A diminutive Roman Catholic nun and honorary U.S. citizen, Mother Teresa (1910–1997) served the sick and destitute of India and the world for nearly 50 years. Her humility and compassion, as well as her respect for the innate worth and dignity of humankind, inspired people of all ages and backgrounds to work on behalf of the world’s poorest populations.
Following a divine inspiration and deeply moved by the poverty and suffering she saw in the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa left her teaching post at a convent in Calcutta, India, in 1948 to devote herself completely to the city’s indigent residents. Two years later, she founded her own congregation, the Missionaries of Charity. Like Mother Teresa, the nuns of the new order wore white saris with a blue border rather than traditional nuns’ habits. In addition to the traditional vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, they took a fourth vow of wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor. “In order to understand and help those who have nothing,” Mother Teresa told the young women, “we must live like them.”
Centered in Calcutta, the Missionaries of Charity operated leprosy clinics, orphanages, nurseries, schools for impoverished children, and medical dispensaries for the sick and diseased. In 1952, Mother Teresa established the first of many homes for the sick and the dying, providing much-needed shelter and compassionate care for those who might otherwise suffer and die alone in the streets. Her work on behalf of the poor addressed the urgent needs of the city’s impoverished, providing some relief from Calcutta’s pressing poverty and overcrowded conditions. It also attracted many lay volunteers, including doctors and nurses, as well as various donors.
Mother Teresa first extended the work of the Missionaries of Charity beyond Calcutta in 1959, and in 1965 she established the first foundation outside India. Also in the 1960s, she was a co-founder of the Missionary Brothers of Charity, a separate congregation for men. Later she inspired the foundation of contemplative branches of the two congregations and the Missionary Fathers of Charity, a branch for priests. Inspired by Mother Teresa’s example of selfless humanitarian care, today thousands of religious and lay people labor worldwide on behalf of the poor and the dying destitute.
When Mother Teresa accepted the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize—one of her numerous honors and distinctions—she did so “in the name of the poor, the hungry, the sick and the lonely,” and convinced the organizers to donate to the needy the money normally used to fund the awards banquet. Well respected worldwide, she successfully urged many of the world’s business and political leaders to give their time and resources to help those in need. President Ronald Reagan presented Mother Teresa with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, the same year she began work on behalf of AIDS sufferers in the U.S. and other countries. In 1997, Congress awarded Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal for her “outstanding and enduring contributions through humanitarian and charitable activities.”
Mother Teresa died in Calcutta on September 5, 1997, and is buried there. She had been a citizen of India since 1948.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress awarded Mother Teresa honorary U.S. citizenship. In 2010, the U.S. Postal Service honored her with a stamp.
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