Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun and founder of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, an organization that serves the poorest of the world’s population. An ethnic Albanian, born in what is now Macedonia, she lived and worked in India for nearly seven decades and became a citizen of that country. Her dedication to helping the poorest and sickest communities in Kolkata (then Calcutta) earned Mother Teresa widespread fame and numerous honors, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.

Childhood and Move to India

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910, in what is now Skopje, North Macedonia; at the time it was part of the Ottoman Empire. Her family was of Albanian descent; her father, a reasonably successful merchant, died when she was just eight years old. After his death, the family struggled financially, but her mother instilled in young Agnes the importance of leading a Christian life and serving the less fortunate.

At the age of 12, Agnes first felt a calling to become a nun and devote her life to God. She left home at the age of 18 and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish Catholic order with missions in India. She received training near Dublin, where she began learning English, before traveling to Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), India in late 1928. She took her first vows as a nun in May 1931, and received a new name: Teresa, after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. In 1937, when she took her final vows, she became known as Mother Teresa.

'Call Within a Call'

From 1931 to 1948, Mother Teresa taught geography, history and catechism at St. Mary’s High School in Kolkata. She learned Bengali and Hindi, and eventually became the school’s principal. She also regularly visited the city’s slums and saw how suffering increased there during the devastating famine in 1943, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in India’s Bengal province.

In September 1946, Mother Teresa experienced what she described as a “call within a call” while riding on a train within India. In response, she sought and received permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and live and work in the slums among the city’s sickest and poorest residents. With this move, Mother Teresa began wearing what would become her trademark garb: a white sari with a blue border, later adopted as the habit for the other nuns who worked alongside her.

The Order of the Missionaries of Charity 

In 1950, Mother Teresa received permission from the Holy See to found her own order, the Missionaries of Charity. The order’s purpose was to help the poor while living among them, sharing their experience and treating them with kindness, compassion and empathy, but never pity. Mother Teresa and those who joined her order built various facilities as an open-air school, housing for orphan children, nursing homes for lepers and hospices for terminally ill patients.

Mother Teresa’s order expanded over the years to serve communities outside Kolkata, and in 1965, received permission from Pope Paul VI to expand internationally. It opened its first center in the United States in 1971 in New York City, and would eventually reach around 90 countries.

As her work earned her international renown, Mother Teresa was awarded honors including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize (1971) and the Nehru Prize for her promotion of international peace and understanding (1972). In 1975, she was featured on the cover of TIME magazine and called one of the world’s “living saints.”

Nobel Peace Prize and Criticism

In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what the prize committee cited as her “work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress in the world, which also constitute a threat to peace.” By that time, the Missionaries of Charity included more than 1,800 nuns and 120,000 lay workers, working in more than 80 centers in India and more than 100 other centers internationally. The following year, the Indian government awarded Mother Teresa the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Despite her numerous honors and widespread fame and admiration, Mother Teresa became a target of criticism as well. She held hard-line conservative views against divorce, contraception and abortion, as well as highly traditional views about the role of women in society. Some critics cast doubt on the level of hygiene and care at some of her order’s facilities; others accused her of trying to convert the people she served to Christianity.

Declining Health, Death and Sainthood 

After suffering a heart attack in 1989, Mother Teresa attempted to resign as head of the Missionaries of Charity but was returned to that office by a nearly unanimous vote; hers was the only dissent. In 1997, her worsening health forced her permanent retirement, and the order chose an Indian-born nun, Sister Nirmala, to replace her. Mother Teresa suffered cardiac arrest and died on September 5, 1997, in Kolkata, just days after her 87th birthday.

As the world mourned Mother Teresa’s death, Pope John Paul II issued a special dispensation to speed the process of her canonization, or becoming a saint. In 2003, he beatified Mother Teresa after an Indian woman attributed her recovery from stomach cancer to Mother Teresa’s intercession, which the Vatican recognized as a miracle.

Twelve years later, the Holy See recognized a second miracle, after a Brazilian man recovered from a life-threatening brain infection after his family prayed to Mother Teresa. In September 2016, Pope Francis I officially declared Mother Teresa a saint 19 years after her death—a markedly fast pace for modern times.

“She made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created,” the Pope said in the canonization ceremony, held in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.


Mother Teresa - Biographical. The Nobel Prize.

Eric Pace, “Mother Teresa, Hope of the Despairing, Dies at 87.” The New York Times, September 6, 1997.

Kathryn Spink. Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography, (Harper Collins, 1997).

Elisabetta Povoledo, “Mother Teresa Is Made a Saint by Pope Francis.” The New York Times, September 3, 2016.

Mallika Kapur and Sugam Pokharel, “‘Troubled individual:’ Mother Teresa no saint to her critics.” CNN, September 4, 2016.