"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does"
~ William James

Faces of India
Mother Theresa

Romola Butalia profiles Mother Theresa, remembering her bowed shoulders and weather-beaten face that spoke of years in the service of Jesus.

Decades ago, as a student of Loreto House, I had visited the Shishu Bhavan with our headmistress, Sister Winifrede Doyle, who had taken us there to teach us that it is in giving that you receive. I was humbled by the experience and by subsequent visits to the various homes of Mother Theresa in different cities and towns.

Several years later, when friends from New Zealand were visiting and wanted to donate a small sum of money to Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity. I had taken them to the Mother Home and stated the purpose of our visit. We waited. Mother Theresa arrived and greeted us. Her bowed shoulders and weather-beaten face spoke of years in the service of Jesus. She folded her hands together in acceptance of the offering with a humility I have rarely seen in anyone. She said, "Visit the orphanage. Contact with the poor is good." To dedicate oneself to the service of mankind and serve the poorest of the poor must open the gates of heaven itself.

Masters & Sages
Guru Gorakhnath
Swami Vivekananda

Karma Yoga

Pilgrim Trails
Legends of Kailash

Mother Theresa, Nobel Laureate, will possibly be declared a saint in time to come. To her, the recognition of her work mattered not at all. Hers was a rare faith and conviction, and more rare, was her courage of conviction. Born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, in Macedonia in an Albanian Catholic family, her businessman father, Kolė, died when she was only 9. Along with her 2 siblings, she was brought up by her mother, Drana.

Exposed early to prayer, Agnes enjoyed spending time at the Church, apart from reading and singing, and joined her mother in charitable work. Agnes went to the Lyceum, where she was a good student, joined the Choir as a soprano and also played the mandolin. Much of her time was devoted to the Legion of Mary where she assisted in teaching catechism and read a lot about Slovenian and Croatian missionaries in India. At the tender age of twelve she felt the urge to spend her life doing Gods' work, and surrendering to His will. Unsure whether this was indeed her mission, she prayed for guidance and discussed it often with her mother and sister. Seeking an affirmation, she asked a priest, "How can I be sure?" He answered: "through your JOY. If you feel really happy by the idea that God might call you to serve Him, Him and your neighbour, then this is the evidence that you have a call." He added: "the deep inner joy that you feel is the compass that indicates your direction in life".


At 18, she had decided the direction of her life, having spent two years assisting in several religious retreats in Letnice. She joined the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, who were very active in India, determined to do missionary work in India. She travelled across Zagreb, to Austria, Switzerland, France to reach London and on to an abbey close to Dublin, to the mother house of the Loreto Sisters.

Here she learnt English and was trained in religious life. She received the clothes of a sister and chose the name of Sister Teresa, in memory of Little Teresa of Lisieux. In December 1928, she embarked on the long journey to the adopted country and people of her dreams, to whom she dedicated her very life. In the beginning of 1929 they reached Colombo, Madras and finally, Calcutta. From here she was sent to Darjeeling, to complete her training in the midst of the Himalayas. In May, 1929 she was accepted as a novice and two years later she took her first vows. Immediately after that, she was sent to administer to the sick in a little hospital, where she was deeply touched by the extent of suffering.

Sent to Calcutta to study in order to become a teacher, she would also volunteer to care for the sick at every opportunity. At school, the children enjoyed her enthusiasm and her gentle ways. In 1937, after taking her final vows, she became headmistress of a school in the heart of Calcutta. Close to the school were the sprawling slums, and Sister Theresa found herself unable to close her mind and heart to what she believed was her first calling, to care for the poor and the distressed.


Leaving for a retreat in Darjeeling, which she later called, "the most important journey of my life" she clearly heard the message of God to leave the convent and to help the poorest of the poor and to live with them. "It was an order, a duty, an absolute certainty. I knew what to do, but I did not know how".

Sister Teresa prayed, talked with some other sisters, and asked her superior, who sent her to see the archbishop of Calcutta. She explained her vocation, but he refused her permission. He talked it over with Father Henry, who knew Sister Teresa well. They considered the problems, including Rome's possible disapproval. The bishop told Sister Teresa to pray over this decision for at least a year or to join the Daughters of Saint Anna who worked among the poor. Sister Teresa believed that she was destined to live among the poor. When after a year, Sister Teresa renewed her plea, the archbishop sought permission from Rome and from Mother General in Dublin. This decision took a long time in coming.

In August 1948, having received permission to leave the Loreto community while maintaining her vows of poverty, purity and obedience, at 38, she bade farewell to her fellow sisters and changed her Loreto robes for an inexpensive and simple white sari with a blue border, which became the most recognised symbol of the Sisters of Charity. She went to Patna to follow a basic nursing training, before returning to Calcutta to live in the slums there, with the sole possession of a piece of soap and Rs 5. With God as her refuge and strength, she began her work to care for the sick and look after infants and children, while her astonished neighbours wondered, who this European lady, speaking fluent Bengali and living among them was.


One day a young Bengali former student expressed her desire to join her, but Sister Theresa tried to dissuade her. In March 1949, the girl returned dressed simply and minus her jewellery. Other young girls followed and soon they were offered a place to stay where the first community was formed.Watching the community grow, she sought the advice of Father Julien Henry and Father Celest Van Exem before presenting herself to the archbishop for the approval of Rome. In October having received papal approval, the archbishop celebrated mass in recognition of the Congregation. Soon, they were able to buy a large house, 54A Lower Circular Road, cheaply, and this became the Mother House. While the congregation grew, Mother Theresa's faith and prayers were continually answered and her work continued, for the destitute, for the abandoned, for the sick, the aged, the lonely and the dying. She served them freely and unconditionally, offering her life in service to the poorest of the poor, for the love of Jesus.

Her first home for Dying Destitutes was in an empty building beside a Kali temple, where pilgrims would come to rest. Now the Missionaries of Charity have homes all over India and elsewhere in the world. The sisters have ambulances and volunteers, both professional and amateur. Another early foundation was Shishu Bavan, the Home for the orphaned and abandoned infants. Shanti Nagar was created as a city of peace, where sick and healed lepers are cared for, learn a skill and find work. Some of the sisters are trained specifically to care and cure those suffering from leprosy. Mother Theresa undertook all her work believing firmly that the human being she tended was not different from the body of Christ, received in Holy Communion.


On September 5th 1997, late in the evening, tired and worn out, Mother Teresa breathed her last. What she left behind was an enormous organisation with the will to continue her work. And she left behind a spirit of grace, where charity is not what you give, but what you receive in the humility of having given of yourself.

Home | Back | Top | Feedback

Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.