Real Women of Genius talks to a woman hailed as a saint during her lifetime who was beatified in 2003 by Pope John II just six years after her death. She is known as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Blessed Teresa, when did you first believe that you were being called by God?
I was 12 years old when I became sure of it. I was very interested in missionary work. When I was 18 I went to Ireland to join the Sisters of Loreto and from there I travelled to Calcutta to take my vows as a nun.
I believe you had a sister. Did you see her again after that?
No, I saw neither my mother nor my sister again.
I think at some time you worked as a teacher?
That was between 1931 and 1948 at an Indian convent school. First I was teacher and then headmistress.
You witnessed great suffering in India, as I understand it?
You have to remember that around the time of Indian independence there were many clashes, particularly at the time of the severance and Pakistan and India became separate states. There was much violence between Hindus and Muslims.
There was, of course, already much suffering because of the great poverty that existed in the country, and the violence served only to make it worse than it already was.
Did this prompt you to change course with your work?
After Christ called me whilst travelling one day, I obtained permission to work alone in the slums.
After I started an open-air school, volunteers joined me and we received some donations.
Did a time come when you were given permission by the Vatican to start your own order?
Yes. We called that the Missions of Charity. We saw it as our task to look after those who no-one else cared for: those on the edge of society who were in poor health, without a home, sustenance or a family to care for them. That was in 1950.
So many of these people were otherwise seen as a burden upon the state.
You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Was that because of your desire to eliminate poverty?
I think the remedy for the poor is quite simple. It is the wealthy who require my sympathy. I consider that being unwanted, unloved, uncared for and forgotten by everybody is a much greater hunger and poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.
Let me repeat to you what I said when I received the Nobel Peace Prize. I have never forgotten bringing a man in from the streets. He was covered with maggots. His face was the only place that was clean.
And yet, that man, when we brought him to our room for the dying, said just one sentence: “I have lived like an animal in the streets but I am going to die like an angel with love and care.” He died beautifully. He went home to God.
It has been said that despite the very large funds you were ultimately able to raise, your care of the sick and dying was haphazard, to say the least, and there were no systematic diagnoses of them?
Whatever I did would not please everybody and there was only one to whom I was answerable.
Would you care to remind us of the answer you gave to the question “What can we do to promote world peace?”
Go home and love your family. There is an enormous hunger for love in the
world. We all experience pain and
loneliness in our lives and we must have courage to recognise that.
You may have the poor right there in your family, and you should find them and love them.
Likewise, you were fiercely opposed to contraception?
By 1997 the Missionaries of Charity had grown to a million workers in 40 countries, hadn’t it?
Yes, and it included 4,000 sisters involved in worldwide
AIDS hospices and charity centres around the world as well as orphanages.
They cared for the blind, disabled, refugees, the poor and homeless, the disabled, and victims of floods, epidemics and famine.
You have travelled the world in the course of your calling?
In one way or another that is so. By the end of my life I was involved in the operation of 517 missions in over 100 countries.
In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, you received many other awards including honorary degrees, prizes and orders of merit?
It was all in the course of my work to help the world’s needy. We will not be judged by the number of diplomas we receive, how much money we have made or how many great things we have done.
We will be judged by recognising hunger and proffering something to eat, by clothing the naked and taking in the homeless.
You were born on 26 August 1910 and were, by blood, an Albanian, although you later took Indian citizenship?
You suffered declining health from 1983 when you had a first heart attack, and then a second in 1989 when you were given a pacemaker?
Yes. There were further problems after I had pneumonia in 1991. Eventually I underwent heart surgery in 1996.
You died on 5 September 1997 and you were given a state funeral by the Indian government?
Almost six months after stepping down as head of the Missionaries of Charity.
What would be your final message about God?
As I have said before, there is only one God and he is God to all, and it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God.
We should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic. Our work should be our example to people.
Keep your eyes open for more Real Women of Genius as they are added to this site and look also at Real Men of Genius for further examples.
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