Small of stature but solid in fortitude, Mother Teresa was born on August 26, 1910, in Skopje, Albania.
The youngest of the children of Nikola and Dran Bojaxhiu, she was baptized Gonxha Agnes. Her father’s sudden death when Gonxha was eight left the family in difficult financial straits and left her mother as her guide for character and vocation. Her local Jesuit parish also contributed strongly to her formation
At 18, desiring to become a missionary, Gonxha joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sisters of Loretto) in Ireland. There she received the name Sister Mary Teresa after St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In December she departed for India, arriving in Calcutta on January 6, 1929. After making her first profession of vows in May 1931, Sister Teresa was assigned to the Loretto Entally community in Calcutta and taught at St. Mary’s School for girls. On May 24, 1937, she made her final vows. From that time on she was called Mother Teresa. She continued teaching at St. Mary’s and in 1944 became the school’s principal.
On September 10, 1946, during the train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, Mother Teresa said she experienced a divine love for souls, a force within her that motivated her for the rest of her life. She felt called to establish a religious community, the Missionaries of Charity sisters, dedicated to the service of the poorest of the poor. Nearly two years passed in discernment before Mother Teresa received permission to begin. On August 17, 1948, she dressed for the first time in a white, blue-bordered sari and left Loretto to enter the world of the poor. On December 21 she went for the first time to the slums to find and serve among “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.” After some months she was joined by a number of her former students.
On October 7, 1950, the new congregation of the Missionaries of Charity was officially established in Calcutta. By the early 1960s Mother Teresa began to send her sisters to other parts of India. In February 1965 she opened a house in Venezuela. It was soon followed by foundations in Rome and Tanzania and, eventually, on every continent. During the years of rapid growth the world began to focus its attention on Mother Teresa. Numerous awards honored her work. An increasingly interested media began to follow her activities. Her humble stature and effective work also attracted the attention of many intellectuals and celebrities, many of whom were touched by her spirit.
Mother Teresa’s life bore witness to the joy of loving, the dignity of every human person, the value of little things done faithfully, and the surpassing worth of faith in God. But only after her death was it revealed that her interior life was marked by a painful experience of feeling separated from God. At times she grappled with profound doubts and fears about her work and her faith. Despite increasingly severe health problems, she continued to govern her society of sisters and respond to the needs of the poor and the church. By 1997 Mother Teresa’s sisters numbered nearly 4,000 and were established in 610 foundations in 123 countries. In March 1997 she handed on her duties as superior to a newly elected successor.
On September 3, 1997, Mother Teresa died. She was given a state funeral by the government of India, and her body was buried in the headquarters of her order. Her tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Less than two years later, in view of Mother Teresa’s widespread reputation of holiness and the miracles reported as connected to her intercession, Pope John Paul II permitted official discussions about her canonization as a saint to begin. On October 19, 2003, he beatified Mother Teresa before a crowd of at least 300,000.