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Mother Teresa

A Biography About Mother Teresa, the Saint of the Gutters


Mother Teresa
Keystone / Staff / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Historical Importance of Mother Teresa: Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns dedicated to helping the poor. Begun in Calcutta, India, the Missionaries of Charity grew to help the poor, the dying, orphans, lepers, and AIDS sufferers in over a hundred countries. Mother Teresa's selfless effort to help those in need has caused many to regard her as a model humanitarian.

Dates: August 26, 1910 -- September 5, 1997

Mother Teresa Also Known As: Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (birth name), "the Saint of the Gutters"

Overview of Mother Teresa:

Mother Teresa's task was overwhelming. She started out as just one woman, with no money and no supplies, trying to help the millions of poor, starving, and dying that lived on the streets of India. Despite others' misgivings, Mother Teresa was confident that God would provide.

Birth and Childhood

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, now known as Mother Teresa, was the third and final child born to her Albanian Catholic parents, Nikola and Dranafile Bojaxhiu, in the city of Skopje (a predominantly Muslim city in the Balkans). Nikola was a self-made, successful businessman and Dranafile stayed home to take care of the children.

When Mother Teresa was about eight years old, her father died unexpectedly. The Bojaxhiu family was devastated. After a period of intense grief, Dranafile, suddenly a single mother of three children, sold textiles and hand-made embroidery to bring in some income.

The Call

Both before Nikola's death and especially after it, the Bojaxhiu family held tightly to their religious beliefs. The family prayed daily and went on pilgrimages annually.

When Mother Teresa was 12 years old, she began to feel called to serve God as a nun. Deciding to become a nun was a very difficult decision. Becoming a nun not only meant giving up the chance to marry and have children, it also meant giving up all her worldly possessions and her family, perhaps forever.

For five years, Mother Teresa thought hard about whether or not to become a nun. During this time, she sang in the church choir, helped her mother organize church events, and went on walks with her mother to hand out food and supplies to the poor.

When Mother Teresa was 17, she made the difficult decision to become a nun. Having read many articles about the work Catholic missionaries were doing in India, Mother Teresa was determined to go there. Thus, Mother Teresa applied to the Loreto order of nuns, based in Ireland but with missions in India.

In September 1928, 18-year-old Mother Teresa said goodbye to her family to travel to Ireland and then on to India. She never saw her mother or sister again.

Becoming a Nun

It took more than two years to become a Loreto nun. After spending six weeks in Ireland learning the history of the Loreto order and to study English, Mother Teresa then traveled to India, where she arrived on January 6, 1929. After two years as a novice, Mother Teresa took her first vows as a Loreto nun on May 24, 1931.

As a new Loreto nun, Mother Teresa (known then only as Sister Teresa, a name she chose after St. Teresa of Lisieux) settled in to the Loreto Entally convent in Kolkata (previously called Calcutta) and began teaching history and geography at the convent schools.

Usually, Loreto nuns were not allowed to leave the convent; however, in 1935, 25-year-old Mother Teresa was given a special exemption to teach at a school outside of the convent, St. Teresa's. After two years at St. Teresa's, Mother Teresa took her final vows on May 24, 1937 and officially became "Mother Teresa."

Almost immediately after taking her final vows, Mother Teresa became the principal of St. Mary's, one of the convent schools and was once again restricted to live within the convent's walls.

"A Call Within a Call"

For nine years, Mother Teresa continued as the principal of St. Mary's. Then on September 10, 1946, a day now annually celebrated as "Inspiration Day," Mother Teresa received what she described as a "call within a call." She had been traveling on a train to Darjeeling when she received an "inspiration," a message that told her to leave the convent and help the poor by living among them.

For two years Mother Teresa patiently petitioned her superiors for permission to leave the convent in order to follow her call. It was a long and frustrating process. To her superiors, it seemed dangerous and futile to send a single woman out into the slums of Kolkata. However, in the end, Mother Teresa was granted permission to leave the convent for one year to help the poorest of the poor.

In preparation for leaving the convent, Mother Teresa purchased three cheap, white, cotton saris, each one lined with three blue stripes along its edge. (This later became the uniform for the nuns at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.) After 20 years with the Loreto order, Mother Teresa left the convent on August 16, 1948.

Rather than going directly to the slums, Mother Teresa first spent several weeks in Patna with the Medical Mission Sisters to obtain some basic medical knowledge. Having learned the basics, 38-year-old Mother Teresa felt ready to venture out into the slums in December of 1948.

Founding the Missionaries of Charity

Mother Teresa started with what she knew. After walking around the slums for a while, she found some small children and began to teach them. She had no classroom, no desks, no chalkboard, and no paper, so she picked up a stick and began drawing letters in the dirt. Class had begun.

Soon after, Mother Teresa found a small hut that she rented and turned it into a classroom. Mother Teresa also visited the children's families and others in the area, offering a smile and limited medical help. As people began to hear about her work, they gave donations.

In March 1949, Mother Teresa was joined by her first helper, a former pupil from Loreto. Soon she had ten former pupils helping her.

At the end of Mother Teresa's provisionary year, she petitioned to form her own order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity. Her request was granted by Pope Pius XII; the Missionaries of Charity was established on October 7, 1950.

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