Mother Teresa: A Quarter-Century Later, It’s Like She Never Left

Missionaries of Charity celebrate Mother Teresa as anniversary draws near.

Clockwise from left: Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic religious sister and missionary with the Missionaries of Charity, who lived most of her life in India, holds a prayer candle on Aug. 10, 1994. Mother Teresa is shown attending the 1994 synod as an invited auditor. The canonization Mass for St. Teresa of Calcutta was celebrated by Pope Francis on Sept. 4, 2016, in St. Peter's Square.
Clockwise from left: Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic religious sister and missionary with the Missionaries of Charity, who lived most of her life in India, holds a prayer candle on Aug. 10, 1994. Mother Teresa is shown attending the 1994 synod as an invited auditor. The canonization Mass for St. Teresa of Calcutta was celebrated by Pope Francis on Sept. 4, 2016, in St. Peter's Square. (photo: Register / Vatican Media)

Twenty-five years after Mother Teresa’s death, members of the religious congregation she founded say they feel closer to her now than they did when she was alive — even those who knew her personally.

“It’s really amazing that that much time has passed. Mother is so alive to us — like, very alive and very with us,” said Sister Paula Marie, regional superior of Our Lady, Gate of Heaven-West Coast region of the Missionaries of Charity in Pacifica, California, which includes 16 houses and about 95 sisters.

That’s partly because of the faith the sisters have that she is in heaven and intercedes for them with God frequently. But it also stems from documents published after her death that give a clearer picture of why she founded the Missionaries of Charity and the interior struggles she went through during the following 50 years.

“Since she didn’t feel God’s presence, she felt rejected by God. She understood it wasn’t a dark night of the soul like other saints experienced, but really it was a share in the rejection of the poor by the world — so a kind of spiritual sharing with them,” said Sister Clare, who joined in 1979 and has lived in the order’s Bronx convent during the past 17 years. “So it helps us deepen our own vocation when suffering comes into our lives.”


How They’re Marking the Occasion

As they do every year during the nine-day period before the anniversary of her death, sisters in the Missionaries of Charity are praying a novena that focuses on sayings of Mother Teresa.

At Queen of Peace, one of the order’s houses in San Francisco, the novenas are public and include a reflection by a priest. Themes include “God Loves a Cheerful Giver,” “True Love Is Surrender,” “Our Lady Will Help You,” and “Hear Him Say to You, ‘I Thirst.’” Some members of the public who have gone to the novena this week have stayed later to pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the sisters, Sister Paula Marie said.

On the actual anniversary — Sept. 5 — Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco plans to celebrate Mass with the sisters and their special guests, poor and homeless people who have been invited.

Later that day, three groups of sisters — each including novices, tertians (who are farther along) and professed sisters — and a priest plan to go out into the streets offering special to-go meals, music, hair-cutting, pedicures and manicures to poor people, along with clothing and blankets. Also to be distributed are Mother Teresa medals, pendants with a crucifix and a St. Benedict medal, and Mother Teresa prayer cards.

In St. Louis, as in many other places, the morning Mass on the anniversary is be followed by a soup kitchen — just as usual. Acting out charity and love in the usual way is a common theme for the 25th anniversary.

One sister, asked what the 25th anniversary means to her, described it in terms not much different from how sisters might have described it when Mother Teresa was still on earth.

“For me, that she’s our mother, and she wants to see us living her charism that she gave us — to see Jesus in the poor and to bring them to him,” said Sister Davis, the superior of the order’s St. Louis convent and who was in formation in Kolkata with Mother Teresa.


Who Was Mother Teresa?

Born in 1910 into an Albanian Catholic family in what is now North Macedonia, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu as a girl wanted to be a missionary in India. At 18, she joined the Sisters of Loreto and spent time in Ireland learning English before being sent to India. For her religious name, she picked the Spanish spelling of St. Thèrése of Lisieux, known as the “Little Flower.”

She had been in India for 17 years when she felt what she later described as “the call within the call” to serve “the poorest of the poor,” eventually founding a new religious congregation in Kolkata for that purpose.

Mother Teresa became world famous starting in the 1960s, both for her work in India and for the Missionaries of Charity houses she founded elsewhere, including in the United States. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for what the committee called her assistance to “the loneliest, the most wretched, and the dying … without condescension, based on reverence for man.” She frequently appeared in top-10 lists of “Most-Admired Women” — including 18 times in Gallup polls. A Gallup poll in 1999 found her the most-admired person of the century among Americans. 

She also drew criticism in India and in the West from those who disparaged the medical practices of her homes for the dying, deplored her opposition to abortion and contraception, and accused her of pushing Catholicism. The Vatican took testimony from two prominent critics against her beatification. Even so, she was beatified in 2003 and canonized in 2016.

She died on Sept. 5, 1997, at age 87.

While the Church officially calls her St. Teresa of Calcutta, most people still call her simply “Mother Teresa,” as Pope Francis acknowledged during her canonization Mass in September 2016.

“Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded. She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that ‘the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable.’ She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity,” Pope Francis said during his homily.


Movie and Masses

A new documentary film about Mother Teresa premiered at the Vatican on Aug. 31 and is scheduled to premiere in the United States on Oct. 3. Called Mother Teresa: No Greater Love, it is produced by the Knights of Columbus.

In addition to San Francisco, in several other cities in the United States, the local bishop is planning to celebrate Mass with the Missionaries of Charity and specially invited poor people. That’s the case in Boston, New York City and St. Louis, among other places.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, who plans to celebrate Mass at the sisters’ convent in the Dorchester neighborhood of the city, met with Mother Teresa often.

“It was my privilege to be with Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Calcutta) on many occasions, in many different parts of the world — in Cuba, Nicaragua, Rome, New York and Washington, as well as in the Diocese of Fall River, where I was bishop,” Cardinal O’Malley said in an email message to the Register through a spokesman, from Rome, where he was attending the recent meeting of the College of Cardinals. “She had a connection with so many people. We were blessed by her vocation and the work of the Missionaries of Charity. She changed lives and the world for the better.” 


As Her Sisters Remember Her

All of the original members of the Missionaries of Charity who joined in the 1940s have died. But many remain who worked with Mother Teresa in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

They remember a clear-eyed visionary who was firm but gentle and who cared about them and those she met.

“She was down-to-earth and wholly set upon Jesus. And yet at the same time, so attentive with a delicate care about everything happening to everyone around her — the people, their needs, even small needs,” said Sister Clare in the Bronx, who grew up in Connecticut and joined the Missionaries of Charity in 1979. “What I learned most from her, and what she really wanted us to have, was intimacy with Jesus. She said, ‘Sisters, you must be a mother, a sister and a friend to the poor.’ And that can only come from our intimacy with Jesus.”

The sisters’ convent in New York is in Mott Haven, reputedly the roughest neighborhood of the South Bronx. In that unlikely spot, Princess Diana met with Mother Teresa for about a half-hour in June 1997. They spoke together privately while the other sisters were in the chapel, and then Mother Teresa brought her into the chapel to meet the sisters, recounted Sister Clare, who was there.

Within two and a half months, both would be dead. Their televised state funerals, which took place a week apart, drew millions of viewers worldwide.


Little Is Okay

Yet the order and its founder are not about the famous, but about the lowly.

For Sister Jonathan, the regional superior of the Midwest, which includes 17 houses and 84 sisters, Mother Teresa’s anniversary is a chance every year for the sisters to renew their reflection on their founder’s words and humility.

“The simplicity of Mother, her telling us about the nothingness more and more. And our poverty is really the nothingness — to depend on God. And it’s okay to be little,” Sister Jonathan said.

She described encounters on the street with drug addicts who talk and even pray with the sisters.

“For me, it’s very rewarding, because people will say, ‘Please pray for me,’” Sister Jonathan said. “They know we care for them, and we love them.”


The Future

Members of religious orders often talk about their order’s “charism,” which can be thought of as the order’s gifts from God for the Church and the world, to be lived out in a certain way, usually in accord with the particular call of the order’s founder.

New members of the Missionaries of Charity, including six aspirants currently at the order’s house in Chicago, are embracing the spirit of the order, Sister Paula Marie said.

“It’s beautiful to see in our sisters — how much they love it, how much they want to protect it,” Sister Paula Marie said of the charism. “The young people who are coming in, they want that charism. They don’t want some diluted version of it.”

While religious life isn’t for everyone, getting close to God is. Mother Teresa is lionized as a giant of the 20th century and in the history of the Catholic Church. 

But Sister Paula Marie said the real story is about what God can do for anyone who adopts Mother Teresa’s themes of loving trust, cheerfulness and total surrender.

“For me, it’s just that recognition of what happens in a human being who gives herself totally to God,” Sister Paula Marie said. “Look at how much she was loved. Look at how much she gave herself to God. That’s what we’re celebrating.”