“I choose the poverty of our poor people. But I am grateful to receive the Nobel in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the lepers, of 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.” -Mother Teresa
In a world that was driven by schisms, skeptical of master plans and utopian schemes, this small woman refused to let ideology concern her, but instead shone as a beacon of humanity and compassion. She dedicated her life to the cause of humanity. Gentle, human and full of energy, Mother Teresa was an apostle of love devoted to the slums of Calcutta, who became a respected and beloved citizen of the world. Her selfless work among the poverty-stricken people of Calcutta is an inspiration for people all over the world.
Mother Teresa’s primary work was among the lepers of Calcutta. India continues to have the largest number of leprosy patients, with 1.37 lakh new cases recorded every year. When Mother Teresa began her work, the social stigma attached to leprosy was strong. This was a major obstacle to self-reporting and early treatment. She took care of the lepers at a period when they were ostracized and often abandoned by their families.
From childhood, Agnes Bojaxhio had a call to help the destitute. At the age of twelve, while attending a Roman Catholic elementary school, she records that she knew she had a vocation to help the poor. She decided to train for missionary work, and at the age of eighteen joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with a mission in Calcutta. After a few months of training in Dublin she was sent to India, where in 1928 she took her initial vows as a nun. On May 24, 1931, she took the name ‘Teresa’ in honor of St. Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Spanish nun. From 1931 to 1948 Mother Teresa taught at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta, but the suffering and poverty she glimpsed outside the convent walls left such a deep impression on her that in 1948 she requested and received permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and devote herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.
In India’s slums, huge numbers of people were infected with leprosy, a disease that can lead to major disfiguration. Mother Teresa eventually created a Leprosy Fund and a Leprosy Day to help educate the public about the disease and established a number of mobile leper clinics. These started working in September 1957, and worked to provide lepers with medicine and bandages near their homes. By the mid-1960s, Mother Teresa had established a leper colony called Shanti Nagar (“The Place of Peace”) where lepers could live and work.
She persuaded the city of Calcutta that leprosy was not contagious and got the lepers to build a self-supporting colony at Titagarh that she named after Mahatma Gandhi.
Mother Teresa began an open air school for homeless children. She was later joined by voluntary helpers, and financial support was also forthcoming from various church organisations, as well as from the municipal authorities. On October 7, 1950, she received permission to start her own Order “The Missionaries of Charity”, whose primary task was to love and care for those persons that nobody was prepared to look after. Today the Order comprises about one thousand sisters and brothers in India, of whom a small number are non-Indian. Many have been trained as doctors, nurses and social workers, and are in a position to provide effective help for the slum population as well as to undertake relief work in connection with such natural catastrophes like floods, epidemics, famine and dealing with refugees. The Order provides food for the needy and operates hospitals, schools, orphanages, youth centers, and shelters for lepers and the dying poor. It now has branches in 50 Indian cities and 30 other countries.
While the hospitals were overflowing with patients who hardly had a chance to survive, Mother Teresa opened a home for the dying, called Nirmal Hriday (“Place of the Immaculate Heart”), on August 22, 1952. One of her happiest memories was of the man who said, as he lay dying in her lap, “All my life I have lived like an animal on the streets and now I am dying like an angel.” Her prize children, often without limbs or with terminal diseases, were ones she would rescue from dustbins. Each day, nuns would walk through the streets and bring people who were dying to Nirmal Hriday, located in a building donated by the city of Calcutta. The nuns would bathe and feed these people and then place them in a cot. These people were given the opportunity to die with dignity, with the rituals of their faith.
From a single school which she started in a Calcutta slum in 1948, Mother Teresa’s Order grew into a multinational organisation that continued to be run from a small office in Calcutta. In the year before her death, her Order ran 755 homes in 125 countries. During that year the Missionaries of Charity fed half a million hungry mouths in five continents, treated a quarter of million sick, taught over 20,000 slum children and ran homes for the mentally destitute, the leprosy-afflicted, AIDS patients, the crippled, alcoholics and drug abusers. They ran day crèches, night shelters, soup kitchens and TB sanatoriums.Mother Teresa wore a sari similar to those worn by Calcutta’s municipal sweeper women, so that she could identify with the poorest of the poor. Later the saris worn by everyone in the Missionaries of Charity were woven by lepers’ hands. She believed in taking one small step at a time but had the administrative capability to perform many tasks simultaneously. Because she saw her God in everyone, she was able to bring out the best in their responses, big or small, which itself wrought a chain of goodness that went around the world and made the work of the Missionaries of Charity possible.
Legacy and depictions of the Mother
Mother Teresa has been eternalized through the charity institutions she initiated. ‘Missionaries of Charity’, the international order established by Mother in 1950 consists of over 4,500 sisters and is active in 133 countries. Today, the Order consists of both Contemplative and Active Branches of Brothers and Sisters in several different countries who vow to give “Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor”.
Mother Teresa has been memorialized through Museums, been named patroness of various churches, and has had various structures and roads named after her, including Albania’s International Airport. In 2009, the Mother Teresa Memorial House was opened in her hometown Skopje, in the Republic of Macedonia.
The Mother Teresa Women`s University-a public university, was established in 1984,in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu.
Various tributes have been published in Indian newspapers and magazines authored by her biographer, Navin Chawla.The Indian Railways introduced a new train, “Mother Express”, named after Mother Teresa, on 26 August 2010 to mark her birth centenary.
Mother Teresa is the subject of the 1969 documentary film and 1972 book ‘Something Beautiful for God’, a 1997 Art Film Festival award winning film starring Geraldine Chaplin called ‘Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor’ and a 2003 Italian miniseries titled Mother Teresa of Calcutta, (which received a CAMIE award).