"Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies."
How did this mild-mannered and diminutive Albanian woman create an organization of 570 missions
all over the world, comprised of 4000 nuns, a brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers?
Moral power and determination, plus an absolute certainty of purpose.
"I was traveling to Darjeeling by train, when I heard the voice of God."
Born as the third child of a Catholic family in 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia, which was part of the
Ottoman Empire at the time, Agnes Bojaxhiu did not speak about her childhood: she didn't think it
important compared to the need for working for God. Although her early years of her life were
comfortable, her father, Kole, a well-to-do businessman, was murdered when she was a young girl.
Probably poisoned because of his political activity, Kole known as generous and kind, was part of
the Catholic minority in the turbulent Balkans.
While Kole was alive he would provide enough money for the family to feed anybody of need who
came to their door. Kole was serious about the children's education but Agnes' mother, Drana, was
the more religious of the two. Drana was a member of the Catholic Sacred Heart congregation. After
Kole's death, Drana continued to feed and help others, something that came naturally to the Bojaxhiu
family, despite her family's significantly reduced and modest circumstances. Agnes, an inherently
thoughtful and obedient child, helped and followed her mother in her religious and charitable activity.
By the age of twelve Agnes had decided that the religious life was for of her. She thought and
prayed about it for next six years and when a new Jesuit priest at Sacred Heart, Father Jambrekovic,
passed along the news about missionary work, and in particular written accounts of Yugoslav priests
in Calcutta, India. Agnes knew what she would do, being aware of the various missions, Agnes applied
to join the Loreto Sisters, the Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After a
short initiation training in Ireland, Agnes and another initiate, traveled to Calcutta in 1929.
When Agnes arrived in Calcutta, she was entering a world of massive disparity between the
well-to-do Hindus, Muslims, and British Raj versus vast poor Indian population, which was created and
drawn to the wealth of the trading outpost established by the British East Indian Company in 1690,
and industrialized in the 1850s. Calcutta, originally the capital of British India, had lost its crown
when the British moved the capital to New Delhi, in 1911.
For the first two years Agnes was a Loreto novice in Darjeeling, the hillside resort town north
of Calcutta, taking her vows as Sister Teresa on May 24, 1931. Sister Teresa was assigned to Loreto
Entally, one of the six schools in Calcutta. Entally, although in the heart of the industrial slum area,
was a compound of schools walled off from the rest of the city. Catholic Missionary schools like Entally
had found a niche in educating the Bengali children that could afford the schools fees. Sister Teresa
was severely restricted because no Lareto sister could go out of the convent alone. However, in 1935 she
was asked to teach at St Teresa primary school just outside the compound, coming in direct contact
with the poverty of the situation.
In 1937, she committed herself to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for life, making her
Mother Teresa. She then became head mistress of Entally. On Sundays she would visit the poor in the
bustees, the slums areas of Calcutta.
"This is a new life. Our centre here is very fine. I am a teacher, and I love the work.
I am also the Head of the whole school, and everybody wishes me well."
Calcutta and the Bengal region continued its down-slide in stature, and during World War II,
the disruption increased based on the demands of the war on the British Empire. The year 1943 brought
a famine in which several million died, and many converged on Calcutta in the quest of food or a means
to earn a living. The British military took over the Entally compound and created a hospital, so the
Bengali school Entally was moved. Mother Teresa stayed in Calcutta, and continued to teach at the
school. After the war, she and her students moved back to Entally compound. Soon the independence of
India, and the clash between Muslims and Hindus engulfed the city of Calcutta.
On August 16, 1946 Calcutta broke into major violence. Mother Teresa, realizing her pupils were
without food, went out alone searching for food. She said, "We were not to suppose to go out in the
streets, but I went anyway. Then I saw the bodies." She was stopped by troops and escorted back
to the compound in a lorry with bags of rice.
During 1946, Mother Teresa was often weak and ill. She rarely cried; she could be upset from the
death of a Sister, but she never cried in such cases. The only time Mother Teresa had been seen to cry
was when she was sick and could not work. It was very hard for her to be in bed and not working.
Finally she was directed to go to the retreat in Darjeeling for a "spiritual renewal," but essentially
the real reason was the concern for her health.
On the dusty train to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa heard a "call within call" ---
"I was sure it was God's voice. The message was clear. I must leave the convent to help the poor by
living with them. This was a command, something to be done. Something definite. I knew where I had
to be. But I did not know to get there." To serve the "poorest of the poor" was her idea. This
was her hedgehog concept that would serve her for the rest of her life.
Father Van Exem was entrusted by Mother Teresa with her request for guidance and advice. Based on
her notes, a plan was formulated. "She was to leave Loreto but was to keep her vows. She was to start a
new congregation. That congregation would work for the poorest of the poor in the slums in a spirit
of poverty and cheerfulness. There would be a special vow of charity for the poor. There would be
no institutions, hospitals, or big dispensaries. The work was to be among the abandoned, those with
nobody, the very poorest." It was Van Exem's view that Mother Teresa should apply for an indult
of exclaustration, so she could leave the convent but yet stay within the Catholic Church. However,
her superior, Archbishop Perier, thought that an indult of secularization was more appropriate, where
she would become a layman again. But in the end, Rome decided for an indult of exclaustration; she would
be no longer a Loreto nun, but be under the Archbishop. When informed of the decree, her response
was "Father, can I go to the slums now?"
Theologically and temperamentally Mother Teresa was a firm believer in strict adherence to
regulations, in details of discipline, tidiness in housekeeping, in religious dress, and uniformity
of forms of prayer. She never questioned the Catholic church in its teachings, rules, and conventions.
"To leave Loreto was my greatest sacrifice, the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was much
more difficult than to leave my family and country to enter religious life."
Initially she used a small room from a sister organization, Little Sisters of the Poor, as her base,
but soon a room on the second floor of a house was found on Creek Lane, near the slum of Motijhil.
Mother Teresa didn't need much of anything to start her work with the "poorest of the poor."
Her accommodations were very spartan; she started her work without a bed.
In December Mother Teresa had permission to open a slum school. The school was an open space
among the huts, the children squatted in the dirt, and Mother Teresa scratched the letters of the
Bengali alphabet in the mud with a stick. From this humble beginning, Mother Teresa slowly but surely
built followings of the poor children. There were times when Mother Teresa went hungry, at times she had
to ask for food from the Gomes brothers, who had given the Creek Lane room which to Mother Teresa had
Guardians are natural Good-Samaritans, ever on the lookout for ways to help their fellow man,
especially when it comes to matters of food, clothing, and shelter. [Please Understand Me II, p94]
"I saw a woman dying on the street outside Campbell Hospital. I picked her up and took her
to the hospital but she was refused admission because she was poor. She died on the street. I knew
then that I must make a home for the dying, a resting place for people going to Heaven."
In 1949 one of Mother Teresa's pupils from Entally joined her in her work. Soon there were others.
They began the work of serving the poorest of the poor, begging from door to door, taking what they
gathered to those who were starving in the streets, comforting the sick and the dying, and
Mother Teresa was tireless in her work; throughout the day she exhibited zeal and general optimism,
and nothing would get in her way. She was fearless in her attacking of work, nothing was too menial
or too great an obstacle in her path. Sisters competed to see if they could get up sooner in the
morning, often failing despite the fact that Mother Teresa had been working late the night before.
The least hedonic of all types, the Protectors are willing to work long, long hours doing all
the thankless jobs the other types seem content to ignore. [Please Understand Me II, p113]
Mother Teresa usually led by example, rather than having a conscious plan of leading. She
was extremely effective in that role. For example, there was a time when a new Sister discovered a
dirty toilet and hid away horrified in disgust. At the same time Mother Teresa happened by, rolled up
her sleeves and quickly cleaned the toilet, not noticing the Sister. Mother Teresa then went on with
her business. The now shamed Sister never forgot the lesson.
Mother Teresa never concentrated on her leadership style; she was always focused on serving the
poorest of the poor -- she created her organizations solely for that purpose. She had no interest
in leading, only in serving God.
"Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person."
"We are all pencils in the hand of God."
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