Compassionate Servant of God
By Anne Adams
From what has been called a “life-changing encounter with the Living Presence of the Will of God” by one small nun on a train journey in September, 1946 came a unique ministry to the poorest of the poor and with it world wide acclaim. However, through it all, the nun who the world came to know as Mother Teresa kept the perspective that she was merely serving God by loving those who needed it the most.” There is a terrible hunger for love.” She wrote,” We all experience that in our lives – the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them. Put your love for them in living action. For in loving them, you are loving God Himself.” And even after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the work continues as more than 5000 members of her orders and other volunteers operate about 500 facilities around world, feeding 500,000 families and assisting 90,000 lepers each year.
The woman who saw herself as only God’s servant was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiuin in Skopje on August 26, 1910 , the daughter of Albanian parents, in what is now the capital of the former the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia . She joined the Sisters of Loreto age 18 and trained at the motherhouse in Dublin , Ireland , where she chose Teresa as her name in religion after the renowned Saint Th‚rŠse of Lisieux, the patron of foreign missionaries.
In December 1928 Sister Teresa was sent to Darjeeling , at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains in India where she completed her religious calling and took her final vows. Then in January of 1929 she arrived in Calcutta , capital of Bengal where she was to teach at a girls’ school. However, the constant sight of the dead and dying on the city streets created a compassion that she would carry for many years.
Then in September, 1946 when she was on her way to Darjeeling to enter a religious retreat as well as improve from suspected tuberculosis, she felt the calling that would change her life. She later described what happened: “I realized that I had the call to take care of the sick and the dying, the hungry, the naked, the homeless – to be God’s Love in action to the poorest of the poor. That was the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity.”
With new purpose she requested permission to leave the Loreto congregation and establish a new religious order to implement her new vision. She received papal approval and in 1952 the Missionaries of Charity began its work, its members wearing a simple white sari with blue bands that symbolized God’s will. The nuns of the new order took the usual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but Mother Teresa added another: service to the poor that she believed served as the embodiment of Christ.
Local Calcutta officials allowed her to use part of an abandoned temple formerly dedicated to Kali (the Hindu deity of transition and called the “destroyer of demons”) to a establish the Kalighat Home for the Dying, named by Mother Teresa as Nirmal Hriday (meaning “Pure Heart”). The sisters brought the dying people from the city streets to the home where they would receive loving care until the end. In one interview Mother Teresa later described her first experience of lifting a dying street woman and how the shelter developed:
“The woman was half eaten up by rats and ants. I took her to the hospital, but they could do nothing for her. They only took her because I refused to go home unless something was done for her. After they cared for her, I went straight to the townhall and asked for a place where I could take these people, because that day I found more people dying in the street. The employee of health services brought me to the temple of Kali and showed me the “dormashalah” where the pilgrims used to rest after they worshipped the goddess Kali. The building was empty and he asked me if I wanted it. I was very glad with the offer for many reasons, but especially because it was the center of prayer for Hindus. Within 24 hours we brought our sick and suffering and started the Home for the Dying Destitutes.”
In the years since more than 40,000 people have been removed to the shelter and nearly half of these finally died surrounded by kindness and love they would never have found on the street. For those who survived, the sisters helped them find jobs or a loving home as needed. In 1953 the order opened its first orphanage and several years later they began caring for lepers.
The work of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity received international notice and acclaim in the form of innumerable awards such as the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997 and what some would consider the most prestigious – the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. In fact the comment was made when she received the Nobel Prize that “her labor made her so worthy that, in reality, she gave honor to the prize, rather than the other way around!” She always accepted any award on behalf of the poor people she served and immediately invested any prize monies into her work.
Failing health in the 1990s meant she was less active in the order’s administration, and then in 1997 she was succeeded as head of her order. Then on Sept. 5, 1997 at age 87 she passed away and on September 13 – the 51st anniversary of her divine calling to service – her sisters and the world remembered the woman who not only had the compassion to care but the inspiration to do something about it with the facilities that have served so many. Within two years of her death because of public response Pope John II approved the beginning of the canonization process and the ceremony of beautification, a first step to declaring her a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, was held on October 19, 2003 in Rome.
On 9/4/2016, Pope Francis delivered the formula for the canonization of the Albanian-born nun — known as the “saint of the gutters” — before huge crowds of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on Sunday morning. Applause broke out before he completed the formula of canonization, in which he declared “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint.”