Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, which in 2012 consisted of over 4,500 sisters and was active in 133 countries. They run hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; dispensaries and mobile clinics; children’s and family counselling programmes; orphanages; and schools. Members must adhere to the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, as well as a fourth vow, to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”.
Mother Teresa was the recipient of numerous honours, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2003, she was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”. A second miracle was credited to her intercession by Pope Francis, in December 2015, paving the way for her to be recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
A controversial figure both during her life and after her death, Mother Teresa was widely admired by many for her charitable works. She was both praised and criticized for her pro-life views. She also received criticism for conditions in the hospices for which she was responsible. Her official biography was written by an Indian civil servant, Navin Chawla, and published in 1992.
Born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu gonxhe meaning “rosebud” or “little flower” in Albanian) on 26 August 1910 into a Kosovar Albanian family. She considered 27 August, the day she was baptised, to be her “true birthday”. Her birthplace of Skopje, now capital of the Republic of Macedonia, was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918, when it became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
Missionaries of Charity
On 10 September 1946, Teresa experienced what she later described as “the call within the call” while travelling by train to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling from Calcutta for her annual retreat. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”One author later observed, “Though no one knew it at the time, Sister Teresa had just become Mother Teresa”.
Mother Teresa said “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
In 1982, at the height of the Siege of Beirut, Mother Teresa rescued 37 children trapped in a front line hospital by brokering a temporary cease-fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas. Accompanied by Red Cross workers, she travelled through the war zone to the devastated hospital to evacuate the young patients.
When Eastern Europe experienced increased openness in the late 1980s, she expanded her efforts to Communist countries that had previously rejected the Missionaries of Charity, embarking on dozens of projects. She was undeterred by criticism about her firm stand against abortion and divorce stating, “No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work.” She visited the Soviet republic of Armenia following the 1988 earthquake, and met with Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
Declining health and death
Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack in Rome in 1983 while visiting Pope John Paul II. After a second attack in 1989, she received an artificial pacemaker. In 1991, after having pneumonia while in Mexico, she suffered further heart problems. She offered to resign her position as head of the Missionaries of Charity, but the sisters of the congregation, in a secret ballot, voted for her to stay. Mother Teresa agreed to continue her work as head of the congregation.
In April 1996, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone. In August she suffered from malaria and failure of the left heart ventricle. She had heart surgery but it was clear that her health was declining. The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D’Souza, said he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism on Mother Teresa with her permission when she was first hospitalised with cardiac problems because he thought she may be under attack by the devil.
Recognition and reception
Mother Teresa had first been recognised by the Indian government more than a third of a century earlier when she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1962 and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1969. She continued to receive major Indian awards in subsequent years, including India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1980. Her official biography was written by an Indian civil servant, Navin Chawla, and published in 1992.
On 28 August 2010, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, the government of India issued a special 5 Rupee coin, being the sum she first arrived in India with. President Pratibha Patil said of Mother Teresa, “Clad in a white sari with a blue border, she and the sisters of Missionaries of Charity became a symbol of hope to many – the aged, the destitute, the unemployed, the diseased, the terminally ill, and those abandoned by their families.”
Mother Teresa considered that suffering – even when caused by poverty, medical problems, or starvation – was a gift from God. As a result, while her clinics received millions of dollars in donations, their conditions drew criticism from people disturbed by the shortage of medical care, systematic diagnosis, and necessary nutrition, as well as the scarcity of analgesics for those in pain. Many of her critics accused her of a fundamental contradiction: It was estimated that she raised over $100 million for her charity, yet only 5-7% of this was used in catering to the poor. Some have argued that the additional money could have had transformative effects on the health of the poor by creating advanced palliative care facilities in the city. Pro-choice groups criticized her stance on abortion, while pro-life advocates praised her support of fetal rights.
Analyzing her deeds and achievements, John Paul II asked: “Where did Mother Teresa find the strength and perseverance 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.” Privately, Mother Teresa experienced doubts and struggles over her religious beliefs which lasted nearly 50 years until the end of her life, during which “she felt no presence of God whatsoever”, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist” as put by her postulator Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk. Mother Teresa expressed grave doubts about God’s existence and pain over her lack of faith:
Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.
After Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Holy See began the process of beatification, the third step toward possible canonisation. This process requires the documentation of a miracle performed from the intercession of Mother Teresa.
In 2002, the Vatican recognised as a miracle the healing of a tumour in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, after the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa’s picture. Besra said that a beam of light emanated from the picture, curing the cancerous tumour. Some of Besra’s medical staff and Besra’s husband said that conventional medical treatment had eradicated the tumour. Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who told The New York Times he had treated Besra, said that the cyst was not cancer at all but a cyst caused by tuberculosis. He said, “It was not a miracle…. She took medicines for nine months to one year.” According to Besra’s husband, “My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.”Besra’s medical records contain sonograms, prescriptions, and physicians’ notes and could provide evidence on whether the cure was a miracle or not. Besra has claimed that Sister Betta of the Missionaries of Charity is withholding them. The officials at the Balurghat Hospital where Besra was seeking medical treatment have claimed that they are being pressured by the Catholic order to declare the cure a miracle.