Mother Teresa

August 27, 1910
Skopje, Ottoman, Kossovo Vilayet, today's Macedonia

September 5,1997
Kolkata, India

Mother Teresa was never a birth mother, however, she was the mother to all humans on Earth. This is some of what this little woman did with a caring heart as a mother to the needy.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, OM (August 27, 1910 — September 5, 1997) was an Albanian Catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity in India. Her work among the poverty-stricken of Kolkata (Calcutta) made her one of the world's most famous people, and she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in October 2003. Hence, she may be properly called Blessed Teresa by Catholics.

Teresa was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1973, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and India's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna in 1980. In 1971, she was awarded the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize. She was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. Teresa was made an Honorary Citizen of the United States in 1996. She was the first and only person to be featured on an Indian postage stamp while still alive. Her supporters sometimes referred to her as the "Angel of Mercy" and "Saint of the Gutter."

Teresa was also known for her books about Christian spirituality and prayer, some of which were written together with her close friend Fr?re Roger.

While many Catholics and others considered Teresa the embodiment of a "living saint," critics have raised questions about her public statements, working practices, political connections, and the use of funds donated to her charity.

Early life and work

Teresa was born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in the city of Skopje, Macedonia then the capital of the Ottoman province of the Kossovo Vilayet, where her father (of ethnic Albanian origin) was a successful merchant. Her parents had three children, and Agnes Gonxha was the youngest. Her parents, Nikoll? (Kol?) and Dranafile Bojaxhiu (also an ethnic Albanian), came from the city of Prizren in the south of Kosovo. They were Catholics, even though most came from
Memorial on the site of Teresa's birthplace in Skopje, Macedonia
the city of Prizren in the south of Kosovo. They were Catholics, even though most Albanians are Muslim and the majority of the population in their native Macedonia are Macedonian Orthodox.

Little is known of Teresa's early life except from her own reminiscences. She recounted that she felt a vocation to help the poor from the age of 12, and decided to train for missionary work in India. She was a member of the youth group in her local parish called Sodality. At 18, the Vatican granted Teresa permission to leave Skopje and join the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns in Rathfarnham with a mission in Calcutta.

She chose the Sisters of Loreto because of their vocation to provide education for girls. After a few months training at the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dublin she was sent to Darjeeling in India as a novice sister. On May 24 1931, she made her first vows there, choosing the name Sister Mary Teresa in honour of Teresa of Avila and Th?r?se de Lisieux. She took her final vows in May 1937.

From 1930 to 1948 Mother Teresa taught geography and catechism at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta, becoming its principal in 1944. She later said that the poverty all around left a deep impression on her. In September 1946, by her own account, she received a calling from God "to serve Him among the poorest of the poor." She said, "I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper's wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?"

In 1948 she received permission from Pope Pius XII, via the Archbishop of Calcutta, to leave her community and live as an independent nun. She quit the high school and, after a short course with the Medical Mission Sisters in Patna, she returned to Calcutta and found temporary lodging with the Little Sisters of the Poor. She then started an open-air school for homeless children. Soon she was joined by voluntary helpers, and she received financial support from church organizations and the municipal authorities. In 1949, some of her former pupils joined her. They found men, women, and children dying on the streets who were rejected by local hospitals. The group rented a room so they could care for helpless people otherwise condemned to die in the gutter.

Foundation of the Missionaries of Charity
In October 1950 Teresa received Vatican permission to start her own order, which the Vatican originally labeled as the Diocesan Congregation of the Calcutta Diocese, but which later became known as the Missionaries of Charity, whose mission was to care for (in her own words) "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for
Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Kolkata (Calcutta)
throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." It began as a small Order with 12 members in Calcutta, today it has more than 4,000 nuns running orphanages, AIDS hospices, charity centres worldwide, and caring for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless and victims of floods, epidemics and famine in Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, Europe and Australia.

With the help of Indian officials she converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the Kalighat Home for the Dying, a free hospice for the poor. She soon after opened another hospice, Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart), a home for lepers called Shanti Nagar (City of Peace), and an orphanage. The order soon began to attract both recruits and charitable donations, and by the 1960s had opened hospices, orphanages and leper houses all over India.

In 1965, by granting a Decree of Praise, Pope Paul VI granted Mother Teresa's request to expand her order to other countries. Teresa's order started to rapidly grow, with new homes opening all over the globe. The order's first house outside India was in Venezuela, and others followed in Rome and Tanzania, and eventually in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe, including Albania. In addition, the first Missionaries of Charity home in the United States was established in the South Bronx, New York. By 1996, she was operating 517 missions in more than 100 countries. Today over one million workers worldwide are employed by the Missionaries of Charity.

Spiritual life

A day after the death of Teresa, John Paul II said: "Missionary of Charity: this is what Mother Teresa was in name and in fact". And on her beatification, he developed this idea further. "First and foremost a missionary: there is no doubt that the new Blessed was one of the greatest missionaries of the 20th century. The Lord made this simple woman who came from one of Europe's poorest regions a chosen instrument (cf. Acts 9: 15) to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world, not by preaching but by daily acts of love towards the poorest of the poor. A missionary with the most universal language: the language of love that knows no bounds or exclusion and has no preferences other than for the most forsaken."

Analyzing her deed and achievements, John Paul II asked: "Where did Mother Teresa find the strength to place herself completely at the service of others? She found it in prayer and in the silent contemplation of Jesus Christ, his Holy Face, his Sacred Heart."

In his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est Benedict XVI mentioned Teresa of Calcutta three times and he also used her life to clarify one of his main points of the encyclical. "In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service."

International fame

In 1952 the first Home for the Dying was opened in space made available by the City of Calcutta. Over the years, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity grew from 12 to thousands serving the "poorest of the poor" in 450 centers around the world. Mother Teresa created many homes for the dying and the unwanted from Calcutta to New York to Albania. She was one of the first to establish homes for AIDS victims. For more than 45 years,
President Ronald Reagan presents Mother Teresa with the Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony, 1985.
Mother Teresa comforted the poor, the dying, and the unwanted around the world.

Mother Teresa's work inspired other Catholics to affiliate themselves with her order. The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was founded in 1963, and a contemplative branch of the Sisters followed in 1976. Lay Catholics and non-Catholics were enrolled in the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity. In answer to the requests of many priests, in 1981 Mother Teresa also began the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests.

By the early 1970s, Mother Teresa had become an international celebrity. Her fame can be in large part attributed to the 1969 documentary Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge and his 1971 book of the same title, which is still in print. During the filming of the documentary, footage taken in poor lighting conditions, particularly the Home for the Dying, was thought unlikely to be of usable quality by the crew. After returning from India, however, the footage was found to be extremely well-lit. Muggeridge claimed this was a miracle of "divine light" from Mother Teresa herself. Others in the crew thought it more likely ascribable to a new type of Kodak film. Muggeridge later converted to Catholicism.

In 1971 Paul VI awarded her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize. Other awards bestowed upon her included a Kennedy Prize (1971), the Balzan prize (1978) for humanity, peace and brotherhood among peoples, the Albert Schweitzer International Prize (1975), the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom (1985) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1994), honorary citizenship of the United States (November 16, 1996, and honorary degrees from a number of universities. In 1972 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nehru Prize for her promotion of international peace and understanding.

In 1979 Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, "for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to peace." She refused the conventional ceremonial banquet given to laureates, and asked that the $6,000 funds be diverted to the poor in Calcutta, claiming the money would permit her to feed hundreds of needy for a year. She is stated to have said that earthly rewards were important only if they helped her help the world’s needy. When Mother Teresa received the prize, she was asked, "What can we do to promote world peace?" Her answer was simple: "Go home and love your family." In the same year, she was also awarded the Balzan Prize for promoting peace and brotherhood among the nations.

In 1982, Mother Teresa persuaded Israelis and Palestinians, who were in the midst of a skirmish, to cease fire long enough to rescue 37 mentally-handicapped patients from a besieged hospital in Beirut.

When the walls of Eastern Europe collapsed, she expanded her efforts to communist countries that had rejected her, embarking on dozens of projects. She was undeterred by criticism about her firm stand against abortion and divorce saying, "No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work."

Mother Teresa traveled to 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 native region and opened a Missionaries of Charity Brothers home in Tirana, Albania.

During her lifetime and after her death, Mother Teresa was consistently found by Gallup to be the single most widely admired person, and in 1999 was ranked as the "most admired person of the 20th century." Notably, Mother Teresa out-polled all other volunteered answers by a wide margin, and was in first place in all major demographic categories except the very young.

Deteriorating health and death

In 1983 Teresa suffered a heart attack in Rome, while visiting Pope John Paul II. After a second attack in 1989 she received a pacemaker. In 1991, after a battle with pneumonia while in Mexico, she had further heart problems.

She offered to resign her position as head of the order. A secret ballot vote was carried out, and all the nuns, except herself, voted for Mother Teresa to stay. Mother Teresa agreed to continue her work as head of the Missionaries of Charity.

In April 1996, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone. Later that year, in August, she suffered from malaria, and failure of the left heart ventricle. She underwent heart surgery, but it was clear that her health was declining. On March 13, 1997 she stepped down from the head of Missionaries of Charity and died on September 5, 1997, just 9 days after her 87th birthday.

The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D'Souza, says he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism on Mother Teresa shortly before she died because he thought she was being attacked by the devil. Catholic experts agree that, while exorcisms remain an important but rare part of the church's work, the Archbishop may have overreacted in ordering the ceremony.

At the time of her death, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers, operating 610 missions in 123 countries. These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children's and family counseling programs, orphanages, and schools.

Mother Teresa was granted a full state funeral by the Indian Government, an honor normally given to presidents and prime ministers, in gratitude for her services to the poor of all religions in India. Her death was widely considered a great tragedy within both secular and religious communities. The former U.N. Secretary-General Javier P?rez de Cu?llar, for example, said: "She is the United Nations. She is peace in the world." Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan said that Teresa was "A rare and unique individual who lived long for higher purposes. Her life-long devotion to the care of the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged was one of the highest examples of service to our humanity."

Miracle and beatification

Following Teresa's death in 1997, the Holy See began the process of beatification, the second step towards possible canonization, or sainthood. This process requires the documentation of a miracle performed from the intercession of Mother Teresa. In 2002, the Vatican recognized as a miracle the healing of a tumor in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, following the application of a locket containing Teresa's picture. Monica Besra said that a beam of light emanated from the picture, curing the cancerous tumor.

The issue of the alleged miracle proved controversial in India around the time of Mother Teresa's beatification. Teresa was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 2003 with the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. A second miracle is required for her to proceed to canonization.

Criticism of the accepted miracle

It has been reported that Besra's husband initially said that the tumor was cured by later hospital treatment. He has since changed his mind. A story in The Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying: "It was her miracle healing that cured my wife. Our situation was terrible and we didn't know what to do. Now my children are being educated with the help of the nuns and I have been able to buy a small piece of land. Everything has changed for the better."According to Monica Besra in TIME Asia records of her treatment were removed by a member of the order from the hospital and are now with a nun. The doctors who treated Monica Besra denied the claims of a miracle healing and said that they had come under pressure from the Missionaries of Charity to acknowledge that the healing process was the result of a miracle.

Political and social views

Mother Teresa is well known and well loved amongst members of the Catholic church for always speaking the ‘truth’ as Catholics who are followers of the teachings of the Church at Rome believe it to be. When considering her political and social views they must be placed within the context of the theology she derived them from in order to be fully understood. Her theology was strongly in line with the common teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of the day and age at which she lived. Especially as reflected in the documents and teachings issued by the Vatican.

Mother Teresa frequently spoke against abortion and artificial contraception in meetings with high level government officials. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she declared, "Abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace... Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves or one another? Nothing."

On February 3, 1994 at a National Prayer Breakfast, sponsored by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, in Washington, DC, Mother Teresa challenged the audience on such topics as family life and abortion. She said, "Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Give the child to me."

In the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War, it was determined that more than 450,000 women in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had been systematically raped, giving birth to a few thousand war-babies. She asserted her rejection of abortion by publicly renouncing abortion as an option and by calling upon the women left behind to keep their unborn children. She characterized her views later when asked in 1993 about a 14-year-old rape victim in Ireland, "Abortion can never be necessary... because it is pure killing."

While this stance is in line with that of the Roman Catholic Church, which asserts natural family planning is the only acceptable form of birth control, her critics assert that Teresa dogmatically refused to acknowledge the related problems of overpopulation, especially in cities like Calcutta.

The Vatican and influential leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have also repeatedly denied the existence of a overpopulation problem and Catholic theology teaches that even in the face of such a problem abortion is an unacceptable alternative. Teresa was a strong believer in this mainstream Catholic view.

Teresa also campaigned tirelessly against divorce, which she understood to be an immoral abomination in accordance with the teaching of her faith, insisting it should be made illegal; she organized an unsuccessful campaign to keep the Irish ban on divorce in 1996. However, some believe she contradicted this belief when she told the Ladies Home Journal that with respect to Prince Charles and Princess Diana, "It is a good thing that it is over. Nobody was happy anyhow."

Teresa believed firmly in forgiveness. As she once said "I once picked up a woman from a garbage dump and she was burning with fever; she was in her last days and her only lament was: ‘My son did this to me.’ I begged her: You must forgive your son. In a moment of madness, when he was not himself, he did a thing he regrets. Be a mother to him, forgive him. It took me a long time to make her say: ‘I forgive my son.’ Just before she died in my arms, she was able to say that with a real forgiveness. She was not concerned that she was dying. The breaking of the heart was that her son did not want her. This is something you and I can understand."

Teresa also believed in ecumenism, as she stated "There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic. We believe our work should be our example to people. We have among us 475 souls - 30 families are Catholics and the rest are all Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs — all different religions. But they all come to our prayers." However, she believed in ecumenism as taught be the Roman Catholic Church in which she learned so many of her beliefs. As such is must be assumed that part of her Goal in helping the poor was to image Christ and draw people to true faith in him.


An Indian-born writer living in Britain, Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, who had briefly worked in one of Mother Teresa's homes, began investigations into the finances and other practices of her order. In November 1992, a British journalist who is often described as a "contrarian" and known for his anti-clericism, Christopher Hitchens, published an article in The Nation entitled "The Ghoul of Calcutta" criticizing Mother Teresa. In 1994, Hitchens and British journalist Tariq Ali produced a critical TV documentary for the UK's Channel 4 called Hell's Angel, which was based on Chatterjee's work. Although he has never disputed the documentary's conclusions, Chatterjee criticized what he called the "sensationalist" approach of the film.

The next year, Hitchens published The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice which repeated many of the accusations levied in the documentary. Chatterjee himself published The Final Verdict in 2003, a less polemic work than those of Hitchens and Ali, but equally critical of Teresa's operations.

Neither Mother Teresa nor the Vatican has ever revealed how much money her order received, nor what it was spent on; estimates range into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Hitchens further alleged that Mother Teresa lied to donors about what the money was going to be used for. Donors, he says, were told that the money went to aid and the construction of healthcare facilities in India and elsewhere. Evidence points to it instead being spent largely on missionary work and that Mother Teresa was actually the controller of the funds. No hospitals were ever built.

Hitchens also appeared prominently in a third season episode of Penn & Teller's Showtime series Bullshit! called Holier Than Thou, which targeted Mother Teresa's religious hypocrisy (Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama were also featured). Hitchens reiterated his claims about her during his interview: "she was a fraud, a fanatic, and a fundamentalist... corrupt, cynical, nasty and cruel." Hitchens further alleged that while she and her order had the money to help save lives, culled mostly by donations from the wealthy, victims of disease got no medical care and that if you went to Calcutta, you'd have perhaps a fifteen percent chance of seeing her because she was in the company of the powerful and wealthy. He stated similar allegations in a 2002 interview for the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley.

Motivation of charitable activities

Christopher Hitchens described Mother Teresa's organization as a cult which promoted suffering and did not help those in need. In Hitchens' interpretation, Teresa's own words on poverty proved that "her intention was not to help people." He quoted Teresa's words at a 1981 press conference in which she was asked: "Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?" She replied: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."

Chatterjee added that the public image of Mother Teresa as a "helper of the poor" was misleading, and that only a few hundred people are served by even the largest of the homes. According to a Stern magazine report about Mother Teresa, the (Protestant) Assembly of God charity serves 18,000 meals daily in Calcutta (now called Kolkata), many more than all the Mission of Charity homes together.

Chatterjee alleged that many operations of the order engage in no charitable activity at all but instead use their funds for missionary work. He stated, for example, that none of the eight facilities that the Missionaries of Charity run in Papua New Guinea have any residents in them, being purely for the purpose of converting local people to Catholicism. Some defenders of the order argue that missionary activity — already declared in the name of the order — was a central part of Teresa's calling.

Quality of medical care

Many of Teresa's donors were evidently under the impression that their money was being used to build hospitals In 1991, Dr. Robin Fox, then editor of the British medical journal The Lancet visited the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and described the medical care the patients received as "haphazard". He observed that sisters and volunteers, some of whom had no medical knowledge, had to make decisions about patient care, because of the lack of doctors in the hospice. Dr. Fox specifically held Teresa responsible for conditions in this home, and observed that her order did not distinguish between curable and incurable patients, so that people who could otherwise survive would be at risk of dying from infections and lack of treatment.

Fox conceded that the regimen he observed included cleanliness, the tending of wounds and sores, and kindness, but he noted that the sisters' approach to managing pain was "disturbingly lacking". The formulary at the facility Fox visited lacked strong analgesics which he felt clearly separated Mother Teresa's approach from the hospice movement. Fox also wrote that needles were rinsed with warm water, which left them inadequately sterilised, and the facility did not isolate patients with tuberculosis. There have been a series of other reports documenting inattention to medical care in the order's facilities. Similar points of view have also been expressed by some former volunteers who worked for Teresa's order. Mother Teresa herself referred to the facilities as "Houses of the Dying".

In contrast to the conditions at her homes, Mother Teresa sought medical treatment for herself at renowned medical clinics in the United States, Europe, and India, drawing charges of hypocrisy from Hitchens.

Destination of donations

Susan Shields, a former nun of Mother Teresa's order, alleged that Teresa refused to authorize the purchase of medical equipment, and that donated money was instead transferred to the Vatican Bank for general use, even if it was specifically earmarked for charitable purposes See Missionaries of Charity for a detailed discussion of these allegations. According to Chatterjee, other charitable organizations in India publish their accounts, but Mother Teresa always refused to do so except where she was required to by law.

Attitude toward repressive political leaders

Teresa made some public statements regarding political leaders that have produced controversy. After Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's suspension of civil liberties in 1975, Mother Teresa said: "People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes." These approving comments were seen as a result of the friendship between Teresa and the Congress Party. Mother Teresa's comments were even criticized outside India within Catholic media. In 1981 she made a trip to Haiti to accept an honor from Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was notorious as a repressive and praised the Duvalier family as friends of Haiti's poor. In 1989 she travelled to Albania and laid a wreath at the grave of Enver Hoxha, its Cold War era leader who had outlawed religion.

Baptisms of the dying

Mother Teresa encouraged members of her order to baptize dying patients, without regard to the individual's religion. In a speech at the Scripps Clinic in California in January 1992, she said: "Something very beautiful... not one has died without receiving the special ticket for St. Peter, as we call it. We call baptism 'a ticket for St. Peter.' We ask the person, do you want a blessing by which your sins will be forgiven and you receive God? They have never refused. So 29,000 have died in that one house [in Kalighat] from the time we began in 1952."

Critics have argued that patients were not provided sufficient information to make an informed decision about whether they wanted to be baptized and the theological significance of a Catholic baptism. Since her patients were predominantly Hindus and Muslims, the baptisms would have been directly counter to their own religious beliefs; since their idea of God is vastly different from the Catholic God, the question "do you want to receive a blessing..." would be misleading without the qualifier that the God in question was the Christian God.

Simon Leys, one of Mother Teresa's defenders, has argued that baptisms are either soul-saving or harmless. Simon Leys, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, wrote: "Either you believe in the supernatural effect of this gesture — and then you should dearly wish for it. Or you do not believe in it, and the gesture is as innocent and well-meaningly innocuous as chasing a fly away with a wave of the hand." This view, however, does not take into account the possibility that one could believe that participating in a baptism - a religious ceremony from a faith other than one's own - is a sin.