Mother Teresa and her Sisters – the known and the less known

Mother Teresa and her Sisters – the known and the less known

August 26, 2014

  • Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxihu on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
  • August 27, sometimes cited as her birthday, was the day she was baptised as Agnes Gonxha. Mother Teresa however considered her day of baptising as her “true birthday.”
  • She has held five nationalities – Ottoman (1910-12), Serbian (1912-15), Bulgarian (1915-18), Yugoslav (1918-48) and Indian (1948-1997). The first four refer to the way her place of birth changed hands.
  • Compassionate home: Her ethnic Albanian parents were devoutly Catholic. Her father, Nikola died when she was eight. Her pious and compassionate mother, Drana had an open invitation for the poor of Skopje. She told the young Agnes: “My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others.” Being of modest means never prevented her from feeding others. When Agnes asked her who the people were, her noble reply was: “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.”
  • As a young girl, Mother Teresa sang in the choir of the local Sacred Heart Church. The congregation used to make an annual pilgrimage to the chapel of the Madonna of Letnice atop Black Mountain in Skopje. It was on one such journey that she felt a calling to a religious life.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxihu

  • In 1928, she set off for Dublin, Ireland to become a nun with the Loreto Sisters of Dublin.
  • It was at the Loreto Abbey that she learned English.
  • Her language skills increased to encompass Bengali and Hindi while teaching at the Loreto Sisters-run St Mary’s High School for Girls in Kolkata, where she was sent to from Dublin. Here, she dedicated herself to alleviating the girls' poverty through education.
  • Thus Mother Teresa became fluent in five languages: Albanian, Serbian, English, Bengali, Hindi.
  • On September 10, 1946, on a train journey from Kolkata to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa received the "call within a call," which was to found the order of the Missionaries of Charity.
  • She founded the Missionaries of Charity (MC) on October 7, 1950 in Kolkata, as a small community with 12 members.
  • Today, it numbers over 4,500, running over 600 foundations, including 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.

The name

It was in Dublin that she adopted the name of Sister Mary Teresa after Saint Therese of Lisieux. This became Mother Teresa as per the custom of the Loreto nuns, when she made her final vows to become a nun, becoming, as she said, the “spouse of Jesus” for “all eternity” and dedicating herself to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, on May 24, 1937 in Kolkata.

  • The first house of Missionaries of Charity outside India opened in Venezuela in 1965 with five sisters.
  • In the summer of 1982, when Lebanon was in the midst of a massively destructive 15-year civil war (1975-1990), she secretly went to Beirut, where she crossed between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut to aid children of both faiths.
  • In 1985, Mother Teresa returned to New York and spoke at the 40th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly.
  • While there, she also opened Gift of Love, her first home for caring for those infected with AIDS. This was followed by others, in the United States and elsewhere.

Mother Teresa at the United Nations in 1985

The story behind the sari

Mother Teresa adopted the white, blue-bordered sari as her uniform in 1948, and later of the Missionaries of Charity (MC) when she founded it in 1950 in Kolkata. At that time, it was the uniform of the sweeper women employed by Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Since they came from the poorest families and Mother Teresa wanted to serve the poorest of the poor, she adopted that uniform (it helped that blue is considered the colour of Virgin Mary). However, parents of some Bengali MC Sisters protested about the lack of decorum of their dress. Around the time Mother Teresa adopted the uniform, Bishop Louis Morrow, an American, founded the Sisters of Mary Immaculate (SMI) in Krishnanagar diocese (in Nadia district of West Bengal). It was he who developed the three-striped blue-bordered white cotton sari for his Sisters after two years of study, consultation and trials. In May 1960, Mother Teresa approached Bishop Morrow to for permission to adopt the dress for her Sisters. The bishop readily agreed, reportedly saying “More the merrier!” Of the three blue stripes, the one on the edge of the fabric is wide, with two thinner stripes running parallel to it. The Novice nuns (novitiate period) wear full white saris, until they take the final vows. The sari is worn in the traditional Bengali style. Today, all saris worn by the MC Sisters are produced by former lepers residing at the Missionaries of Charity-run leper colony in Titagarh, near Kolkata. According to Mother Teresa, “The sari allows the Sisters to feel poor amongst the poor, to identify themselves with the sick, with the children, with the old and destitute. The Missionaries of Charity share, in their way of dressing, the way of life of the poorest in the world.”

Present (left) and earlier uniforms of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa in both)

  • Like all nuns, for the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity too, simplicity is a credo. A Sister’s possessions include three saris (one to wear, one to wash, one to mend), white habits to be worn under the sari, a pair of sandals, a crucifix (pinned on the left shoulder) and rosary. They also have a plate and a metal spoon, a canvas bag, and prayer book. In cold countries, possessions also include a cardigan. They always wear sandals on their feet.
  • Mother Teresa has won 124 awards, including some of the highest in the world:
             Pope John XXIII Peace Prize January 1971
             John F Kennedy International Award, in 1971
             Jawahalal Nehru Award for International Understanding, in 1972'
             Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, in 1973
             Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India, in 1980
             Order of Merit of the United Kingdom, in 1983
             Gold Medal of the Soviet Peace Committee, of the erstwhile Soviet Union, in 1987
             United States Congressional Gold Medal, in 1997
  • After several years of deteriorating health in which she suffered from heart, lung and kidney problems, Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997 at the age of 87.
  • In 2003, she was beatified by the Catholic Church as ‘Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’ (Beatification is a recognition, accorded by the Catholic Church, of a dead person's entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name. Beatification is the third of the four steps in the process of canonisation or sainthood.

Mother Teresa accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway

Not just the Missionaries of Charity

In order to respond better to both the physical and spiritual needs of the poor, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in 1963, the contemplative branch of the MC in 1976, the Contemplative Brothers in 1979, and the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in 1984. Yet her inspiration was not limited to those with religious vocations. She formed the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa and the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, with people of many faiths and nationalities with whom she shared her spirit of prayer, simplicity, sacrifice and her apostolate of humble works of love. This spirit later inspired 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 as a “little way of holiness” for those who desire to share in her charisma and spirit.

The noble soul

  • Summing up her life in characteristically self-effacing fashion, 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."
  • Of her dedication to serving the poor, she wrote in a prayer: “Give me the strength to be ever the light of their lives, so that I may lead them at last to you.”

Stamps: (Clockwise from top left) Albania, France, Monaco, India, Ireland

Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team

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