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Mother Teresa of Calcutta: The Most Famous Saint of the 20th Century

A tiny woman with a giant faith


What is true today will be true 500 years from now: Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are the two best-known saints of the 20th century. Of the two, however, it is not the pope who reigned for 27 years and helped bring an end to communism in Eastern Europe but rather the tiny Albanian woman who labored in the worst slums in India who is the most recognizable nearly 25 years after her death. Let’s take a few minutes to meet her.

Born on August 26, 1910, to Albanian parents in Skopje, Macedonia, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu felt the call to the religious life from an early age. At 18 she heeded that call; desiring to be a missionary, she traveled to Ireland to study English with the Sisters of Loretto. It was there that Agnes took the name Sister Mary Teresa (after St. Thérèse of Lisieux, patron saint of missionaries). On January 6, 1929, she arrived in Calcutta.

For the next 20 years, Teresa was a teacher St. Mary’s, an all-girls’ primary school; she was named principal in 1944. She might have remained a teacher her whole life, but on September 10, 1946, during a train ride from Calcutta to a convent in Darjeeling for her annual retreat, everything changed. Teresa heard what she later referred to as “a call within the call:” God was calling her out of the convent and school to help the poorest of the poor and live among them.

Two years later, after receiving permission to leave the school, she replaced her Sisters of Loretto habit with the now-famous white sari with blue border and began work in the Calcutta slums. In 1950, along with a small group of women who had joined her, she founded the Missionaries of Charity; as head of the order, it was at this time she began to be called “Mother.”

In the early 1960s, Missionaries of Charity sisters began work across India, and by the mid-1960s houses had been established in South America and Africa. Today there are over 5,000 Missionaries of Charity serving in 120 countries; they operate orphanages, AIDS hospices, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and care for refugees and victims of natural disasters.

Given her decades of selfless service, it is perhaps no surprise that in 1979 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee awarded her the prize “for her work for bringing help to suffering humanity.” In announcing the award, the committee further stated that “in the eyes of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, constructive efforts to do away with hunger and poverty, and to ensure for mankind safer and better world community in which to develop, should be inspired by the spirit of Mother Teresa, by respect for the worth and dignity of the individual human being.”

Following numerous health problems late in her life, Mother Teresa died in Calcutta on September 5, 1997 at the age of 87. She was given a state funeral by the Indian government in recognition of a lifetime of service to the country’s poor. In December 1999, she ranked #1 in Gallup’s “List of People that Americans Most Widely Admired in the 20th Century;” Pope John Paul II (whom I mentioned earlier) ranked #8.

Mother Teresa was beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 2003 and canonized by Pope Francis on September 4, 2016. She is one of the patron saints of World Youth Day and co-patron (with St. Francis Xavier) of the Archdiocese of Kolkata (Calcutta), and her feast day is September 5.

Saint Mother Teresa is known for many quotes, but this one from the Missionaries of Charity website probably sums her life up the way she would have wanted: “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.”


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