Mother Teresa, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 17, 1979, was declared a saint by Pope Francis in 2016. Here, we take a look at how she went beyond her means to help the needy.
By Sonia Mehta
The Sisters working with Mother Teresa led a hard life and she was strict with her nuns. They woke up at the crack of dawn and worked till long after the sun had set and people were asleep everywhere. Lunch was a very simple and quick affair. There was only one source of water at the place they lived. The Sisters would wake up extra early to wash their saris, which were laundered in strict rotation. Three hundred nuns would get up at 4.30 a.m. to do this. Just imagine that! ‘We must spend as much time as possible with the people we are trying to help,’ Mother Teresa would tell the Sisters. She opened a school in Motijhil in Calcutta and the Sisters would spend the day teaching little children, giving them food and looking after them when they were ill. As more and more people joined her, Mother Teresa began to open more schools. People heard of her work and began to come forward to help with land or money. One day, the president of an international business came to see Mother Teresa to offer her a plot of land for her use. Being a businessman, he was curious about how she managed her finances.
‘How do you manage to raise money for your work?’ he asked her outright. Mother Teresa looked at him for a few moments. Finally she asked him, ‘Why did you decide to come here?’ ‘I felt a calling from within to help,’ the man replied. ‘Well, then, there is your answer,’ she said, eyes twinkling. ‘You are my source of money.’ In this manner, over the next few years, Mother Teresa had set up several schools which had their own building, thanks to the money given to her by various people. But now, she was faced with another problem. Even though India had become independent by this time, the country had been split into two separate parts—India and Pakistan. People were displaced from their homes and there were riots between the Hindus and the Muslims. In 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was killed. There was even more bloodshed and riots as people were angry over his death. With more people becoming homeless, Mother Teresa’s work increased. One day, around the year 1951, Mother Teresa came across an old man, who looked very sick and in great pain. She stopped at once. ‘This man should be in hospital,’ she thought to herself. ‘Who are you and where is your family?’ she asked the man gently.
It’s True! ‘Being unwanted is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.’ Mother Teresa
‘I have no family. I am an untouchable. So no doctor will touch me or treat me,’ he said, coughing hard. Mother Teresa was saddened. She decided to help. There were many people who were very old and ailing. There was no one to look after them during their last days. Her mother Drana’s words echoed in her ears: ‘All people are our people.’ Remembering this, she got into action. But where would she take such people? And how would she look after them? God answered her prayers. Officials in the Indian government had seen how much the nuns were helping the needy. They decided to support Mother Teresa in her mission. They found an old temple in Kalighat that had been abandoned and offered it to Mother Teresa. She was delighted!
In that old temple, in the year 1952, she made her first ‘Home for the Dying’. She called the home Nirmal Hriday, which means pure heart. You would think Mother Teresa was now happy. She had managed to do what she had always dreamed of. But no, she wasn’t satisfied at all! You see, there was so much more to be done. The children whom the Sisters educated lived on the streets. Many of them were orphans with no home to go back to.
Mother Teresa decided to give must give such children a home as well as an education. She now began to open orphanages. In a few years, more than ninety children had been given a loving home. There were still a large number of people in Calcutta without access to medical attention and hospitalization. One evening, as she prayed, she had an idea. ‘I can’t take so many people to a hospital, so why don’t I bring the hospital to them?’ she thought. She clapped her hands in delight. Here was an idea that could make a difference. And so, she created a ‘mobile hospital’. This was a van that had everything a hospital has—a bed, medicines and doctors. The van drove all around Calcutta, giving medicines to those who needed them and making sure they were looked after.
Around this time, Mother Teresa did something that no one could believe. She began to help people who had leprosy. Leprosy is a dreadful disease, in which people get terrible sores on their body. What makes the disease even more dangerous is that it can spread through touch. So you can imagine how doctors and nurses hated to go near those affected with this illness with this illness. People with leprosy were called lepers and were made to live apart from others in specific colonies.
Did You Know? An American journalist once came to interview Mother Teresa. He saw her treating a leper, who had ulcers that smelt awful. He turned away in disgust, saying, ‘I wouldn’t touch that man for a million dollars.’ Mother Teresa looked at him and said, ‘For a million dollars, I wouldn’t touch him either. I would do it for Jesus.’
But Mother Teresa had no fear. She went right into such colonies to look after leprosy patients. Soon she set up a colony for lepers called Shanti Nagar, near Asansol, and this was followed by leprosy clinics in Calcutta.
It’s True! Once, Pope John Paul visited Mother Teresa. He was an important man and was driven around in a car. When he left, he donated the car to the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa promptly sold it and used the money she got to start Shanti Nagar.
And so, Mother Teresa and her Sisters began to change the way missionaries worked. They showed the whole world that all people, whether they had a disease, whether they were untouchable, old or poor, were their own people.
(Excerpted with permission from Junior Lives: Mother Teresa, authored by Sonia Mehta, published by Puffin India. MRP: Rs. 150.)