(1910 – 1997)
We witness so few bonified saints during our lifetime. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu became one of the most visible and universally admired people to achieve that honor in the last 50 years. Let’s explore her remarkable story.
Agnes was born in Skopje, Macedonia, to the Albanians, Nikola and Dranafile. Her father was a construction contractor and trader of medicines and other items. The family was devoutly Catholic, and Nikola was a vocal supporter of Albanian independence. In 1919, Agnes’ father died, possibly poisoned by political enemies, and thereafter raised by her mother, Dranafile, the 8-year-old Agnes followed her Christian commitment to charity.
Although by no means wealthy, Drana Bojaxhiu extended an open invitation to the city’s destitute to dine with her family.
“My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others,” she counseled her daughter. When Agnes asked who the people eating with them were, her mother uniformly responded, “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.”
Agnes attended a convent-run primary school and then a state-run secondary school. As a girl, she sang in the local Sacred Heart choir and often was asked to sing solos. The congregation made an annual pilgrimage to the church of the Black Madonna in Letnice, and it was on one such trip at age 12 that she first felt a calling to religious life.
Six years later, in 1928, an 18-year-old Agnes Bojaxhiu decided to become a nun and set off for Ireland to join the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin. It was there that she took the name Sister Mary Teresa after St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
A year later, Sister Mary Teresa traveled on to Darjeeling, India, for the novitiate period; in May 1931, she made her First Profession of Vows. Afterward, she was sent to Calcutta, where she was assigned to teach at St. Mary’s High School for Girls, a school run by the Loreto Sisters and dedicated to teaching girls from the city’s poorest Bengali families. Sister Teresa learned to speak Bengali and Hindi fluently as she taught geography and history and dedicated herself to alleviating the girls’ poverty through education.
On May 24, 1937, she took her Final Profession of Vows to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. As was the custom for Loreto nuns, she took on the title of “Mother” upon making her final vows and thus became known as Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa continued to teach at St. Mary’s, and in 1944 she became the school’s principal. Through her kindness, generosity and unfailing commitment to her students’ education, she sought to lead them to a life of devotion to Christ. “Give me the strength to be ever the light of their lives so that I may lead them at last to you,” she wrote in prayer.
On Sept. 10, 1946, Mother Teresa experienced a second calling, the “call within a call” that would forever transform her life. She was riding in a train from Calcutta to the Himalayan foothills for a retreat when she said Christ spoke to her and told her to abandon teaching to work in the slums of Calcutta aiding the city’s poorest and sickest people.
Since Mother Teresa had taken a vow of obedience, she could not leave her convent without official permission. After nearly a year and a half of lobbying, in January 1948 she finally received approval to pursue this new calling. That August, donning the blue-and-white sari that she would wear in public for the rest of her life, she left the Loreto convent and wandered out into the city. After six months of basic medical training, she voyaged for the first time into Calcutta’s slums with no more specific a goal than to aid “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.”
Mother Teresa quickly translated her calling into concrete actions to help the city’s poor. She began an open-air school and established a home for the dying destitute in a dilapidated building she convinced the city government to donate to her cause. In October 1950, she won canonical recognition for a new congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded with only a handful of members —most of them former teachers or pupils from St. Mary’s School.
As the ranks of her congregation swelled and donations poured in from around India and across the globe, the scope of Mother Teresa’s charitable activities expanded exponentially. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, she established a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile health clinics.
In 1971, Mother Teresa traveled to New York City to open her first American-based house of charity, and in the summer of 1982, she secretly went to Beirut, Lebanon, 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, a home to care for those infected with HIV/AIDS.
In February 1965, Pope Paul VI bestowed the Decree of Praise upon the Missionaries of Charity, which prompted Mother Teresa to begin expanding internationally. By the time of her death in 1997, the Missionaries of Charity numbered more than 4,000 — in addition to thousands more lay volunteers — with 610 foundations in 123 countries around the world.
The Decree of Praise was just the beginning, as Mother Teresa received various honors for her tireless and effective charity. She was awarded the Jewel of India, the highest honor bestowed on Indian civilians, as well as the now-defunct Soviet Union’s Gold Medal of the Soviet Peace Committee. In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work “in bringing help to suffering humanity.”
After several years of deteriorating health, including heart, lung and kidney problems, Mother Teresa died Sept. 5, 1997, at age 87. In 2002, the Vatican recognized a miracle involving an Indian woman named Monica Besra, who said she was cured of an abdominal tumor through Mother Teresa’s intercession on the one-year anniversary of her death in 1998. She was beatified (declared in heaven) as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” on Oct. 19, 2003, by Pope John Paul II.
On December 17, 2015, Pope Francis issued a decree that recognized a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, clearing the way for her to be canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. The second miracle involved the healing of Marcilio Andrino, a Brazilian man who was diagnosed with a viral brain infection and lapsed into a coma. His wife, family and friends prayed to Mother Teresa, and when the man was brought to the operating room for emergency surgery, he woke up without pain and was cured of his symptoms, according to a statement from the Missionaries of Charity Father.
Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint on Sept. 4, 2016, a day before the 19th anniversary of her death. Pope Francis led the canonization Mass, which took place in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. Tens of thousands of Catholics and pilgrims from around the world attended the canonization to celebrate the woman who had been called “the saint of the gutters” during her lifetime because of her charitable work with the poor.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini