THE FAMED Albanian Roman Catholic nun and missionary, Mother Teresa, passed away on September 5, 1997 from heart disease, after some six decades of holy work.
Here are 19 facts about her extraordinary life...
1. She was born 'Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu' in 1910
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on August 26, 1910 into a Kosovar-Albanian family in what is now Macedonia, but in 1910 remained part of the Ottoman Empire. She enjoyed a relatively wealthy upbringing until her father died when she was eight, which thrust her family into economic turmoil.
2. She was fascinated by stories of missionaries from an early age
Bojaxhiu was captivated by tales of missionaries serving God abroad, particularly of those in Calcutta, India—where she would eventually serve herself. By age 12, she had become convinced that it was her calling in life to devote herself to God.
3. She moved to Ireland at the age of 18
Bojaxhiu left home in 1928 and joined the Sisters of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Dublin. It was in Dublin's southside that a young Mother Teresa learned English with a view to becoming a missionary in India.
4. She never saw her family again
After the Ottomans were ousted from Macedonia by the Serbians, her mother and sister relocated to nearby Albania. After moving to Rathfarnham, she was never to see them again—despite living for six more decades.
5. A year later she moved to the Indian Himalayas
In 1929 at the age of just 19, Bojaxhiu moved to Darjeeling next to the Himalayan mountains. There she taught at St Teresa’s school, and perhaps inspired by its name, took the name of Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries.
6. Some Indians see her as a symbol of colonialism and racism
Despite her efforts in India, some nevertheless viewed her as a patronising force of racialisation. Indian historian Vijay Prashad said of Mother Teresa that she was "the quintessential image of the white woman in the colonies, working to save the dark bodies from their own temptations and failures". Western media has been similarly criticised for exacerbating her image as a white saviour.
7. She didn’t mix with the poor at first
After leaving St Teresa’s, Sister Teresa taught humanities at St Mary’s in Calcutta. The all-girls high school was attended by rich children. Sister Teresa would teach there for 15 years until the poverty beyond the school walls became too much to handle.
8. God 'called' her to the slums a year after the end of WWII
In 1946, then Sister Teresa felt a call from God on a train between Darjeeling and Calcutta. She later explained: “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
9. Her efforts soon attracted the attention of world leaders
After India became independent from Britain in 1947, the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru praised her work. In 1950, the Pope approved of Mother Teresa’s new congregation, The Missionaries of Charity. The congregation is still going strong today with over 4,500 members.
10. Christopher Hitchens accused her of tricking the dying into deathbed baptisms
In his controversial book The Missionary Position on Mother Teresa's life, Anglo-American author Christopher Hitchens accused Mother Teresa and her sisters of secretly baptising dying non-Christian patients without their knowledge. In 1952, Mother Teresa opened the first Home for the Dying in Calcutta, and it is there that Hitchens claimed Mother Teresa and her nuns would appear to cool patients' heads with wet cloths, when in fact they were baptising them.
11. Many have criticised the quality of her medical care
In 1991, then editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, Robin Fox, described the quality of care in Calcutta as "haphazard". In 2013, a group of academics from Université de Montréal concluded that Mother Teresa's care for the sick “glorified their suffering instead of relieving it”. Further, they criticised her views around contraception, abortion and divorce in the slums.
12. She donated the budget of her Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the poor
In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace". She refused the traditional Nobel banquet thereafter and instead requested that the ceremony's $192,000 budget be donated to the poor of India.
13. She was apparently ‘forced’ out of Ireland in the 1970s
A Northern Irish nun recently claimed that Mother Teresa was forced out of Belfast during the Troubles, just 18 months after taking up residency in the Ballymurphy estate in 1971. Sister Eileen Sweeney, who visited Ballymurphy shortly thereafter, claimed that she found a torn-up letter written by Mother Teresa which supports the view that she was told to leave.
14. She accepted an award from a right-wing dictator
In 1981, Mother Teresa flew to the Caribbean island of Haiti to personally accept the Legion d’Honneur award from Jean-Claude Duvalier—a dictator known to have stolen millions from his already penniless nation. Mother Teresa was similarly friendly with Enver Hoxha of Communist Albania, the British publisher Robert Maxwell who embezzled £450 million, and Licio Gelli, an Italian politican aligned with neo-fascists.
15. She has been both praised and criticised for her anti-abortion views
Mother Teresa was quoted as saying that "the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion". To those on the 'pro-life' side of the debate, she remains an icon. For many 'pro-lifers', she is anything but. The aforementioned academic report from Université de Montréal suggested that Mother Teresa's hallowed media image was 'orchestrated' by a media relations campaign built by an anti-abortion journalist.
16. She publicly advocated for a "no" vote in Ireland's 1995 referendum on divorce
In 1995, Mother Teresa advocated for the Irish to vote against the possibility of legalising divorce and remarriage in Ireland. In the end, Irish voters went against the advice of both Mother Teresa and many in the Roman Catholic Church by voting to legalise divorce by a narrow majority of 50.3 percent.
17. Her writings reveal her questioning her faith
Despite requesting that her letters be destroyed upon her death, Mother Teresa's writings were posthumously released after she passed away in 1997. They reveal that she struggled with disconnectedness from God, and lacked her earlier zeal for religion in later years. The writings caused a controversy over Mother Teresa's apparent hypocrisies.
18. She still stands out as one of the 20th century's greatest humanitarians
Mother Teresa is still regarded as one of the 20th century's most accomplished humanitarians, despite the number of criticisms levelled against her. She displayed unprecedented organisational skills in the tough environments in which she chose to work, her network of missionaries have assisted millions worldwide, and her life's work helped raise the plight of the developing world's poor to the international stage.
Former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, said in 1985 that: "Most of us talk about kindness and compassion, but Mother Teresa, the saint of the gutters, lives it."
19. She is now a Saint
It was announced in March 2016 that Pope Francis had selected Mother Teresa to be canonised. On September 4, 2016, Mother Teresa officially entered the hallowed halls of Sainthood after a ceremony at the Vatican — but not everyone has agreed with her inclusion. Some Hindu nationalists in India have objected to the honouring of a Christian who highlighted the worst of their country, and feared a new surge of Catholicism thanks to her canonisation.
The Vatican approved Mother Teresa's Sainthood after 'verifying' two miracles which she is said to have performed — one in 2003 under Pope John Paul II's papacy, and one in 2015 under Pope Francis.