an advisory role to Sister Nirmala.

In April 1997 filming began on the movie "Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor" with actress Geraldine Chaplin playing the title role. The movie aired in the fall of 1997 on "The Family Channel" even though, after viewing the movie, Mother Teresa refused to endorse it. Mother Teresa celebrated her 87th birthday in August, and died shortly thereafter of a heart attack on September 5, 1997. The world grieved her loss and one mourner noted, "It was Mother herself who poor people respected. When they bury her, we will have lost something that cannot be replaced."

In appearance Mother Teresa was both tiny (only about five feet tall) and energetic. Her face was quite wrinkled, but her dark eyes commanded attention, radiating an energy and intelligence that shone without expressing nervousness or impatience. Many of her recruits came from people attracted by her own aura of sanctity, and she seemed little changed by the worldwide attention she received. Conservatives within the Catholic Church sometimes used her as a symbol of traditional religious values that they felt lacking in their churches. By popular consensus she was a saint for the times, and a spate of almost adoring books and articles started to canonize her in the 1980s and well into the 1990s. She herself tried to deflect all attention away from what she did to either the works of her group or to the god who was her inspiration. She continued to combine energetic administrative activities with a demanding life of prayer, and if she accepted opportunities to publicize her work they had little of the cult of personality about them.

In the wake of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Peace she received many other international honors, but she sometimes disconcerted humanitarian groups by expressing her horror at abortion or her own preference for prayer rather than politics. When asked what would happen to her group and work after her death, she told people that God would surely provide a successor - a person humbler and more faithful than she. The Missionaries of Charity, who had brothers as well as sisters by the mid-1980s, are guided by the constitution she wrote for them. They have their vivid memories of the love for the poor that created the phenomenon of Mother Teresa in the first place. So the final part of her story will be the lasting impact her memory has on the next generations of missionaries, as well as in the world as a whole.











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008