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Return to "Paying Tribute to Mother Teresa of Calcutta" Who Was Blessed Mother Teresa?

A short Mother Teresa biography, including information on her early years, her call to religious life and her work with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.

The following is an excerpt from A Retreat With Mother Teresa and Damien of Molokai: Caring for Those Who Suffer, by Joan Guntzelman.

Mother Teresa was always her own person, startlingly independent, obedient, yet challenging some preconceived notions and expectations. Her own life story includes many illustrations of her willingness to listen to and follow her own conscience, even when it seemed to contradict what was expected.

This strong and independent woman was born Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Yugoslavia, on August 27, 1910. Five children were born to Nikola and Dronda Bojaxhiu, yet only three survived. Gonxha was the youngest, with an older sister, Aga, and brother, Lazar. This brother describes the family's early years as "well-off," not the life of peasants reported inaccurately by some. "We lacked for nothing." In fact, the family lived in one of the two houses they owned.

Nikola was a contractor, working with a partner in a successful construction business. He was also heavily involved in the politics of the day. Lazar tells of his father's rather sudden and shocking death, which may have been due to poisoning because of his political involvement. With this event, life changed overnight as their mother assumed total responsibility for the family, Aga, only 14, Lazar, 9, and Gonxha, 7.

Though so much of her young life was centered in the Church, Mother Teresa later revealed that until she reached 18, she had never thought of being a nun. During her early years, however, she was fascinated with stories of missionary life and service. She could locate any number of missions on the map, and tell others of the service being given in each place.

Called to Religious Life

At 18, Gonxha decided to follow the path that seems to have been unconsciously unfolding throughout her life. She chose the Loreto Sisters of Dublin, missionaries and educators founded in the 17th century to educate young girls.

In 1928, the future Mother Teresa began her religious life in Ireland, far from her family and the life she'd known, never seeing her mother again in this life, speaking a language few understood. During this period a sister novice remembered her as "very small, quiet and shy," and another member of the congregation described her as "ordinary." Mother Teresa herself, even with the later decision to begin her own community of religious, continued to value her beginnings with the Loreto sisters and to maintain close ties. Unwavering commitment and self-discipline, always a part of her life and reinforced in her association with the Loreto sisters, seemed to stay with her throughout her life.

One year later, in 1929, Gonxha was sent to Darjeeling to the novitiate of the Sisters of Loreto. In 1931, she made her first vows there, choosing the name of Teresa, honoring both saints of the same name, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux. In keeping with the usual procedures of the congregation and her deepest desires, it was time for the new Sister Teresa to begin her years of service to God's people. She was sent to St. Mary's, a high school for girls in a district of Calcutta.

Here she began a career teaching history and geography, which she reportedly did with dedication and enjoyment for the next 15 years. It was in the protected environment of this school for the daughters of the wealthy that Teresa's new "vocation" developed and grew. This was the clear message, the invitation to her "second calling," that Teresa heard on that fateful day in 1946 when she traveled to Darjeeling for retreat.

The Streets of Calcutta

During the next two years, Teresa pursued every avenue to follow what she "never doubted" was the direction God was pointing her. She was "to give up even Loreto where I was very happy and to go out in the streets. I heard the call to give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor."

Technicalities and practicalities abounded. She had to be released formally, not from her perpetual vows, but from living within the convents of the Sisters of Loreto. She had to confront the Church's resistance to forming new religious communities, and receive permission from the Archbishop of Calcutta to serve the poor openly on the streets. She had to figure out how to live and work on the streets, without the safety and comfort of the convent. As for clothing, Teresa decided she would set aside the habit she had worn during her years as a Loreto sister and wear the ordinary dress of an Indian woman: a plain white sari and sandals.

Teresa first went to Patna for a few months to prepare for her future work by taking a nursing course. In 1948 she received permission from Pius XII to leave her community and live as an independent nun. So back to Calcutta she went and found a small hovel to rent to begin her new undertaking.

Wisely, she thought to start by teaching the children of the slums, an endeavor she knew well. Though she had no proper equipment, she made use of what was available—writing in the dirt. She strove to make the children of the poor literate, to teach them basic hygiene. As they grew to know her, she gradually began visiting the poor and ill in their families and others all crowded together in the surrounding squalid shacks, inquiring about their needs.

Teresa found a never-ending stream of human needs in the poor she met, and frequently was exhausted. Despite the weariness of her days she never omitted her prayer, finding it the source of support, strength and blessing for all her ministry.

A Movement Begins

Teresa was not alone for long. Within a year, she found more help than she anticipated. Many seemed to have been waiting for her example to open their own floodgates of charity and compassion. Young women came to volunteer their services and later became the core of her Missionaries of Charity. Others offered food, clothing, the use of buildings, medical supplies and money. As support and assistance mushroomed, more and more services became possible to huge numbers of suffering people.

From their birth in Calcutta, nourished by the faith, compassion and commitment of Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity have grown like the mustard seed of the Scriptures. New vocations continue to come from all parts of the world, serving those in great need wherever they are found. Homes for the dying, refuges for the care and teaching of orphans and abandoned children, treatment centers and hospitals for those suffering from leprosy, centers and refuges for alcoholics, the aged and street people—the list is endless.

Until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa continued her work among the poorest of the poor, depending on God for all of her needs. Honors too numerous to mention had come her way throughout the years, as the world stood astounded by her care for those usually deemed of little value. In her own eyes she was "God's pencil—a tiny bit of pencil with which he writes what he likes."

Despite years of strenuous physical, emotional and spiritual work, Mother Teresa seemed unstoppable. Though frail and bent, with numerous ailments, she always returned to her work, to those who received her compassionate care for more than 50 years. Only months before her death, when she became too weak to manage the administrative work, she relinquished the position of head of her Missionaries of Charity. She knew the work would go on.

Finally, on September 5, 1997, after finishing her dinner and prayers, her weakened heart gave her back to the God who was the very center of her life.

book excerpt from A Retreat With Mother Teresa and Damien of Molokai: Caring for Those Who Suffer, by Joan Guntzelman

Return to Paying Tribute to Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Marie-Rose Durocher: Canada was one diocese from coast to coast during the first eight years of Marie-Rose Durocher’s life. Its half-million Catholics had received civil and religious liberty from the English only 44 years before. When Marie-Rose was 29, Bishop Ignace Bourget became bishop of Montreal. He would be a decisive influence in her life. 
<p>He faced a shortage of priests and sisters and a rural population that had been largely deprived of education. Like his counterparts in the United States, he scoured Europe for help and himself founded four communities, one of which was the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Its first sister and reluctant co-foundress was Marie-Rose. </p><p>She was born in a little village near Montreal in 1811, the 10th of 11 children. She had a good education, was something of a tomboy, rode a horse named Caesar and could have married well. At 16, she felt the desire to become a religious but was forced to abandon the idea because of her weak constitution. At 18, when her mother died, her priest brother invited her and her father to come to his parish in Beloeil, not far from Montreal. For 13 years she served as housekeeper, hostess and parish worker. She became well known for her graciousness, courtesy, leadership and tact; she was, in fact, called “the saint of Beloeil.” Perhaps she was too tactful during two years when her brother treated her coldly. </p><p>As a young woman she had hoped there would someday be a community of teaching sisters in every parish, never thinking she would found one. But her spiritual director, Father Pierre Telmon, O.M.I., after thoroughly (and severely) leading her in the spiritual life, urged her to found a community herself. Bishop Bourget concurred, but Marie-Rose shrank from the prospect. She was in poor health and her father and her brother needed her. </p><p>She finally agreed and, with two friends, Melodie Dufresne and Henriette Cere, entered a little home in Longueuil, across the Saint Lawrence River from Montreal. With them were 13 young girls already assembled for boarding school. Longueuil became successively her Bethlehem, Nazareth and Gethsemani. She was 32 and would live only six more years—years filled with poverty, trials, sickness and slander. The qualities she had nurtured in her “hidden” life came forward—a strong will, intelligence and common sense, great inner courage and yet a great deference to directors. Thus was born an international congregation of women religious dedicated to education in the faith. </p><p>She was severe with herself and by today’s standards quite strict with her sisters. Beneath it all, of course, was an unshakable love of her crucified Savior. </p><p>On her deathbed the prayers most frequently on her lips were “Jesus, Mary, Joseph! Sweet Jesus, I love you. Jesus, be to me Jesus!” Before she died, she smiled and said to the sister with her, “Your prayers are keeping me here—let me go.” </p><p>She was beatified in 1982.</p> American Catholic Blog It is in them [the saints] that Christian love becomes credible; they are the poor sinners’ guiding stars. But every one of them wishes to point completely away from himself and toward love…. The genuine saints desired nothing but the greater glory of God’s love… <br />—Hans Urs von Balthasar

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