Mother Teresa Life & Saving

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
Mother Teresa Life & Saving

Nikola Bojaxhiu, a prosperous business man, and a multi-linguist who had widely traveled, was active in politics and the local church in Skopje, Macedonia. He wedded Dranafile Bernai, and soon became the father of three children. Aga, a daughter, Laza, a son, and Agnes Gonxha, a daughter. Agnes was born on 26 August, 1910. Gonxha in Albanian means flower bud.

Nikola passed on to his children a sense of ethnic identity and nationalist pride; however, it was Drana who nurtured the children's spiritual growth.

Agnes Gonxha often accompanied her mother, helping her as she made her way from family to family, offering both spiritual and material comfort. Dranas Christian charity offered a powerful example, helping to mould Agnes Gonxhas spiritual life and to shape her destiny.

In 1919, Agnes Gonxhas father was dead at the age of 45. Nikola Bojaxhius death devastated his wife; Drana fell into deep, prolonged, and often incapacitating grief. Dranas infuence on her children was extraordinary, especially after their fathers death. So powerful was Dranas presence that Agnes Gonxha recalled, Home is where the mother is.

Besides her mother, the Sacred Heart church exercised the most influence on young Gonxha. I was only twelve years old... when I felt the desire to become a nun, Mother Teresa recalled. Father Franjo Jambrekovic, a young Jesuit priest passed on to the members of Sacred Heart Parish the news of the missionary efforts that the Jesuits had undertaken.

The missionaries wrote impassioned letters describing the horrible conditions under which the poor and the in

lived in India. The zeal with which Father Jambrekovic spoke of the Jesuit missions in India,sparked a renewed sense of devotion in Agnes Gonxha. The more she heard about the missions in India, the more she was drawn to the possibility of working there. Agnes Gonxha had grown into an attractive young woman, a good student, neat and clean in appearance, self-disciplined, and well organized, she had already earned a reputation in the community for her friendliness and willingness to help anyone. But Gonxha was struggling with her decision to become a nun.

Trying to decide the mission of her life, Gonxha turned to Father Jambrekovic for advice. In later years, Mother Teresa acknowledged that there was no doubt in her mind about her decision, stating simply that God had made the choice for her. One day, after returning home from a visit to the shrine of the Madonna, Agnes Gonxha informed her mother that she had made up her mind to become a nun. Because of her interest in missionary work, she intended to apply to the order of the Loreto Sisters, an Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary who worked with the Jesuits in Bengal.

Drana gave her daughter her blessing, but also warned her that in choosing to become a nun, she must turn her life over to God without doubt, without fear, without hesitation, and without remorse. The time came for Gonxha to leave Skopje. She was to travel to Paris, where the Mother Superior of the Loreto Sisters was to interview her to determine whether Agnes Gonxha was acceptable to the order. On August 15, 1928, guests came to the Agnes Bojaxhiu home to wish her farewell and her friends gathered to wish the Bojaxhiu woman a

Mother Teresa

safe journey. Finally, on October 8, Agnes Gonxha, accompanied by another young woman, Betika Kanjc, who also hoped to join the Loreto Sisters, boarded the train to Paris. Waving goodbye, Agnes Gonxha bid farewell to her mother, whom she never saw again.

As the train pulled away from the Zagreb station on its way to Paris, Gonxha must have thought about the consequences of her decision. Not only was she leaving her family and friends, she was also leaving the only home she had ever known. If the Loreto Sisters accepted her application, it would mean lifetime separation from her family and her country. She could probably never even visit her homeland again. The chances of her family visiting her were equally remote; travel was expensive and there would be little opportunity for her mother, brother, or sister to come to India. Whether she felt sad and lonely as the train rolled on toward Paris, Gonxha knew that she had made the right choice. Her life belonged to God.

Mother Teresa - The Loreto Sisters

Beginning in 1834, the Jesuits began arriving in Bengal near Calcutta with a mission to serve the poor. They established St. Xaviers School in which they taught Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims alike. It soon became apparent, though, that the community needed a separate school for the daughters of Irish Catholic military families.

When approached about the possibility of sending nuns to India to staff the girls school, Mother Teresa gently but refused. There were too many children in Ireland in need of assistance. There was also a shortage of nuns. Her German visitor countered that in refusing to send members of her order to India. The case went before the entire community; they would decide whether to accept the mission to India.

In the end, seven sisters decided to go to India, marking the beginning of Loreto missionary work there. On August 23, 1841, the seven, accompanied by two priests and six postulants, or novice nuns, set sail. Almost four months later, they disembarked in Calcutta. disembarked in Calcutta. The little band took possession of the house at 5 Middleton Row, where they were to live and teach. The sisters prepared the once lavishly furnished house into simpler living quarters and classrooms. The 67-foot dining room became the school hall.

The initial reports that Mother Teresa received from India were enthusiastic. Streams of volunteers now offered to go to India to aid the Loreto Sisters of Calcutta.In spite of a number of nuns dying of cholera,

Mother Teresa

the flow of volunteers did not stop. It was this pioneering and courageous group of teachers that Gonxha Bojaxhiu soon hoped to join.

On December 1, 1928, the two women Gonxha and Betika set sail for India. Upon their arrival there, the two would begin their novitiate, that is the period of study and prayer which every nun takes before her vows. The sea voyage proved long and arduous, winding its way Suez Canal, then the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal. On January 6, 1929, the ship arrived at Calcutta. But at this point, Gonxha had little chance to become acquainted with her surroundings. After just a few days, on January 16, she was sent to the Loreto Novitiate located in Darjeeling, a fashionable hill resort about 400 miles north of Calcutta.

Life In The Loreto Convent

Life at the Loreto Convent for Gonxha Bojaxhiu was disciplined and rigorous. Entering a Catholic convent during the early twentieth century was like being plunged into another world, one that was isolated and relatively contained. For the next two years, dressed in the black habit and veil of the order, Gonxha kept up with her English studies as well as learning the Bengali language. Under the watchful eye of the novice mistress, who oversaw the novitiates' training, the young woman went weekly to confession. Dinnertime was spent listening to one of the sisters reading about the lives of the saints, or from the rules of Loreto.

Bengali Teresa

Every day from 9 to 11, Gonxha and the other novitiates taught at St. Teresa's School, a one-room schoolhouse affiliated with the convent. Here 20 small boys and girls met to receive instruction. She quickly earned a reputation for being hard working, cheerful, and charitable in her dealings with others. On March 24, 1931, Gonxha Bojaxhiu took her ?rst vows-a lifetime promise to charity, poverty, and obedience to God as a sister of Loreto.

At this time, Gonxha chose a new name Teresa for herself to symbolize her new life with God. For the sisters in the Loreto Convent, however, the new Teresa soon had a nickname that further distinguished her: Bengali Teresa, an acknowledgment of her ability to speak the language so well.

Gonxha Bojaxhiu, now called Sister Teresa, took the train from Darjeeling to Calcutta. There, she was to begin teaching at St. Mary's School, located in the eastern district of Calcutta. It was to be her place of residence and work for the next 17 years.

During the 1920s, the contrast between the cities of Darjeeling and Calcutta was startling. In Darjeeling, one breathed clear mountain air, and a walk in a flower-filled meadow was not far away. But the city of Calcutta teemed with humanity, overcrowded and spilling into the streets and alleys throughout. It was on one hand a city enriched by the culture and arts of India; on the other, it was a cesspool of human misery and degradation.

Mother Teresa - St. Mary's School

The school was hidden from the everyday world by high gray walls and tall iron gates. Upon passing through them entrance gates, one came upon a complex of buildings with playing ?elds and well-tended lawns. The campus comprised several buildings of varying architectural styles. Besides an administrative building and smaller gray classroom building was St. Mary's School. There were also quarters for the nuns and for those students who boarded at the school, mostly orphans, girls from broken homes, and children with only one parent. The school had already established a reputation for itself. Established in 1841, as one of the six Loreto schools in Calcutta, the Calcutta school in Entally educated orphans, the sons and daughters of the affluent and foreign families living in the city. All children wore the same uniform; there was no distinction by the sisters of the rich from the poor, the European from the Indian, Catholic from non-Catholic.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa taught history and geography. She also became more comfortable in her use of the Bengali language as St. Mary's classes were taught in both English and Bengali. She soon added another language, Hindi.

She also found solace and comfort through the happiness and gratitude of her young charges. Merely placing a hand on a dirty forehead or holding the hand of a small child brought her great joy. Many of the children took to calling her "Ma" which meant "Mother," a term that she treasured. Former students remember Sister Teresa as an engaging teacher. When teaching Sunday School catechism lessons, she often told stories of her own childhood in Skopje. Her geography classes were exciting; many students believed that she made the world come alive for them in a way not seen or felt before.

Self discipline was essential if one was to accomplish everything in a timely fashion. Failure to do so indicated an inability to stay within the order.

Throughout her time at the school, Sister Teresa showed herself to be a pious but not overly demonstrative woman. She was charitable and did not tolerate unkindness from anyone, whether a child or an adult.

She was, by all appearances, an ordinary nun, carrying out her religious duties. Neither was she particularly intelligent: her education at best was adequate. Some at the convent remember her more for her inability to light the candles at the Benediction service. As one sister who lived with her during this period recalled, "She was very ordinary. We just looked upon her as one of our sisters who was very devoted and dedicated."

Working with Father Julien Henry, a Belgian Jesuit priest, Sister Teresa participated in the meetings, prayers, and study club sponsored by the group. On the other side of the convent wall was the slum area (bustee) known as Motijihl, or Pearl Lake, named for a discolored sump water pond located in the center of the area. It was from this pond that the residents drew their drinking, cooking, and washing water. Surrounding the pond were the wretched, mud-floor huts of the poor who lived in the neighborhood. It was an area desperately in need of comfort. For Father Henry, this was an opportunity to teach the older girls of St. Mary's about works of service. Every day during the school week, the priest met with the girls whose ages ranged from the early teens to their early twenties.

On Saturday, the girls left the walls of their compound and ventured into Mothijihl in groups to visit with these families, often bearing small items for the children of the poor. Other groups traveled to the Nilratan Sarkar Hospital to visit the sick, where they comforted family members or wrote letters for those unable to do so.

Although Sister Teresa took great stock in the efforts of her students, she could not join them because of the rule of enclosure practiced by the Loreto nuns. But perhaps the most important outcome of these efforts was the indirect link forged between the poor of Calcutta and Sister Teresa.

On May 24, 1937, Sister Teresa traveled to Darjeeling to take her final vows. During the ceremony,Teresa solemnly committed herself to the Loreto Sisters and to a lifetime of poverty, chastity, and obedience in service to the Lord. Upon her return to Calcutta, she once again plunged into her busy days and teaching, much to the delight of several young children who feared that she had gone away for good. Nothing had changed, save Sister Teresa's name. She was now to be addressed as MotherTeresa, the name she would goby for the rest of her life. At theage of 27, her destiny seemedto be fulfilled. At the same time, India was in the midst of tryingto fulfill its own destiny.

Inspiration Day was a turning point in the life for Mother Teresa. But there have been accounts of her life that have made erroneous connections between her desire to leave Loreto and her calling on the train to Darjeeling. One popular story stated that the killings and carnage she viewed during the August 19 6 riots were the sole inspiration for her leaving. Another account stated that she could view the slums of Calcutta from her bedroom window, which led to her decision.

Mother Teresa was no stranger to the poverty in Calcutta. She had seen it firsthand upon her arrival as a novitiate and later as a teacher instructing the children of the poor. But until her train ride to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa firmly believed that she was carrying out God's plan for her life and that she would best serve God as a nun living in Loreto. That was now all about to change.

THE FIRST STEP As Mother Teresa recalled "The message was clear, I knew where I belonged, but I did not know how to get there." On her return from Darjeeling, she immediately sought out Father Van Exem, her adviser showing him two sheets of paper on which she had written down her plans.

He found the key ingredients as to what she was supposed to do: she was to leave Loreto, but she was to keep her vows. She was to start a new congregation or order of nuns, who would work for the poor in the slums. Years later, Father Van Exem stated that he believed her new vocation was just as true as her decision to leave Skopje and become a nun in leaving her mother. Now she was fully prepared to make a second decision, leaving the safe confines of the convent at Loreto and venturing out into the streets of Calcutta to work with the poor.

Leaving the convent was not easy for Mother Teresa. It was, she admitted years later, the most difficult thing she had ever done, even harder than leaving her family and homeland. Besides the emotional turmoil, she still needed permission to leave.

A RELUCTANT APPROVAL In Calcutta, the order of the Daughters of St. Anne, with whom Mother Teresa had worked while at the Loreto school, already ministered among the poor. They also dressed in Indian style, slept in a dormitory, ate simple food, and spoke Bengali. The archbishop asked Mother Teresa if she could work with the Daughters of St. Anne. Mother Teresa did not think so. What Mother Teresa was proposing was quite different. Her congregation wanted to be more mobile; they would visit the poor where needed. And she did not want just to work among the poor; she made it clear that she intended to work among the "poorest of the poor."

Mother Teresa

She also wanted to start from scratch and train her novices in her own way. An entire year passed before the archbishop was satisfied with the information he had received. Only then he gave permission to Mother Teresa to write to the mother general of the Loreto Sisters, asking for permission to be released from the order. Having to leave the Loreto Order was a severe disappointment, but she was to trust God fully and send the letter. With a heavy heart, Mother Teresa posted the letter to the mother general in Rathfarnham in early January 1948. Less than a month later, she had her reply:

Since this is manifestly the will of God, I hereby give you permission to write to the Congregation in Rome. Do not speak to the Provincial. Do not speak to your Superiors. Speak to nobody. I did not speak to my own counselors. My consent is sufficient.

Mother Teresa and Father Van Exem were overjoyed with the response. Mother Teresa now wrote another letter, this time to the office of the Vatican in Rome. Finally in February 1948, she sent the letter to Rome. In addition to Mother Teresa's request,

Archbishop Périer also included a letter that outlined her life and service in Calcutta.

Weeks and then months went by with no response from Rome. Finally in July 1948,. Rome had granted Mother Teresa's request for exclaustration. She would be allowed to remain a member of the Loreto Order and work outside of the convent. It was a wonderful victory for Mother. There was, however, one condition: Mother Teresa would remain outside the cloister for a year, at which time, the archbishop would review her progress and decide whether she would return to the convent.

On Sunday, August 8, 1948, Father Van Exem told her that he had received news from Rome. According to his account, Mother Teresa turned pale and requested to go to the chapel to pray. When she returned, he gave her the good news: not only did Rome agree to her request to leave the convent, but also that she continue her life as a Loreto Sister. She then signed three copies of the permission: one for Rome, one for the archbishop, and one for herself. She then asked, "Can I go to the slums now?"


Despite Mother Teresa's willingness to leave immediately to begin her work, there was still much to be done to prepare for her departure. First, she needed to inform the convent that she was leaving. Archbishop Périer had feared a shocked reaction from the sisters. His fears were justified. When the decree was made public, the mother superior took to her bed for a week. Another sister wept uncontrollably; many were shocked at the announcement or mystified as to why one of their own, particularly one who seemed happy in her surroundings, would want to leave the convent.

Those close to Mother Teresa worried about her health and whether she could sustain a rigorous life on the Calcutta streets. A notice posted on a Loreto blackboard requested the sisters not to criticize or praise Mother Teresa, but pray for her and her decision.

Mother Teresa

In preparation for her departure from the convent, Mother Teresa purchased three saris from a local bazaar. Each one was white with three blue stripes; this simple garment would become the distinctive habit of her new order. The fabric was the cheapest available at the time, and was of the kind usually worn by poor Bengali women. The blue stripes held a special meaning for Mother Teresa, as the color is usually associated with the Virgin Mary. Father Van Exem later blessed the garments, along with a small cross and rosary, which had been placed on each garment in the St.Mary's chapel. Mother Teresa needed to write a letter to her mother, explaining all that had happened. She believed that if her spiritual advisor also wrote the letter, that would settle any fears or worries her mother might have about her daughter's decision to leave Loreto.

Father Van Exem suggested that Mother Teresa take some medical training. Working in the slums, there would be plenty of opportunity to offer medical assistance. She agreed and decided to Mother News go to Patna in the state of Bihar where she would receive training from the Medical Mission Sisters at their hospital. Archbishop Périer supported the decision and Sister Stephanie Ingendaa, the mother superior at the hospital, warmly agreed to the request to help Mother Teresa in whatever way the sisters could. On August 16, a week after learning of the Vatican's decision, Mother Teresa changed her clothes. The long black habit, with its floor-length skirt, the white coif, and black veil were laid aside. She now wore her new religious habit, a symbolic breaking with the religious uniform she had worn for the past two decades. Even though many of her former pupils wished to see their teacher in a sari, her leaving was a solitary affair. That evening, she left the convent grounds in a taxi as quietly as she had come almost 20 years before. In her pocket, she carried five rupees and a ticket to Patna.


On August 17, Mother Teresa arrived at Patna, an old city located on the banks of the Ganges River. Sister Stephanie was there waiting to welcome her. They went together to the Holy Family Hospital, where Mother Teresa would spend the next few months receiving her medical training.

The hospital was staffed by nuns who were doctors, mainly gynecologists, obstetricians, and surgeons. Other nuns served as nurses, laboratory technicians, and nutritionists. The hospital also housed a nursing school that many Indian girls attended.

Many of the sisters realized that she was in a period of transition, and while Mother Teresa knew what she was to do, she was still unclear about how she was to carry out her calling. In the meantime, the Medical Mission Sisters tried to make her feel at home and helped prepare her for the grueling work ahead. Now, instead of lecturing students, Mother Teresa's days were filled with new experiences; she never knew what to expect from one day to the next. Whenever there was a new admission, an impending birth-or operation, Mother Teresa was summoned at the same time as a doctor was.

Mother Teresa

This experience not only gave Mother Teresa an opportunity to practice her Hindi, in which she was not very fluent, but to become acquainted with expectant mothers, fatal accidents, ill and abandoned children, and death on the operating table. She also learned to tend to patients ill and dying with cholera or small pox. One nun remembered that, no matter what the calamity, Mother Teresa remained unfazed by it, maintaining her focus on the patient. She could always be counted on to hold a dying patient's hand, to comfort a small child frightened by the hospital, or to cradle a newborn infant in her arms. She learned how to do many simple medical procedures such as making a hospital bed, giving injections, and administering medicines.

She helped to assist in delivering babies, something in which she took special delight. Working with the nutritionists, Mother Teresa learned about the importance of a healthy diet, hygiene, and adequate rest. This knowledge was key to carrying out her work in the slums. As Mother Teresa came to know many of the poor families of the area, she attended weddings, feasts, and funerals, slowly entering their world and becoming one of them.

Building a Foundation

During the evenings when not working at the hospital, Mother Teresa discussed her plans with many members of the Medical Mission Sisters. She welcomed ideas, practical suggestions, and criticism from others about how she should best implement her plans. One thing became clear: if Mother Teresa's proposed order wanted to work with the poor, they would have to commit themselves to working only for the poor.

Out of these discussions became the foundation for Mother Teresa's congregation-"Missionaries of Charity".

Mother Teresa completed her four months of medical training at the Medical Mission Sisters Hospital, Pune and returned to Calcutta. On her return to the Archbishop found a place for her to live with the Little Sisters of the Poor. She arrived at the St. Joseph's Home for the elderly, located at 2, Lower Circular Road, Calcutta on December 9, 1948. The St.Joseph's Home proved to be a good choice for Mother Teresa. She also spent part of her time during those first days at the convent helping the sisters who care for the aged patients.

Remarking that she had no idea how she was going to proceed or where she would even begin, Mother Teresa nonetheless remained confident that God would direct her. And with that thought, she made her way back to Calcutta to undertake her life's work.

Although Calcutta had the third highest per-capita income in India, it was a vast sea of suffering and despair. The streets, where people were born and died were crowded with beggars and lepers, together with a host of refugees from the countryside who had never known a home. Unwanted infants were regularly abandoned and left to die in clinics, on the streets, or in garbage bins. There were thousands of pavement dwellers within the city itself, 44 percent of the city did not have sewers. It was into this sea of misery that Mother Teresa now came.


On December 21, 1948, Mother Teresa left her small room on the first floor near the gate of St. Joseph's and went to mass. After breakfast, she left the convent grounds and boarded a bus bound for Mauli Ali to begin her work. She was dressed in her white sari, but she wore it not as a poor Bengali woman but instead wrapped around her head covering a tiny cotton cap. Completing her habit was a small black crucifix, attached to her left shoulder by a safety pin. Under her rough leather sandals, a gift from the Patna sisters, she wore no stockings. With a meager lunch in a small packet she entered the world of the Calcutta slums.

Her first stop was in the slum of Motijihl, which means "Pearl Lake". While there was no lake, there was a large brackish sump in the center of the neighborhood that provided the area's residents with water. Raw sewage fl owed into open drains and garbage lay piled on the streets. The slum's residents lived in small hovelsm with dirt floors. There was no school, no hospital, and no dispensary. Motijihl was already a familiar place for Mother Teresa. So she personally visited with as many families as she could and told them she had permission to start a school right in the area. As a result, several parents promised to send their children to her the next morning.


The next morning, Mother Teresa was back in Motijihl and was happy to see several children waiting for her on the steps of a railway bridge that led down into the slum. In trying to find a spot where they could meet, Mother Teresa noticed that the only open area was a tree near the sump. With no blackboard, chalk, books, or desks, Mother Teresa took a stick and used it to write in the mud. As the children squatted and watched, she traced the letters of the Bengali alphabet with the stick. Mother Teresa had made a start, or as she would later describe it, beginning "right on the ground," which became one of the defining concepts of the constitution of the Missionaries of Charity.

Soon the number of pupils attending classes multiplied as word spread that a school had been started in Motijihl. In time, the sounds of children reciting the alphabet competed with the other everyday noises of the slum. When morning lessons were finished, Mother Teresa looked for someplace to eat her small lunch, seeking out a quiet spot where she could find drinking water. Once, when she stopped at a local convent to ask if she could come inside to take her meal, the nuns, thinking Mother Teresa was a beggar, refused. Instead, they directed her to the back to eat under the stairs where the other beggars ate. In later years, she would never mention the name of the convent that had turned her away. Mother Teresa became a familiar, if strange, sight on the Calcutta streets: many watched as the lone woman, dressed like a poor Indian, spent her time visiting the alleyways and mean streets of the slums.

A small part of this fascinating record survives with the pages of her first days working in Motijihl, especially with the children. Children who were dirty were given a bath. After lessons in hygiene and reading, she helped the children learn their catechism. She noted especially the joy the children gave her, remembering how she laughed when teaching them.

Attending to one poor man who had a gangrenous thumb, Mother Teresa realized that the thumb would have to be amputated. Saying a prayer and taking a pair of scissors, she snipped it off. Her patient then fainted in one direction and she in the other. She often gave her bus fare away to those who needed it more and, instead, walked home.

Mother Teresa
The Dark Night

Inspite of the tremendous loneliness that Mother Teresa felt, she made her way through the slums of Calcutta. In those first months, her faith in God was absolute, and so she kept up her work, despite the exhaustion and pain she felt at the end of the day. Since winning independence from the Great Britain, India had been divided into two nations: Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Many Hindus seeking jobs flooded the streets of an already-overcrowded Calcutta. Most ended up in the streets, and with a growing shortage of food and water, many were plunged into unrelenting poverty. As people heard of what she was doing, they came forth with money, supplies, time, and favors. The bus driver who drove the route to St. Joseph's made her sit in a seat next to him so that she would not have to make the hour-long walk back to St.Joseph's.

A former teacher at St. Mary's came to help her teach classes.

Mother Teresa went to a priest who was so delighted with what she had accomplished, that he presented her with a gift of 100 rupees to help carry on her work. It was a princely sum that allowed Mother Teresa to rent two small huts in Motijihl for five rupees each. One hut served as a school where the students met for class and where they were given milk at lunch time and free bars of soap as prizes. The infectious enthusiasm of the children spread throughout the community. Here and there, people came forward with small gifts for the school: a stool, an odd table, even books and slates appeared.       By January 4, 1949, less than two weeks after she first set out, Mother Teresa had a school house, over 50 students, and three teachers to help her. Not only were the children learning their alphabet and numbers, but classes in needlework were offered for the young girls as well as the continuing emphasis on teaching the children hygiene and catechism.      The school was soon formally blessed. It was one of Mother Teresa's greatest successes. The other hut on the premises was used for a more solemn purpose: caring for the ill and dying poor, a place where Mother Teresa offered comfort, solace and above all, dignity to those who had no home and no hope. Her reasons for creating the small hostel arose out of one of her many experiences in dealing with the poorest of the poor. One day, Mother Teresa saw a woman dying on the street beside a hospital. She picked the woman up and took her to the hospital but was refused admission because the woman had no money. The woman later died on the street.Mother Teresa then realized that she must make a home for the dying. She later wrote of this period as the "dark night of the birth" of her order, the Missionaries of Charity.


         Now Mother Teresa decided thatit was time for her to have a placeof her own where she could starther work and no longer impose onthe Little Sisters of the Poor. ButMother Teresa’s first efforts to findaffordable housing met with littlesuccess. Father VanExem finally stepped in. He spoke to a memberof a Bengali Catholic family, AlbertGomes, who, along with his brothers,owned a sizeable property at 14,Creek Lane in East Calcutta. Onebrother, Michael Gomes, lived inthe house with his family. Finally anagreement was reached in whichMother Teresa would move into aroom on the second floor. She wouldpay no rent. The home’s locationwas later described by MotherTeresa as “rich in its poverty.”InFebruary 1949, she moved into hernew quarters, bringing with her onlya small suitcase.Mother Teresa now had somehelpers who accompanied her sothat she would not be alone in theslums. Charur Ma, a widow who wasthe cook at St. Mary’s at Entally, often went with her on shopping trips. Mable Gomes, the younger daughter of the family with whomshe boarded, also went with MotherTeresa on occasions. Even MichaelGomes, when he had time, went withMother Teresa to chemists’ shops,similar to American pharmacies,to ask for donations of medicalsupplies. She was even joined bysome of her former students who came to visit her. Seeing her in hersari, some burst into tears. But allwere glad to see her and to offerwhat help they could.On one occasion, when Michael accompanied Mother Teresa on a rainyday watching from the train window,they saw a man, completely drenched,slumped under a tree. The two hurriedto finish collecting medicines and went back with the hopes of helpingthe man. However, when they reached him, he was already dead. As Gomeslater recounted, Mother Teresa wasin anguish over the incident, andthe fact that many other poor andgravely ill men and women, like theunknown man, might have wanted tosay something to someone, to havesome comfort in their final hours.

The incident hardened her resolveto search for a facility where theterminally ill could die in dignity andpeace.The days followed a set routine:mornings were spent teaching school,while afternoons were given to thesick and dying. By this time, therewere two schools to tend to: the first one in Motijihl and another in the slum of Tiljala, where Mother Teresa rented another small room for hernew students. The young womenand Mother Teresa also establisheda dispensary. After school hours, the large room was turned into a screeningroom for tuberculosis patients. To help the sisters, an announcementat Sunday mass was made calling for mushtibhikka, a Bengali custom where any families that were able putaside a handful of rice for a beggar.This effort marked the start of thefeeding program that the Missionariesof Charity oversaw and that would intime include not only food, but clothing and soap for the poor.


On August 16, 1949, the first year was over, Mother Teresa and her growing band of young women had no turning back .She took another very important step, she applied forand was granted Indian citizenship.The first three vows all would take when coming into the order-poverty, chastity and obedience was added with a fourth vow, “to give whole hearted and free service to thepoorest of the poor,” which would become known as “our way.”She also decided on a name for the new order - the “Missionaries of Charity”.Thus on October 7, 1950, the churchhad a new congregation in its fold-the Missionaries of Charity, headed by Mother Teresa. It was soon apparent that the quarters at Creek Lane werebecoming too small for the growing number of sisters. Later, a suitable house was found at 54 A, Lower Circular Road, Calcutta. In February1953, Mother Teresa and her group moved into their new residence. Later, Intribute to their founder, thesisters called the new house as "Mother House"


         LowerCircular Road is a humming center ofactivity in Calcutta. The street is usually filledwith pedestrians and traffic. The everyday droneof people, car horns, rickshaw bells and trams is broken occasionally by the passing of Hinduprocessions and political parades. With all thecommotion, it is easy to overlook the residencelocated at A Lower Circular Road; the noise ofthe everyday world drowns out the daily prayersof the home’s residents. To get to A LowerCircular Road, one has to take a narrow lane thatleads to a three-storied, gray-washed building..


With their move into Motherhouse in early 1 3,the Missionaries of Charity had their own base ofoperations. Not only did the new residence offermore room for the growing number of newcomersto the order; it also had its own chapel and a dininghall. Mother Teresa also had her own quarters.Slowly, new recruits appeared asking to be takeninto the congregation as a Missionary of Charity. Despite the spacious new surroundings, MotherTeresa was determined that her congregations live a life shaped by extreme poverty. Findingproperly fitting shoes was a continual challengefor the nuns. On one occasion, Mother Teresaallocated the same pair of sandals to threedifferent sisters, all of whom were in desperateneed of footwear. On another occasion, the onlypair of shoes available for one sister to wear tochurch services was a pair of red stiletto heels.However, she chose to wearthem and the sight ofher hobbling was the source of much amusementfor many days.

Articles of clothing were also at a premium;habits were made out of old bulgur wheat sacks;sometimes the labels were still visible under thethin cloth cover of the white saris, even afterrepeated washings.

One sister’s habit clearlybore the label Not for Resale under her sari. OneChristmas, there were not enough shawls for thesisters to wear to Midnight mass; instead thosewithout wore their bed covers.


When Mother Teresa first established theMissionaries of Charity, she worked hard to helpprepare the young women who entered the order.Father Van Exem and Father Henry also helpedinstruct the newcomers in preparation for theirlives as nuns. Gradually, these tasks becamemore the duties of senior nuns. Mother Teresaalways emphasized that the work of a Missionary of Charity was no different from that of socialworkers.

Women who apply to join the order must meetfour requirements. They must be physically andmentally healthy. They must have the ability andthe desire to learn. Common sense is a necessityas is a cheerful disposition; they would need allthey could muster in working with the poor.


         The daily routine for those who choose to beMissionaries of Charity was long and grueling.Weekdays, the sisters rose at 4:40 A.M. to the call of Benedicamus Domino (“Let us bless theLord”) and the response of DeoGratias (“Thanksbe to God”). Dressing at their bedsides with asheet covering their heads, they went downstairs to wash their faces with water that came from the courtyard tank and was carried in empty powdered milk cans. They then collected ashfrom the kitchen stove to clean their teeth. Eachsister washed herself with a small bit of soap; thissame bit of soap was used to wash their clothesas well. Between 5:15 A.M. and 6:45 A.M. thesisters went for morning prayers, meditation, andthen mass.They then went to the dining hall where each drank a glass of water before breakfast.

Inthe beginning, there was no tea for breakfast;instead milk made from American powdered milkwas given. Breakfast consisted of five chapattis(homemade bread made from wheat or othergrain flours and baked without yeast) spread withclarified butter (ghee). The chapattis providedstrength and energy to the body and it wasrequired that all eat their allotment, somethingthat many had a harder time doing than goingwithout food. Father Henry once told a story ofhow, when the first newcomers joined the order,they came with the expectation that food wouldbe insufficient and one of many deprivations theywould suffer. At their first meal, Mother Teresaput their plates before each one. Amazed, thewomen looked at the plates full of food. They weretold to eat it, as it was their due. Mother Teresathen reminded them that God “wants obediencerather than victims.” In addition to their food, allof the residents took a vitamin pill with their meal.After their quick breakfast, the sisters were outon the streets by 7:45 A.M. to begin their work.The sisters made a point of traveling together inpairs for their own safety as well as to help oneanother.

By noontime, many sisters returned to Motherhouse for prayers and a midday meal, which consisted of five ladles of bulgur wheat and three bits of meat if there was any available. After the meal, housework was attended to and then came a rest of 30 minutes. Afterward, there was more prayer and afternoon tea at which the nuns ate two dry chapattis. There followed another half-hour of spiritual reading and instruction from Mother Teresa. The sisters then returned to the city. By 6 in the evening, the sisters returned to the Motherhouse for prayers and dinner, which usually consisted of rice, dhal (a spicy dish made with lentils), tomatoes, onions and various seasonings, and other vegetables. During the meal, there was also 10 minutes of spiritual readings. After dinner, attention was given to darning and mending, using a razor blade, needle, and darning thread kept in a cigarette tin.

Mother Teresa

There was also time for recreation; this was the one time that conversation about subjects other than work was permitted. The signal for this recreational conversation to begin was Laudetur Jesus Christus (“Praise be Jesus Christ”), to which the sisters answered “Amen.” Now was the time that all could share what happened to them during the day. Then at 10 o’clock, the day was over; and everyone retired for the night.

Because Sundays were often as busy as weekdays, Mother Teresa set aside Thursdays as days of respite for the residents of Motherhouse. On this day, the sisters might engage in prayer and meditation. Quite often in the early days, Mother Teresa would take her group to the home of a Calcutta doctor, where they would have a picnic and relax on the grounds. The physical demands of the sisters’ work were strenuous. On any given day, they might have to jump railway tracks or ditches or slog through pools of standing water. During the rainy seasons, there was the danger of being caught in a flash flood.

Mother Teresa instructed her nuns always to say their rosaries that each sister carried with her. In time, measuring distances covered was not added up in miles, but in how many rosaries were said. When the conditions they encountered were desperate or terrible, the Sisters sang High Mass in Latin. Even with the emphasis on poverty, there were times when the sisters went without necessities.

Mother Teresa

When there was no fuel to cook their meals, the sisters ate raw wheat that had been soaked overnight. Nomatter the sacrifice, the sisters did it willingly and often with smiles on their faces.

Not all welcomed Mother Teresa and theMissionaries of Charity into their lives. Some ofthe poor resisted the sisters’ efforts to help them,seeing them as trying to convert the poor toCatholicism. Others simply did not want charity. For those young women who offered their lives inservice to the poor, rejection also waited. Manygirls’ families were ashamed of their vocationto help the poor and outcasts of the city. In some cases, family members, if coming upon adaughter or sister who had become a Missionaryof Charity, crossed the streets or turned away toavoid looking at them. Many parents urged theirdaughters to leave and were often disappointedand surprised to hear their advice rejected.


         No task was too menial or disgusting for MotherTeresa to undertake. One sister, repelled at thethought of cleaning the toilet, hid herself away.Mother Teresa passed by, not noticing the Sisterin the hall. Seeing the state of the toilet, sheimmediately rolled up her sleeves and cleanedthe toilet herself.

The sister never forgot theexperience and applied herself more fully toher tasks. From all the sisters, Mother Teresaasked obedience. Those unable to eat theallotted five chapattis a day were not considered Missionaries of Charity material and were asked to leave. Other requirements of the order includedspeaking English at all times. Those who came to the order without finishing their studies were tocomplete them in addition to their work.


         The faith and devotion to God often rewarded Mother Teresa and her sisters in amazing ways.On one occasion when there was no food in the house, a knock came at the door. A womanstanding outside had with her bags of rice. She later told Mother Teresa that she did not have any intention of going there, but for some reason came bringing the rice. That evening, Mother Teresa and the sisters had their dinner. In another instance, Father Henry asked MotherTeresa for some money to print some leaflets. She searched the house and found only tworupees, which she gladly turned over to Father Henry. As he was leaving, he remembered a letter that he had brought for her. Opening it, Mother Teresa discovered a gift of 100 rupees. When a newcomer arrived at the Motherhouse, there was no pillow available for her; Mother Teresa offered the young woman hers, but the sisters refused to allow it, stating that she needed the pillow for her own rest. Mother Teresa insisted and while doing so, an Englishman appeared at the Motherhouse with a mattress. He was leaving the country and wanted to know if the sisters would have any use for his mattress. This and other events demonstrated to Mother Teresa the power of faith as well as God’s providence when people completely surrendered their lives into his care.

Nirmal Hriday
"Home For The dying,"Kalighat

         On a rainy day in 1952, a young boy, not more than 13 or 14 years old, lay dying on a neighborhood street. He appeared to be one of the many beggar children who are found in the streets of Calcutta. Naked and emaciated, the boy’s limbs looked more like matchsticks than arms or legs. A concerned resident called the ambulance, which took the boy to a nearby hospital. The hospital, already overcrowded, refused to help. Instead, the boy was dumped in a Calcutta street gutter where he died alone and unknown. Although such scenes were common in Calcutta, a local newspaper picked up the story of the dead boy and heightened public attention to the dying poor. Mother Teresa was no stranger to the problem. In the increasing number of talks she gave to the public about her congregation, she related a very similar story. One day, when she and another sister were just beginning their work, they encountered what appeared to be a bundle of rags lying on a street. As they approached, they realized, to their horror, that the bundle was not just rags, but a middle aged woman, half-conscious, her face half eaten away by rats and ants. Together, Mother Teresa and her companion carried the woman to the nearest hospital. The nurses refused to take the woman, claiming the hospital had no beds. When Mother Teresa asked hospital officials where she could go, they told her to take the woman back where she had found her. Frustrated, Mother Teresa refused to leave until she had a promise that the hospital would make room for the sick woman. In the end, hospital authorities relented and gave the dying woman a mattress on the floor. She died a few hours later with Mother Teresa by her side. It was then, Mother Teresa told her audience that she had decided to find a place for the dying and take care of them herself.


         "When Mother Teresa began her work in the slums,” recalled one sister, “we often found people dying or sometimes dead." At one point, Mother Teresa rented two rooms for five rupees each in the Motijihl slum. But the space, only eight feet square, could not even begin to hold the numbers of dying people who needed help; at best only two to three persons could be accommodated, leaving little room for the sisters to tend to them. When one of the patients died during the night, the others, now fearful, fled. Undaunted, the sisters continued to bring the sick and dying to the two rooms, while praying that they could find a larger building adequate to their needs. Determined, Mother Teresa went to the city’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ahmed. Explaining her desire to him, Mother Teresa promised that if he would help her find a place, she would do the rest. The doctor, well aware of Mother Teresa’s growing reputation, treated her request seriously. In fact, Dr. Ahmed knew of a place that might perfectly suit Mother Teresa’s needs. Together they went to inspect a building, which had been used as a pilgrim’s hostel near the Temple of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and fertility.

         The building that Dr. Ahmed showed Mother Teresa consisted of two great rooms set at right angles and linked by a passage way. Calcutta officials had received complaints that squatters were misusing the building, and so wished to have someone occupy it to save it from further destruction.

Besides the large, airy rooms, there was also electricity, gas for cooking, and a large enclosed courtyard where patients could take the air and sun and where clothes and bedding could be hung to dry. Mother Teresa decided on the spot that she would accept the building; the doctor, acting on behalf of the city, agreed to let her have it provisionally.


     On August 22, 1952, the pilgrim’s hostel opened under the name Nirmal Hriday, which is Bengali for Pure or Immaculate Heart. Soon, city ambulances made their way to the doors of Nirmal Hriday to deliver patients whom the city’s hospitals had rejected. But Mother Teresa and the other nuns continued to search the streets for the ill and dying, whom they transported to the home in a wheel barrow. Those brought to Nirmal Hriday were given medical treatment whenever possible. Patients who were beyond saving received the last rites according to their faith; for Hindus, this meant water from the nearby Ganges on their lips; for the followers of Islam, readings from the Koran (the Islamic holy book); for those who were Catholic, confession and communion. The primary goal of Nirmal Hriday was to offer those who were dying a chance to pass away in peace and dignity. As Mother Teresa once stated, “A beautiful death is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.”


         Not everyone was pleased about the creation of Nirmal Hriday. The situation was full of bitter irony. Many days, Mother Teresa and her nuns faced angry demonstrators shouting at them to leave. On several occasions, protestors threw stones at the nuns. There were even death threats made against the Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa. A man once threatened to kill Mother Teresa as she was making her way to the home. She did not move and told the man that if he killed her, she would only reach God sooner. The man let her pass. The Brahmins (upper-class Indians), who served as temple priests, wrote regularly to the city of Calcutta, complaining about Nirmal Hriday, asking M O T H E R T E R E S A to evict the tenants. Finally, Dr. Ahmed, accompanied by a police officer, went to Nirmal Hriday to see for themselves what was really going on.

Mother Teresa

As they entered the building, they saw Mother Teresa pulling maggots from the flesh of a patient. The stench was so overwhelming that the two men could barely stay in the room. Dr. Ahmed heard Mother Teresa telling the dying patient to say a prayer from his religion and she would say a prayer from hers. Together, she said, they both have offered something beautiful to God. When she turned and saw the two men, she offered to show them around the home. The police officer, with tears in his eyes, said no, that there was no need to see anything else. Upon returning to the demonstrating crowd outside, the policeman spoke and said that he would remove Mother Teresa from the premises, but only if the women of the neighbourhood came in to continue her work. Then, one day, a young priest at the temple, who had been one of Mother Teresa’s most vocal critics, fell ill. Vomiting blood, he was diagnosed with the last stages of tuberculosis. No hospital would admit him, and so it was that he came to Nirmal Hriday to die. He was given a place in a corner and the nuns lovingly tended him. He died not long afterward. When the other Brahmin priests learned what had happened and how he had been treated by the Missionaries of Charity, their hostilities subsided. The nuns at Nirmal Hriday took care of all who came with a love and tenderness and asked for nothing in return.


Like the Motherhouse on Lower Circular Road, daily life at Nirmal Hriday had a routine all itsown. Anyone could enter Nirmal Hriday just by walking through the door. Nirmal Hriday was quiet, too, with the only sounds coming from the sisters moving about or a medical treatment being administered. From the day Nirmal Hriday opened, Mother Teresa kept a meticulous record of the number of cases admitted. Over the years, with the aid of better hygiene and nutrition among the population and the construction of more hospitals and clinics tending to the poor, Nirmal Hriday saw its mortality rate drop from almost 50 percent to 10 percent.

      As word of Nirmal Hriday spread, volunteerscame forward to aid Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in their work. Hindupilgrims who came to worship at the temple now made contributions to Nirmal Hriday. Alocal businessman sent a delivery boy every month with a supply of Indian cigarettes knownas bid is to give to the patients, and in time decided to deliver them himself. On Sundays, some of the wealthy members of Calcutta society came to Nirmal Hriday to wash and shave the patients. Other volunteers came to help clean out wounds, cut hair, or feed the patients.

Still others cleaned the rooms, washing floors by hand with a mixture of water, ashes, and disinfectant. Almost all who visited left Nirmal Hriday transformed. For Mother Teresa, such experiences were necessary to understanding the plight of the poor. "Don’t just look around like a spectator," she said to new comers, “really look with your ears and your eyes, and you will be shown what you can do to help.”


Since it first opened in 1952, Nirmal Hriday has rescued more than 54,000 persons from the streets. The home also emerged as one of the most potent symbols in the West for Mother Teresa and her work. As she later wrote, "In my heart, I carry the last glances of the dying. I do all I can so that they feel loved at that most important moment when a seemingly useless existence can be redeemed."


No sooner had the criticism of Nirmal Hriday died down, then rumblings about Mother Teresa herself surfaced. As donations to her order increased, Mother Teresa came under scrutiny for accepting contributions from questionable donors. One of the first to question Mother Teresa’s handling of Nirmal Hriday was a young medical student named Marcus Fernandes.

He says Mother Teresa did not want the poor to be treated; she expected people to die and would simply say, ‘Well, she’s gone to God.’ She was not particularly interested in medicine.” To him, she was a hard and extremely ruthless woman. One visitor recalled how, when her sisters asked Mother Teresa to try to save a 16-year-old boy from dying, she simply blessed the ailing young man and said, “Never mind, it’s a lovely day to go to Heaven.” Complaints about Mother Teresa did little to dampen the tremendous goodwill many felt towards her and her congregation. Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity gained a reputation for good works not only in Calcutta, but throughout the nation and the world. By 1955, though, Mother Teresa had other things on her mind. She turned her energies and attention to two groups who needed her help and for whom she had done nothing specific: children and lepers.

--- To be Continued