Mother Teresa

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How can one person change the world? Mother Teresa did it by example.

Anjezë Gonxhe, the daughter of an Albanian entrepreneur, was born in 1911 the city of Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia. As a child, Anjezë prayed at the shrine of the Black Madonna, a pilgrimage site visited by many devout Albanians. God spoke to Anjezë there, at the age of 8; and at 18 she left home to become a nun.

After a year of preparation in Ireland, Anjezë began her novitiate in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. She took her vows at 21, choosing for herself the name of Teresa, the patron saint of missionaries. She would soon live up to that name.

In 1937, Teresa moved to Kolkata to teach at a convent school. The school, situated near the city slums of the city, catered to the children of Kolkata's wealthy. Everyday, on her way to work, Teresa witnessed the misery of India's most wretched as they huddled in unheated hovels without proper food or clothing. Increasingly aware of the distance between herself and those she wished to help, she began to resent her privilege at the school.

On September 10, 1946, Teresa was again overwhelmed by the presence of God while riding a train. Commanded, in her words, to "leave the convent and help the poor while living among them," she donned the iconic plain white sari with a blue stripe -- the garment of the poor.

But then a different kind of overwhelm whispered in her ear: How can one woman, even one guided by God, help so many suffering people? The answer: Lead by example.

Teresa open a new school in Kolkata, this one in the slums. At the Missionaries of Charity, she taught the local children for free. Soon, her example inspired other nuns to join her. She required them to take vows of poverty and to promise to always give free services to the poor.

Teresa's work soon attracted publicity. Sympathetic Catholics began to donate money, and Teresa was able to expand her school. She remained committed to helping only the most needy. She began to work with lepers and also opened a home for abandoned children. Her followers began to call her "Mother Teresa" out of love for her work, which soon became the name the world knew her by.

Mother Teresa's selflessness and compassionate image of poverty carried her work to international fame. By the early 1960s, she ran schools in 22 Indian cities. By 1979 the Missionaries of Charity had opened missions in 25 countries, including in London and New York. What began as one woman's call to work among the poor had become an international crusade of selfless service to others.

Mother Teresa receives the Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan, 1985

Mother Teresa receives the Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan, 1985

Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize In 1979. But this was not an excuse for her to slow down. She opened new schools in Russia, and in the 1980s opened a home to treat AIDS victims in San Francisco.

Teresa did attract controversy later in her life for her adamant opposition to abortion and divorce, causes that some critics believed contributed to the extreme poverty she treated. Yet while Teresa was outspoken in her views, she largely avoided politics to focus on what was most important to her: living among and providing service to the world's most needy and forgotten citizens.

Teresa died in 1996. The Vatican soon moved to canonize her as a modern-day saint. Before massive crowds, Pope Francis declared Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, mother of the slums. ”Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded," the pope said of Mother Teresa’s life of service.

At the time of her death, Teresa operated 517 missions in over 100 countries. In addition to leading the Missionaries of Charity, she traveled outside India for humanitarian reasons. In 1982, for example, she rescued 37 children trapped in a front-line hospital during the Siege of Beirut, brokering a temporary cease-fire between enemy combatants. She assisted radiation victims at Chernobyl as well as earthquake victims in Armenia. With the end of the Cold War, Teresa brought the Missionaries of Charity to Communist countries previously closed to her, including her native Albania where she open a Missionaries of Charity Brothers home in Tirana in 1991. 

For her selflessness and lifelong commitment to bettering the lives of others, we are proud to include Mother Teresa as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Thank you to Whitney Stewart of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, for nominating her.


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