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Mother Teresa's life serves as a model of spiritual and religious development, and represents well how giving to others allows some to transcend self and achieve a heightened level of religious and/or spiritual development. Her life has had an immense impact on the spiritual and religious development of thousands of people around the world.
Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia. Her birth name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She was raised Catholic by parents who cared for the poor and the less fortunate. Her family's generosity was to have a significant impact on her life. She became engaged in religious communities as a teenager, becoming a member of Sodality, a youth group in her local parish. Her participation in this group and her interactions with Jesuits sparked an interest in missionary work. By age 17, Agnes was called to her first vocation as a Catholic nun, joining the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish order that did a significant amount of work in India. It was when she took her vows as a Sister of Loreto that young Agnes took the name Teresa after Saint Therese of Avila. She chose the Sisters of Loreto because of their vocation to provide education for girls.
Mother Teresa was sent to India where she taught geography and catechism in a local Catholic high school. By the time she was in her early forties, she became principal of this school. During her time as principal, Teresa caught tuberculosis and was sent away for treatment. On a train ride to Darjeeling, where she was to recuperate, Mother Teresa received her calling to leave the convent and dedicate her life to the extreme poor. She soon came across a woman dying in the street directly in front of a hospital. She stayed with the woman until she died and from then on dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor. She received permission from the Pope via the Archbishop of Calcutta to live as an independent nun. After a short training period with the Medical Mission Sisters in Patna, she returned to Calcutta and found temporary lodging with the Little Sisters of the Poor. Her work with the extreme poor started in a slum school. She would also visit sick people at their homes to nurse them. Shortly after starting this work, former students of hers joined her in dedicating their lives to caring for the destitute and sick, particularly those who were turned away by the hospitals. She soon received Vatican permission to start her own order whose mission was to serve "the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." This group of missionaries was recognized as the Missionaries of Charity by the Calcutta Diocese. To identify herself with the poor she wore a plain white sari with a blue border and a simple cross pinned to her left shoulder.
After almost 50 years of work, the Missionaries of Charity had grown from 12 sisters in India to over 3,000 in 517 missions throughout 100 countries around the world. Mother Teresa's work inspired other Catholics to affiliate themselves with her order. The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was founded in 1963, and a contemplative branch of the Sisters followed in 1976. Lay Catholics and non-Catholics began to enroll themselves in the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity. In answer to the requests of many priests, Mother Teresa also began the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests. Mother Teresa's goodness affected thousands of people. She was one of the first leading figures to advocate and care for victims of leprosy and HIV/AIDs. For her work on behalf of the world's neediest people, Mother Teresa received many awards, including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, India's Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the Koruna Dut angel of charity award from the president of India, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and the Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian in the United States.
Mother Teresa was an active lobbyist and advocate for human rights around the world. Her dedication to protect the rights of the world's most vulnerable was made clear when, at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast sponsored by the leading political figures of the United States, Mother Teresa challenged the audience to fight against abortion and, rather than abort babies, to give all the unwanted children to her care. Not surprisingly, Teresa received the criticism of many pro-choice and family-planning advocates.
Mother Teresa had suffered from heart problems and had two rather severe heart attacks in the 1980s. Later in life, she contracted malaria and was treated for a chest infection. She was hospitalized in the United States with pneumonia, and later hospitalized in Mexico for congestive heart failure. Mother Teresa died of cardiac arrest at the age of 87 in her convent in India. Her Order of Charity continues to serve the poorest of the poor in five continents.
Following her death, the Pope began the process of beatification of Teresa, which is the first step toward sainthood. Beatification requires evidence of a miracle occurring at the hands of the person in question. The Vatican recognized a miracle at the hands of Teresa in 2002 for the curing of a tumor in an Indian woman's stomach. Although there was some controversy behind the accuracy of the story, Teresa was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003 with the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Evidence of a second miracle is needed for her to be canonized.
Mother Teresa's gifts to the world live on in her missions. Her life and work will continue to serve as a role model to people throughout the world, and as a leading example of heightened levels of spiritual and religious development.