Mother Teresa focused on saving the world, one person at a time. Her work, and that of The Missionaries of Charity, which she founded, focuses on helping the poorest of the poor. Her many projects included work among slum-dwellers, children’s homes, medical clinics, schools, a leper colony, shelters for the dying, orphanages and homes for the mentally ill. Beginning in Calcutta, her missions expanded throughout India and then throughout the world, eventually including over 200 different operations in 25 countries. Her numerous awards include the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.
It is often said that humanitarians love humanity but don’t care much for individual human beings; this could not have been less true in the case of Mother Teresa. She believed that each individual human being has value, and she focused on helping individuals rather than on political action. Her personal appeal helped to attract both financial support and volunteers. Those who met her remarked that she seemed both very practical and, at the same time, saintly. Mother Teresa was a physically tiny person – about 5 feet tall – but her bright eyes radiated energy. Unlike many of those who attempt to change the world, she did not exhibit rage or indignation – simply a profound desire to help those in need, regardless of the cause of that need. Her devout Roman Catholicism was manifested in private prayer and social work rather than public preaching, although she did express her opposition to abortion and contraception.
The woman now known as the most famous nun of the 20th century was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in the city of Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia. Her parents were Albanian; her father managed a small farm. At age 12 she believed she had a calling to help the poor; she became a nun when she was 18. While serving as the principal of a Roman Catholic high school in Calcutta, she was moved by the plight of the sick and the poor living in the streets. In 1948 she began the ministry among the sick and the poor that would later become known as the Missionaries of Charity. Members of the order are required to take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service to the poor. When Mother Teresa died, millions of the poor and the destitute lined the streets of Calcutta to give their final farewell as her body was carried to the official state funeral.