This is article is in our modern Missionaries, Mystics, and Martyrs series. You can find all of our Christian biography articles here.
“Of my free will, dear Jesus, I shall follow You wherever You shall go, in search of souls, at any cost to myself, and out of pure love of you.” – Mother Teresa of Calcutta
In 1910 Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Macedonia – one of many Serbians displaced by the constant political churning of the Ottoman Empire. Nikollë and Dranafile Bojaxhiu, were middle class and Roman Catholic. When her father died, likely killed for political reasons, Agnes was only eight years old. Never wealthy but always willing to share with the poor, Agnes’ mother was very devout and believed passionately in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40 RSV-CE
Typical of young children, Agnes struggled against selfishness. At one point, her mother saw an opportunity to help shape her daughter’s character. When Agnes was being lazy in the care of an elderly woman, Dranafile explained that every time they treated the poor and lonely with dignity and love, they were living out the five finger Gospel: “You did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). Dranafile counted each word on a finger illustrating that Agnes would always have a reminder of Christ’s command just by looking at the hands she should use to serve Him. This admonition rooted itself in Agnes’ heart and remained there for the rest of her life.
“Every act of love is a work of peace no matter how small.” – Mother Teresa
By the time Agnes was ten, she yearned to become a missionary and serve Christ wherever He called her. Inspired by the stories of great missionaries, Agnes shared this desire with her parish priest who liberally shared his library with her. With his help, and her mother’s blessing, Agnes joined the Sisters of Loreto in Rathfarnham, Ireland at the age of 18, because of their international missionary work. In Ireland, she began the process of becoming a nun while also learning English. A year later she began her official novitiate in Darjeeling, India where she would make her first vows as Sister Teresa and teach in a school for colonial and high caste Indian girls.
For about 20 years, Sister Teresa was very happy as a teacher and mentor to the girls in the Loreto convent school in Entally, Calcutta. Over time, however, she was became more and more uneasy about the rampant poverty swelling in the streets outside her convent walls. Like the foundress of the Loreto Sisters, Mary Ward, Sister Teresa longed to go out into streets and minister to the poor, the forgotten, the dying and the orphans. The colonial structure in India, however, prevented nuns from leaving the convent and interfering in the local crisis.
In 1946, travelling from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, Teresa was seized by a deeply mystical experience. At a train station, she heard our Lord clearly, articulately, say “ I thirst.” In the broken body of a homeless man Sister Teresa saw our Lord in a “most distressing disguise.” From that moment on, she was certain that the Lord was calling her to a call within a call. She was adamant that He was calling her to leave the cloister and meet Him in the people of the streets. She understood that she could do a very little to relieve their suffering, but that a very little was exactly what God desired.
“Like Jesus we belong to the whole world living not for ourselves but for others. The joy of the Lord is our strength.” – Works of Love Are Works of Peace
The process by which Sister Teresa was able to remain a nun, but leave the Loreto Sisters and establish the Missionaries of Charity is very complex. It is a fascinating look into Catholic understanding of heavenly and earthly obedience, trust in God’s provision, and the safeguards that the Church employs to protect both God’s servants and the integrity of the Gospel. As much as I would like to try to explain this process, I am going to refrain from doing so in this article. It is done so beautifully in Mother Teresa with Olivia Hussey, as well as The Letters, with Juliet Stevenson.
“I knew it was His will, and that I had to follow Him. There was no doubt that it was going to be his work. But I waited for the decision of the Church.” – Mother Teresa in an interview with Malcolm Muggeridge in 1969
Ultimately, Teresa was able to receive permission from the Church to leave Loreto and begin work as a Missionary of Charity. At first, the permission was provisional on a trial basis, then in 1950 it came in permanent form.
“Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today, I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then, the comfort of Loreto came to tempt me. ‘You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again,’ the Tempter kept on saying … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard.” Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography, Spink
From 1950 until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa continued to serve the poorest of the poor, and Christ in all of His distressing disguises. She, the sisters of her order, the Missionary Brothers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity have opened homes for the dying, orphanages, schools, and family counselling clinics all over the world. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – which she cared about not at all except that it would draw attention to the poor and the suffering and might inspire others to serve the poor in their midst.
“For Mother Teresa, mercy was the ‘salt’ which gave flavour to her work, it was the ‘light’ which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.” – Pope Francis, Holy Mass and Canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, was officially canonized by the Catholic Church on September 4, 2016. The canonization process is also a complicated but deeply fascinating process. To learn more about it, check out this cool video.
“What is necessary is possible.” – CS Lewis, Out of Silent Planet
Mother Teresa was so famous for so long and for such good reason, that many have written about her and several movies have been made trying to tell her story. Reticent to do anything other than pray and tend to the poor, Mother Teresa authorized almost no publicity, gave few interviews, and trusted even fewer with her secrets. Over the years, many journalists wrote about Mother and the Missionaries of Charity – some declaring her a living saint, and some wrote scathing critiques based on half truths. Mother ignored almost all of this. She was interested only in being obedient to God in all things and keeping His work central to her focus.
Something Beautiful For God, by Malcolm Muggeridge
In 1969, Malcolm Muggeridge, a British WWII spy and post-war journalist, obtained a rare interview with Mother Teresa which aired as a documentary. Muggeridge became a lifelong friend of Mother Teresa and claims that he ultimately converted to Catholicism due, in part, to Mother’s persistent prayers for him. Muggeridge’s documentary is very hard to find today, but a beautiful book was published by Harper One’s “Lives of Faith” series containing the interview along with numerous photos and a number of other interesting bits and pieces. Something Beautiful For God is a treasure. The documentary is credited as being the first ambassador of Mother to the world. The spine by Harper One is a peek inside of the lives of the Missionaries of Charity. The audio is very well done and narrated by Leonard Muggeridge as Malcolm, and Wanda McCaddon as Mother. (McCaddon was the narrator for the Corrie Ten Boom books as well.) In Something Beautiful for God, Muggeridge asked Mother many pointed and intelligent questions and it is hard not to be won over by her charming and humble answers.
That is asking a lot isn’t it? You ask these girls to live like the poorest of the poor, to devote all their time and energy and life to the service of the poor.
This is what they want to give. They want to give to God everything. They know very well that it’s to Christ the hungry and Christ the naked and Christ the homeless that they are doing it. And this conviction and this love is what makes the giving a joy. That’s why you see the Sisters are very happy. They are not forced to be happy; they are naturally happy because they feel that they have found what they have looked for.
But one thing that would strike, I think, anybody looking on, is the magnitude of what you’re tackling and, apart from your own extraordinary faith and the marvelous faith of your Sisters, the smallness of your resources. Don’t you ever feel discouraged? Some people believe that these things should be done by great state organizations, they feel that a few loving souls trying to tackle such a thing is absurd. What do you think about that?
If the work is looked at just by our own eyes and only from our own way, naturally, we ourselves can do nothing. But in Christ we can do all things. That why this work has become possible, because we are convinced that it is he, he who is working with us and through us, in the poor and for the poor.
Works of Love Are Works of Peace by Michael Collopy
“Let us pray that this book will draw people to Jesus, help them to realize how much God loves them, and help them want to pray. Let it be for the glory of God and the Good of His people. God bless you.” – Mother Teresa
As a high school student, Michael Collopy saw Malcolm Muggeridge’s documentary Something Beautiful For God, and was deeply moved by it. He thought that Mother Teresa’s witness was powerful and wanted to know more. In 1982 he was beginning his career in professional photography and had the opportunity to meet Mother in San Francisco. From then on, they were friends and he became involved in the ministry of the Missionaries of Charity in San Francisco. Over ten years he took photos of their work both in San Francisco and all over the world and slowly compiled, with Mother’s permission, this absolutely gorgeous photo journey through the ministries of the Missionaries of Charity.
This coffee table book is all in black and white. The photos are deeply moving and show us how distressing a disguise our Lord wears in the poorest of the poor. Sprinkled throughout are prayers, quotes, and stories from Mother and some of the sisters. At the end of the book are pages of details about the prayer life and routines of the Missionaries of Charity.
I have purchased this book many times since discovering it. It makes such a compelling and beautiful gift and I can not bear to not have a copy in my home for easy access.
Mother Teresa, starring Olivia Hussey
“I am just a pencil in the hand of God.” – Mother Teresa
Olivia Hussey has had an incredible career! In 1968, she gave an outstanding performance of Juliet, in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. In 1977, she played Mary the Mother of Jesus, in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. In 1982, she was gorgeous and graceful as Rebecca the Jewess, in Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Ivanhoe. In 1989, she played the part of Therese in The Jeweler’s Shop, which is a film adapted from a play penned by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). But my favorite performance of her career is that of Mother Teresa in the powerful 2003 film, Mother Teresa.
At over 100 minutes, this substantial film gives the viewers an emotional and sincere look into the complicated and noteworthy life of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. What a gift it is to have films like this which can help us to visualize the otherwise unfathomable depravity of the slums of Calcutta. But more than that, what a gift it is to have film that tried so hard to capture the radiant joy and the persistent obedience of Mother Teresa and all those around her who likewise were trying to serve Christ in all of His distressing disguises.
While the film is very bright, joyful, and hopeful, it may not be suitable for all children. Sensitive children may be overwhelmed by the poverty and the sadness of certain aspects. All of my children have watched it (5, 7, and 9), but as Catholics, they are routinely exposed to saint stories which contain some unsettling material. I strongly urge families to preview before showing to children younger than high school.
Meditations from a Simple Path
This is one of my favorite little prayer books. A pocket-sized book, it is a treasury of meaningful short prayers that can encourage any spiritual life. The audio is particularly beautiful, and I often listen to it when I am struggling with insomnia in the middle of the night, or when I am struggling under the weight of something heavy and cannot find my own words for prayer.
In The Heart of the World
Slightly larger than the pocket-sized Meditations from a Simple Path, this is another gift-worthy little prayer book. This one is a collection of stories and prayers from Mother Teresa that I have used in ministry when opening a meeting, a retreat, or just praying with teens. I have also used this in my prayer life when I am looking for something that speaks the Gospel into our modernity with clarity and tenderness. Not too large for a purse or a glove box, it is a great book to keep in the car.
Mother Teresa: A Life Inspired by Wyatt North
Wyatt North is a Catholic biographer who writes of the lives of great Catholics and Christians. His writing is friendly, well-researched, and well-intentioned. This short but well-packed biography on Mother Teresa is a lovely introduction to those who have not read more scholarly or spiritual books about her. More substantial than a children’s biography, it is very accessible to younger readers and families. The audio was a great listen while I folded laundry and cleaned bathrooms.