100 years of the 'Saint of the Gutters'


She was on the train from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the Loreto convent at Darjeeling, near the Himalayan mountains, when she heard the call to leave her sheltered convent life and to serve the poorest of the poor. It was September 10th, 1946, and Teresa was on her way to her annual retreat.

"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,” she said. She described it as “the call within the call”.

Teresa was born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhi on August 26th, 1910 in Üskûb in the Ottoman Empire, which today is Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. After the death of her father, her mother raised as a Roman Catholic. Due to her strong faith, she considered August 27th - the day she was baptized - to be her “true birthday”.

She had committed herself to the religious life by the age of 12. And having been fascinated by the life and work of missionaries since early in her life, she left her Albanian family at the age of 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto, who taught English in schools for children in India. The young Agnes joined them upon her arrival in India in 1929.

But the voice she heard on her way to Darjeeling in 1946 changed her entire life and, in turn, the lives of everyone she touched. Teresa left her life in the convent, replacing her traditional Loreto habit with simple white cotton Indian sari decorated with a blue border and started her missionary work in 1948. Two years later, she began the work that would become the Missionaries of Charity.

Teresa then dedicated her life to care for "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone."

She was known as the "Saint of the Gutters" for her work among the poor of Kolkata. She served, cared, and loved those people for over 45 years until she passed away on September 5th, 1997.

Following her death she was beatified by Pope John Paul II, on October 19th, 2003, and given the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. This is the third step to the possibility towards Canonization, which also requires medical proof of a miracle.

"Miracles depend on God, not on people. We are waiting," said Sister Prima, the current Head of the Charity.

Last Thursday, August 26th, 2010, the world remembered on centenary of Mother Teresa's birth. The media coverage highlighted not the solemnity of the remembrances, but the crisis of faith that haunted Mother Teresa throughout her life.

In a letter to her Postulator Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa expressed her emptiness and her doubt about the existence of God. Kolodiejchuk, who is responsible for gathering evidence for her sanctification, acknowledged the risk of misinterpretation that could affect the process of her sainthood.

But, he said, many other saints had similar experiences of religious doubt.

And when the door of her mission was opened at dawn last Thursday (8/26/2010), hundreds of slum dwellers from the city of Kolkata walked in to light candles and pray at her tomb.

To them, Mother Teresa, a most enduring symbol of love, is already a saint.