Biography of Mother Teresa, 'The Saint of the Gutters'

Mother Teresa

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mother Teresa (August 26, 1910–September 5, 1997) founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns dedicated to helping the poor. Begun in Calcutta, India, the Missionaries of Charity grew to help the poor, dying, orphans, lepers, and AIDS sufferers in more than 100 countries. Mother Teresa's selfless effort to help those in need has caused many to regard her as a model humanitarian. She was canonized a saint in 2016.

Fast Facts

  • Known for: Founding the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns dedicated to helping the poor
  • Also known as: Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (birth name), "The Saint of the Gutters"
  • Born: Aug. 26, 1910 in Üsküp, Kosovo Vilayet, Ottoman Empire
  • Parents: Nikollë and Dranafile Bojaxhiu
  • Died: September 5, 1997 in Calcutta, West Bengal, India
  • Honors: Canonized (pronounced a saint) in September 2016
  • Notable quote: "We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something."

Early Years

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, known as Mother Teresa, was the third and final child born to her Albanian Catholic parents, Nikola and Dranafile Bojaxhiu, in the city of Skopje (a predominantly Muslim city in the Balkans). Nikola was a self-made, successful businessman and Dranafile stayed home to take care of the children.

When Mother Teresa was about 8 years old, her father died unexpectedly. The Bojaxhiu family was devastated. After a period of intense grief, Dranafile, suddenly a single mother of three children, sold textiles and hand-made embroidery to bring in some income.

The Call

Both before Nikola's death and especially after it, the Bojaxhiu family held tightly to their religious beliefs. The family prayed daily and went on pilgrimages annually.

When Mother Teresa was 12 years old, she began to feel called to serve God as a nun. Deciding to become a nun was a very difficult decision. Becoming a nun not only meant giving up the chance to marry and have children, but it also meant giving up all her worldly possessions and her family, perhaps forever.

For five years, Mother Teresa thought hard about whether or not to become a nun. During this time, she sang in the church choir, helped her mother organize church events, and went on walks with her mother to hand out food and supplies to the poor.

When Mother Teresa was 17, she decided to become a nun. Having read many articles about the work Catholic missionaries were doing in India, Mother Teresa was determined to go there. Mother Teresa applied to the Loreto order of nuns, based in Ireland but with missions in India.

In September 1928, 18-year-old Mother Teresa said goodbye to her family to travel to Ireland and then on to India. She never saw her mother or sister again.

Becoming a Nun

It took more than two years to become a Loreto nun. After spending six weeks in Ireland learning the history of the Loreto order and to study English, Mother Teresa then traveled to India, where she arrived on Jan. 6, 1929.

After two years as a novice, Mother Teresa took her first vows as a Loreto nun on May 24, 1931.

As a new Loreto nun, Mother Teresa (known then only as Sister Teresa, a name she chose after St. Teresa of Lisieux) settled into the Loreto Entally convent in Kolkata (previously called Calcutta) and began teaching history and geography at the convent schools.

Usually, Loreto nuns were not allowed to leave the convent; however, in 1935, 25-year-old Mother Teresa was given a special exemption to teach at a school outside of the convent, St. Teresa's. After two years at St. Teresa's, Mother Teresa took her final vows on May 24, 1937, and officially became "Mother Teresa."

Almost immediately after taking her final vows, Mother Teresa became the principal of St. Mary's, one of the convent schools, and was once again restricted to staying within the convent's walls.

'A Call Within a Call'

For nine years, Mother Teresa continued as the principal of St. Mary's. Then on Sept. 10, 1946, a day now annually celebrated as "Inspiration Day," Mother Teresa received what she described as a "call within a call."

She had been traveling on a train to Darjeeling when she received an "inspiration," a message that told her to leave the convent and help the poor by living among them.

For two years, Mother Teresa patiently petitioned her superiors for permission to leave the convent to follow her call. It was a long and frustrating process.

To her superiors, it seemed dangerous and futile to send a single woman out into the slums of Kolkata. However, in the end, Mother Teresa was granted permission to leave the convent for one year to help the poorest of the poor.

In preparation for leaving the convent, Mother Teresa purchased three cheap, white, cotton saris, each one lined with three blue stripes along its edge. (This later became the uniform for the nuns at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.)

After 20 years with the Loreto order, Mother Teresa left the convent on Aug. 16, 1948.

Rather than going directly to the slums, Mother Teresa first spent several weeks in Patna with the Medical Mission Sisters to obtain some basic medical knowledge. Having learned the basics, 38-year-old Mother Teresa felt ready to venture out into the slums of Calcutta, India in December 1948.

Founding the Missionaries of Charity

Mother Teresa started with what she knew. After walking around the slums for a while, she found some small children and began to teach them. She had no classroom, no desks, no chalkboard, and no paper, so she picked up a stick and began drawing letters in the dirt. Class had begun.

Soon after, Mother Teresa found a small hut that she rented and turned it into a classroom. Mother Teresa also visited the children's families and others in the area, offering a smile and limited medical help. As people began to hear about her work, they gave donations.

In March 1949, Mother Teresa was joined by her first helper, a former pupil from Loreto. Soon she had 10 former pupils helping her.

At the end of Mother Teresa's provisionary year, she petitioned to form her order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity. Her request was granted by Pope Pius XII; the Missionaries of Charity was established on Oct. 7, 1950.

Helping the Sick, Dying, Orphaned, and Lepers

There were millions of people in need in India. Droughts, the caste system, India's independence, and partition all contributed to the masses of people that lived on the streets. India's government was trying, but they could not handle the overwhelming multitudes that needed help.

While the hospitals were overflowing with patients that had a chance to survive, Mother Teresa opened a home for the dying, called Nirmal Hriday ("Place of the Immaculate Heart"), on Aug. 22, 1952.

Each day, nuns would walk through the streets and bring people who were dying to Nirmal Hriday, located in a building donated by the city of Kolkata. The nuns would bathe and feed these people and then place them in a cot. They were given the opportunity to die with dignity, with the rituals of their faith.

In 1955, the Missionaries of Charity opened their first children's home (Shishu Bhavan), which cared for orphans. These children were housed and fed and given medical aid. When possible, the children were adopted out. Those not adopted were given an education, learned a trade skill, and found marriages.

In India's slums, huge numbers of people were infected with leprosy, a disease that can lead to major disfiguration. At the time, lepers (people infected with leprosy) were ostracized, often abandoned by their families. Because of the widespread fear of lepers, Mother Teresa struggled to find a way to help these neglected people.

Mother Teresa eventually created a Leprosy Fund and a Leprosy Day to help educate the public about the disease and established a number of mobile leper clinics (the first opened in September 1957) to provide lepers with medicine and bandages near their homes.

By the mid-1960s, Mother Teresa had established a leper colony called Shanti Nagar ("The Place of Peace") where lepers could live and work.

International Recognition

Just before the Missionaries of Charity celebrated its 10th anniversary, they were given permission to establish houses outside of Calcutta, but still within India. Almost immediately, houses were established in Delhi, Ranchi, and Jhansi; more soon followed.

For their 15th anniversary, the Missionaries of Charity was given permission to establish houses outside of India. The first house was established in Venezuela in 1965. Soon there were Missionaries of Charity houses all around the world.

As Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity expanded at an amazing rate, so did international recognition for her work. Although Mother Teresa was awarded numerous honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she never took personal credit for her accomplishments. She said it was God's work and that she was just the tool used to facilitate it.


With international recognition also came critique. Some people complained that the houses for the sick and dying were not sanitary, that those treating the sick were not properly trained in medicine, that Mother Teresa was more interested in helping the dying go to God than in potentially helping cure them. Others claimed that she helped people so that she could convert them to Christianity.

Mother Teresa also caused much controversy when she openly spoke against abortion and birth control. Others critiqued her because they believed that with her new celebrity status, she could have worked to end the poverty rather than soften its symptoms.

Later Years and Death

Despite the controversy, Mother Teresa continued to be an advocate for those in need. In the 1980s, Mother Teresa, already in her 70s, opened Gift of Love homes in New York, San Francisco, Denver, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for AIDS sufferers.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Mother Teresa's health deteriorated, but she still traveled the world, spreading her message.

When Mother Teresa, age 87, died of heart failure on Sept. 5, 1997 (just five days after Princess Diana's death), the world mourned her passing. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to see her body, while millions more watched her state funeral on television.

After the funeral, Mother Teresa's body was laid to rest at the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. When Mother Teresa passed away, she left behind more than 4,000 Missionary of Charity Sisters at 610 centers in 123 countries.

Legacy: Becoming a Saint

After Mother Teresa's death, the Vatican began the lengthy process of canonization. After an Indian woman was cured of her tumor after praying to Mother Teresa, a miracle was declared, and the third of the four steps to sainthood was completed on Oct. 19, 2003, when the Pope approved Mother Teresa's beatification, awarding Mother Teresa the title "Blessed."​

The final stage required to become a saint involves a second miracle. On December 17, 2015, Pope Francis recognized the medically inexplicable waking (and healing) of an extremely ill Brazilian man from a coma on December 9, 2008, just minutes before he was to undergo emergency brain surgery as being caused by the intervention of Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa was canonized (pronounced a saint) on September 4, 2016.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Mother Teresa, 'The Saint of the Gutters'." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). Biography of Mother Teresa, 'The Saint of the Gutters'. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Mother Teresa, 'The Saint of the Gutters'." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).