Profiles in Greatness: Mother Teresa

UPDATED: September 30, 2009
PUBLISHED: September 30, 2009

For such a tiny woman, Mother Teresa had big
dreams. She set out to change the world, one person
at a time. Her work with the people she called “the
poorest of the poor,” her advocacy for human rights
and her tireless faith and gentle demeanor made her
savior to thousands. But her grand goals were based
on a simple commitment to give.

“Before you speak, it is necessary for you
to listen, for God speaks in the silence of
the heart.”

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bajaxhiu on Aug. 26,
1910. She was the youngest child of a humble Albanian family
in Skopje, Macedonia. Her father passed away when she was
8, and by the time she turned 12, she knew her calling was to
be a missionary. She left home at 18 to join the Institute of the
Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Sisters of Loreto, in Ireland. She
chose the name Sister Mary Teresa after St. Therese of Lisieux,
and a few months later, left for Calcutta, India, to join the
sisters there working as missionaries.

Sister Teresa took her first vows as a nun and began teaching
at St. Mary’s School for girls. She taught in Calcutta until
1948, becoming the school’s principal in 1944. During that
time, she also made her final profession of vows, becoming
Mother Teresa. As a teacher, she was known as unselfish,
loving and joyful, and she showed a natural bent for hard work
and organization.

“When a poor person dies of hunger, it has
not happened because God did not take care
of him or her. It has happened because neither
you nor I wanted to give that person what he
or she needed.”

During her nearly 20 years in India up to 1948, Mother
Teresa witnessed profound suffering and poverty. In 1946,
while riding on a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she later
remembered hearing a calling from God: “I heard the call to give
up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve Him among the
poorest of the poor. It was an order. I was to leave the convent
and help the poor while living among them.”

She set out to establish a community dedicated to serving
the poorest of the poor. After two years of planning and prayer,
she received permission from the Catholic Church to leave the
convent school and devote herself full time to her calling. She
dressed in a white sari with a blue border—what would become
her daily costume for the rest of her life.

“Let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes,
in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting.
Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give
your care, but give your heart as well.”

Daily, Mother Teresa visited families living in slums, nursing those
weak with hunger and dying of tuberculosis. She started an outdoor
school for destitute children, and focused on returning dignity to
the poor, despite all the indignities they suffered. With the help of
volunteers, including her former students, along with increasing
fi nancial donations, she soon expanded her work for “the unwanted,
the unloved and the uncared for.”

In 1950, Mother Teresa received permission from Pope Paul VI
to establish the new congregation of the Missionaries of Charity in
Calcutta. Under her guidance, the sisters traveled to other parts of
India, spreading a message of hope to people in need, regardless of
religious affiliation.

People of all nationalities soon joined her cause, and international
media began to acknowledge her remarkable sacrifice. Over the
years, other branches of the order, including lay missionaries, were
added, and the society became an International Religious Family.
Today, foundations on every continent serve as hospices and homes
for the destitute and those suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis,
alcoholism and leprosy. The society’s members oversee orphanages,
schools and children’s and family counseling services, as well as
provide relief work and aid to refugees in times of natural disaster.

“Little things are indeed little, but to be faithful in
little things is a great thing.”

Mother Teresa believed no act of kindness too small to have
impact. She encouraged people to look for the needy in their neighborhoods,
even in their own homes: “There is a terrible hunger for
love. We all experience that in our lives—the pain, the loneliness.
We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have
right in your own family. Find them. Love them.”

She received numerous awards over her lifetime, including
the Indian Padmashri Award, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize,
the Kennedy Prize, the Nehru Prize, the Balzan Prize, the Nobel
Peace Prize, the United
St a t e s P r e s ident i a l
Med a l o f F r e e dom
and the Congressional
Gold Medal.

“Holiness is not the
luxury of the few;
it is a simple duty,
for you and for

Despite her public
image as a heroic figure,
Mother Teresa suffered
decades of inner turmoil.
Letters and journal entries
released after her death
reveal her periodic bouts of doubt and emotional agony. In 1957,
after she founded the Missionaries of Charity, she wrote to the
archbishop of Calcutta about her personal crisis: “I find no words
to express the depths of the darkness.” These periods of doubt and
perceived disconnectedness continued until her death.

Despite her painful personal journey, Mother Teresa found the
courage and dedication to continue her work with the poor. Even
on days when she experienced deep despair and a crisis of faith, she
got out of bed, prayed and went out into the streets to help those
who needed her. Over the years, she came to believe that this inner
struggle allowed her to more fully experience her convictions and
empathize with those she wished to help.

“Love begins at home, and it is not how much we
do, but how much love we put in the action that
we do.”

Mother Teresa continued her active role as superior general of the
Missionaries of Charity until the last year of her life, despite health
problems. When she blessed her successor in 1997, the society
had nearly 4,000 sisters, 300 brothers and more than 100,000 lay
volunteers who oversaw 610 houses in 123 countries. She made a
final visit to Pope John Paul II before she passed away in Calcutta,
Sept. 5, 1997.

The government of India honored her with a state funeral, and
today her tomb remains a place of pilgrimage and prayer for thousands
of visitors.

In October 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa,
bestowing on her the title of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, thrilling
a crowd of 300,000 gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Beatification
is the third step in the four-step process of canonization in the
Catholic Church.

Mother Teresa’s life serves as a lesson in how one can accomplish
great things by working diligently and selflessly on small things
daily. “As I often say to people who tell me that they would like to
serve the poor as I do,” Mother Teresa said, “ ‘What I can do, you
cannot. What you can do, I cannot. But together we can do something
beautiful for God.’ ”

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at and on Facebook.