Mother Teresa, a “diminutive woman in love with God”, was born to Albanian parents in 1910 as Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu in what is now Skopje, Macedonia. She was the youngest of three surviving children in a well-off middle class family. Her father’s sudden death when she was eight years old, however, meant her family had to rely on the charity of others.
Her family parish was under the care of the Jesuits, and Agnes joined a Sodality for young women and felt a growing call to serve in overseas missions. When she was 18 she entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Loreto Sisters, in Dublin. She received the name Sister Mary Teresa after St Therese of Lisieux. In 1929, she set off for India, to teach at St Mary’s School for girls. She made her Final Profession there in 1937, becoming, as she said, the “spouse of Jesus for all eternity”. From that time on she was called Mother Teresa. In 1944 she became the school’s principal.
In 1946 during a train ride from Kolkata to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, Mother Teresa received her “inspiration, her call within a call.” On that day, in a way she would never explain, Jesus’ love for souls took hold of her heart.
Jesus revealed His pain at the neglect of the poor, His sorrow at their ignorance of Him and His longing for their love. He asked Mother Teresa to establish a religious community, Missionaries of Charity, dedicated to the service of the poorest of the poor.
Nearly two years of testing and discernment passed before Mother Teresa received permission to begin. On 17 August 1948, she dressed for the first time in a white, blue-bordered sari and passed through the gates of her beloved Loreto convent to enter the world of the poor.
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 went for the first time to the slums. She visited families, washed the sores of some children, cared for an old man lying sick on the road and nursed a woman dying of hunger and tuberculosis. She started each day with communion then went out, rosary in her hand, to find and serve Jesus amongst “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.” After a few months, some of her former student joined her, one by one.
In 1950 the new congregation of the Missionaries of Charity was officially established in the Archdiocese of Kolkata. The work was exhausting, but she was not alone for long. Volunteers who came to join her in the work, some of them former students, became the core of the Missionaries of Charity. Other helped by donating food, clothing, supplies, the use of buildings. In 1952 the city of Kolkata gave Mother Teresa a former hostel, which became a home for the dying and the destitute. As the Order expanded, services were also offered to orphans, abandoned children, alcoholics, the aging and street people.
By the early 1960s, Mother Teresa began to send her Sisters to other parts of India. Soon after, she opened houses in Venezuela, Rome and Tanzania and, eventually, on every continent. Starting in 1980 and continuing through the 1990s, Mother Teresa opened houses in almost all of the communist countries, including the former Soviet Union, Albania and Cuba.
During the years of rapid growth the world began to turn its eyes towards Mother Teresa and the work she had started. Numerous awards, beginning with the Indian Padmashri Award in 1962 and notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, honored her work. She received both prizes “for the glory of God and in the name of the poor.”
There was a heroic side of this great woman that was revealed only after her death. Hidden from all eyes, even from those closest to her, was her interior life marked by an experience of a deep, painful and abiding feeling of being separated from God, even rejected by Him, along with an ever increasing longing for His love. The “painful night” of her soul, which began around the time she started her work for the poor and continued to the end of her life, led Mother Teresa to an ever more profound union with God.
In spite of increasingly severe health problems towards the end of her life, Mother Teresa continued to govern her Society and respond to the needs of the poor and the Church. By 1997, Mother Teresa’s Sisters numbered nearly 4,000 members and were established in 610 foundations in 123 countries of the world.
Mother Teresa died on 5 September 1997. She was given the honor of a state funeral by the Government of India and her body was buried in the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. Her tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage and prayer for people of all faiths, rich and poor alike.
Mother Teresa left a testament of unshakable faith, invincible hope and extraordinary charity. Her response to Jesus’ plea, “Come be my light,” made her a “mother to the poor,” a symbol of compassion to the world, and a living witness to the thirsting love of God. She was beatified by John Paul II in 2003.