Agnes always considered the date of her baptism to be her birthday, and so it came to be: August 27 1910 is now known as the birthday of Mother Teresa, the universally popular modern saint.
Before she was Mother Teresa, however, she was little Agnes (or Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, according to the Cyrillic alphabet), the youngest child born to Nikola and Drana Bojaxhui, an Albanian couple who migrated to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, the southernmost Baltic country in southeastern Europe.
Macedonia is about the size of Vermont, with Serbia on its northern border, Bulgaria on the east, Greece to the south, and Albania to the west. As Albanians, Agnes’ family was an ethnic minority in Skopje. Their Roman Catholicism made them even more unique. Her father was the only Catholic on the Skopje city council. But Mr. Bojaxhiu’s political activities went far beyond city council business.
A multi-linguist originally from Kosovo, Nikola Bojaxhiu was an ardent Albanian rights activist. He had political ties to militants like Bajram Curri and Hasan Prishtinia; both had led violent uprisings in Kosovo and elsewhere in Serbia. Nikola was a wealthy businessman, and probably discreetly funded political activities that furthered Albanian independence.
In 1919 Nikola convened a political meeting on the anniversary of the Albanian Declaration of Independence. After the meeting he suddenly died. Historians believe Nikola Bojaxhiu was poisoned by Serbian spies. Nikola’s son Lazar is convinced of this. As an adult, Mother Teresa would only say that the allegation her father was murdered was unproven.
Nikola’s business partner took over his business interests and left no money for Nikola’s family. Agnes, her brother and sister, and their mother Drana were left impoverished. This did not stop Drana Bojaxhui from opening her house to the poor and hungry in Skopje. Agnes’ mother told her, “never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others.” Her charity towards others even though she herself was poor left a deep impression on Agnes.
As she grew up Agnes would demonstrate her mother’s concern for the plight of others. From her father, perhaps, she had a passion for reform, but she turned this inward and sought her own sanctity by increasing her union with God through prayer and good works.
Agnes displayed an affinity for her Catholic faith at a young age. At age twelve she participated in a pilgrimage to the chapel of the Madonna of Letnice. Praying to the Virgin atop the Black Mountain in Skopje was the first time Agnes felt called by God to the religious life.
At age eighteen Agnes left Skopje to join the order of Loreto Sisters in Dublin, Ireland. After learning English Agnes was sent to Darjeeling, India, to teach at St. Mary’s High School for Girls. Showing her father’s skill with languages, Agnes learned to speak Bengali and Hindi fluently. In 1931 she professed her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Agnes wanted her religious name to be Therese, after Therese of Lisieux, a simple French Carmelite nun who stressed the importance of doing small things very well for love of God. But the name Therese had already been taken by another sister, so Agnes took the Spanish spelling of Therese: Teresa. It was customary for Loreto nuns to be called Mother instead of Sister, so Agnes became Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa taught at St. Mary’s for twenty years. The school was near east Calcutta, where wretched living conditions abounded. There was a famine in 1943. In 1946 there was widespread violence between Muslims and Hindus. Teresa received another calling similar to her first calling from the Madonna at Letnice. She later wrote:
“I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
She became an Indian citizen and received medical training. She changed from her Loreto habit to a simple white sari with blue trim. Then it was into the slums to minister to “the poorest of the poor.” It was very difficult at first because Mother Teresa was very poor herself. She had to beg for food and supplies, and a place to lay her head.
Internally she began to doubt her call. It was so hard, and even her best efforts seemed to have only transient benefit. The hardest temptation was the one to return to the school at Loreto, where life was much easier, simpler, and cleaner.
But Mother Teresa persevered, and other idealistic young religious women began to join her efforts. In 1950 the Vatican gave permission for Teresa to start the Missionaries of Charity, an organization that would, in Teresa’s words:
“…care for 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.”
Mother Teresa’s perseverance in performing works of charity bore fruit slowly and steadily. Forty years after her order was started there were four thousand sisters running orphanages, AIDS hospices and refugee centers, as well as providing individual charity to the homeless, victims of floods and earthquakes, alcoholics, the old and disabled, and everyone else who was needy.
Teresa had a simple prayer: “Give me the strength to be ever the light of their lives, so that I may lead them at last to you,” she prayed to God.
She was controversial inside and outside the Church. Her persistent outspoken opposition to abortion and artificial contraception rankled secular sensibilities. She was criticized from within the Church for tending to the poor without trying to convert them to Catholicism.
For instance, there was the free hospice for the dying Mother Teresa opened in 1952. The hospice building was an old Hindu temple that Teresa and the Indian government renovated. She renamed it Kalighat Nirmal Hriday: Home of the Pure Heart. It was a space for Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, and non-believers to receive free medical care and the opportunity to leave this world in a dignified manner.
So Mother Teresa held dying Indians in her arms and prayed their Hindu prayers to them as they breathed their last. Muslims were read the Quran, Catholics were given last rites. Teresa offered no apologies, saying simply: “A beautiful death is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.”
Although this was controversial to some Catholics, Mother Teresa was beatified quickly after her death in 1997. What she did best was extend love and hope to the unloved and hopeless, and to do that in an organized and systematic way for decades. Perhaps that is enough to make her a saint, in any religion.
Meg Greene, Mother Teresa, A Biography, Greenwood Press, 2004.