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Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (August 27 1910 - September 5 1997) was an internationally renowned Catholic nun and founder of the Missionaries of Charity whose work among the poor of Calcutta was widely reported.

She was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1973, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in October 2003, hence she may be properly called Blessed Teresa by Catholics.


Early life and work

Teresa was born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Uskub, a town in the Ottoman province of Kosovo (now Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia), where her father was a successful contractor. Her parents had three children, and Teresa was the youngest. The family was ethnically Albanian. Her parents, Nikolla and Dranafila Bojaxhiu, were Catholic, though the majority of their native Albania is Muslim, with a large Orthodox Christian minority and a smaller Catholic one.

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 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. In 1931, she made her first vows there, choosing the name Sister Mary Teresa in honour of Teresa of Avila and Thérèse de Lisieux. She took her final vows in May 1937, acquiring the religious title Mother Teresa.

From 1929 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."

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 organisations and the municipal authorities.

Foundation of the Missionaries of Charity

Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Kolkata
Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Kolkata

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 throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone."

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. Soon after she 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, orphanges 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.

International fame

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. When, after returning from India, the footage was found to be extremely well lit. Muggeridge claimed this was '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 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 would be diverted to the poor in Calcutta. When Mother Teresa received the prize, she was asked, "What can we do to promote world peace?" Her answer: "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.

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 bout of pneumonia while in Mexico, she had further heart problems. In 1991, returning to her home country, she opened a home in Tirana, Albania.

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, 1997, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collarbone. 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 in September 1997 at the age of 87.

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 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 Pérez de Cuéllar, 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 humanity."

Miracle and beatification

Mother Teresa with Pope John Paul II
Mother Teresa with Pope John Paul II

Following Teresa's death in 1997, the Holy See began the process of beatification, the first step towards possible canonization, or sainthood. This process requires the documentation of a miracle. 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.

Besra's husband initially said that the tumor was cured by later hospital treatment. According to Monica Besra in TIME Asia [1],13673,501021021-364433,00.html , 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.

Besra's husband later withdrew his objections and attributed the healing to a miracle. A Telegraph story 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." [2]

The issue of the alleged miracle proved controversial in India around the time of Mother Teresa's beatification. [3] Teresa was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 2003, with the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. A second authenticated miracle is required for her to proceed to canonization.


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. (Chatterjee, p. 276.)

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 Teresa's order. In 1994, two British journalists, Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali, produced a critical British Channel 4 documentary, Hell's Angel, based on Chatterjee's work.

The next year, Hitchens published The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, a pamphlet which repeated many of the accusations 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.

Mother Teresa had a short response to her critics: "No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work".

Stance on abortion

From the early 1970s, Mother Teresa began to attract some criticism. Many advocates of the family planning and pro-choice movements were critical of her views and influence because she was opposed to artificial contraception and abortion. Mother Teresa frequently spoke against them publicly and 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."

In the aftermath of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, it was determined that more than 450,000 Hindu women in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had been systematically raped. Even in this circumstances 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."

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, even in cases where conception is the result of Censored page or rape.

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 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 Christian baptism.

Some of Mother Teresa's defenders have argued that baptisms are either soul-saving or harmless and hence the criticisms would be pointless (a variant of Pascal's Wager). 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."

Questionable relationships

Mother Teresa with Michèle Duvalier, wife of Jean-Claude Duvalier
Mother Teresa with Michèle Duvalier, wife of Jean-Claude Duvalier

In 1981, Teresa flew to Haiti to accept the Legion d'Honneur from the right-wing dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who, after his ouster, was found to have stolen millions of dollars from the impoverished country. There she said that the Duvaliers "loved their poor," and that "their love was reciprocated."

In 1987 Teresa visited Albania and visited the grave of the former Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Critics said her actions compromised her perceived moral authority through unwise and controversial political associations; however, her supporters defended such associations, saying she had to deal with political realities of the time in order to lobby for her causes. By the time of her death, the Missionaries of Charity had houses in most Communist countries.

Critics also cite the case of Charles Keating, who stole in excess of US$252 million in the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s, and who had donated $1.25 million to Mother Teresa's cause. Teresa interceded on his behalf and wrote a letter to the court urging leniency. The district attorney responded in private and asked her to return the money, which she declined.

She also accepted money from the British publisher Robert Maxwell, who, as was later revealed, embezzled UK£450 million from his employees' pension funds. There is no suggestion that she was aware of any theft before accepting the donation in either case; criticism instead focuses on Teresa's plea for leniency in the Keating case, her refusal to return the money, and the lack of media investigations of her relationships to these individuals.

Supporters of Mother Teresa see charges such as those above as clear examples of double-standards and attempts of "guilt by association". They allege that similar standards are not applied to other companies and individuals who have had dealings with Maxwell and Keating, and that the money collected went to use in helping the poor.

Motivation of charitable activities

Christopher Hitchens described Mother Teresa's organization as a cult which promoted suffering and did not help those in need. Hitchens said that 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, 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.

Mother Teresa and her possible defenders apparently did not feel a need to directly answer most of these allegations. Some defenders of the order argue that missionary activity was the central part of Teresa's calling.

Mother Teresa with Charles Keating. Keating donated $1.25 million to her order, and was later convicted of financial fraud.
Mother Teresa with Charles Keating. Keating donated $1.25 million to her order, and was later convicted of financial fraud.

Quality of medical care

In 1991, Dr. Robin Fox, 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. 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 Theresa sought medical treatment for herself at renowned medical clinics in the United States, Europe, and India, drawing charges of hypocrisy from critics such as Hitchens.

Destination of donations

It has been alleged by former employees of Mother Teresa's order 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. Mother Teresa did not disclose her order's financial situation except where she was required to do so by law.

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Mother Teresa
  • The Nobel Prize Biography
    • Mother Teresa's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
  • CNN - 'Angel of Mercy'
  • TIME magazine 100 People of the Century
  • Bruderhof Peacemakers Guide profile on Mother Teresa
  • Vatican Biography
  • Mother Teresa On Abortion
  • Mother Teresa, Winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Peace
  • Internet Movie Database

External links of criticism

  • 'Saint to the Rich' by Christopher Hitchens
  • Council for Secular Humanism -'Christopher Hitchens On Mother Theresa (Interview)' by Matt Cherry

Additional reading

  • Becky Benenate, Joseph Durepos (eds) Mother Teresa: No Greater Love (Fine Communications, 2000) ISBN 1567314015
  • Aroup Chatterjee: Mother Teresa. The Final Verdict (Meteor Books, 2003). ISBN 8188248002 Full text (without pictures). Critical examination of Agnes Bojaxhiu's life and work.
  • Bijal Dwivedi, Mother Teresa: Woman of the Century
  • Christopher Hitchens: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995) ISBN 185984054X. Plus a debate in the New York Review of Books : Defense of Mother Teresa , Hitchens' answer , Leys' reply .
  • Malcolm Muggeridge Something Beautiful for God ISBN 0060660430
  • T.T.Mundakel, Blessed Mother Teresa: Her Journey to Your Heart. ISBN 1903650615. ISBN 076481110X. Book Review .
  • Susan Shields, "Mother Teresa's House of Illusions". Free Inquiry Magazine, Volume 18, Number 1. Online copy .
  • Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography. ISBN 0062508253.
  • Mother Teresa et al, Mother Teresa: In My Own Words. ISBN 0517201690.
  • Walter Wüllenweber, "Nehmen ist seliger denn geben. Mutter Teresa - wo sind ihre Millionen?" Stern (illustrated German weekly), September 10, 1998. English translation.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 03:32:27
Last updated: 02-26-2005 13:15:49