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Mother Theresa: The Saint of the Gutters

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa: A Simple Path
1995, by Lucinda Vardey
Ballantine Books, New York

Book reviewed by Rudy Pohl

From the first pages until the last, I was deeply touched by this little book by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here at Ottawa Innercity Ministries, Mother Teresa holds a special place in all our hearts, not only because of her amazing work among India’s poorest of the poor, but also because of her direct influence on OIM’s Director, Susan Brandt, years ago.

In 1988, while working as a public health nurse, Susan sensed a call from God to launch an outreach ministry to the discarded souls who inhabit the streets and shelters of downtown Ottawa. She had just read Something Beautiful for God, an account of how Mother Teresa of Calcutta had founded the Missionaries of Charity and ministered to thousands sick, dying and orphaned outcasts living in one of India’s most impoverished cities.

On an impulse Susan wrote to the woman who had become a world-wide symbol of Christian charity to confide her own budding sense of mission. Susan never expected to get a reply, but six months later a letter arrived with a Calcutta postmark. The brief hand-written note said:

“Dear Susan, thank you very much for letter. Do all for Jesus, with Jesus and to Jesus. God loves you very much and will reward your generous desire of giving of yourself to His poor.”

“It was signed “M Teresa MC.”

That was all the confirmation Susan needed. By June 1988 she had secured sufficient start-up funds from a coalition of local churches to start Ottawa Innercity Ministries together with friend and co-worker Katrine Coward.

In considering what I should write in review of this book, I felt that the words found on the inside book jacket and on the rear cover presented this book far better than I ever could, and so I decided to quote directly from these.

From the inside jacket and rear cover of “Mother Teresa: A simple Path”…

Known around the globe for her indefatigable work on behalf of the poor, the sick and the dying, Mother Teresa has devoted her life to giving hope to the hopeless in more than one hundred and twenty countries. She inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world. How has one woman accomplished so much? And what are the guiding principles that have enabled this humble nun to so profoundly affect the lives of millions?

Now in her own words, Mother Teresa shares the thoughts and experiences that have led her to do her extraordinary charitable work. A candid look at her everyday life—at the very simplicity and self-sacrifice that give her the strength to move mountains—A Simple Path gives voice to the remarkable spirit who has dedicated her life to the poorest among us.

Just as important as her beliefs is how they are put into action in the world, and A Simple Path also tells the story of the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, their purpose and practice, and the results of their tireless work. Through faith, surrender, and prayer, the missionaries live to serve others; they have improved the lives of countless souls and given dignity to the dying. Their mission has also produced a ripple effect, spreading human compassion to communities where there is need.

Through these examples, as well as the uplifting words and guiding prayers of Mother Teresa and those who work with her, everyone can learn how to walk the simple path that Mother Teresa has laid out for us, to help create a truly kinder world for the future.

A Simple Path is a unique spiritual guide for Catholics and non-Catholics alike: full of wisdom and hope from the one person who has given us the greatest model of love in action in our time.

Born in 1910 in the former Yugoslavia, Mother Teresa went to Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnham, Dublin, in 1928 and from there to India where she began her novitiate. She taught geography in St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta from 1929 to 1948 before becoming especially interested in the poorest of the poor. She started her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950. She has won many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and has founded hundreds of homes throughout the world.

* * * * * * *

“We have all been created for greater things—to love and to be loved. Love is love—to love a person without any conditions, without any expectations. Works of love are works of peace and purity. Works of love are always a means of becoming closer to God, so the more we help each other, the more we really love God better by loving each other. Jesus very clearly said: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Love in action is what gives us grace. We pray and, if we are able to love with a whole heart, then we will see the need. Those who are unwanted, unloved, and uncared for become just a throwaway society—that’s why we must really make everybody feel wanted.”

“There is something else to remember—that this kind of love begins at home. We cannot give to the outside what we don’t have on the inside. This very important. If I can’t see God’s love in my brother and sister then how can I see that love in somebody else? Everybody has got some good. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there.”

Protector Guardian

How did this mild-mannered and diminutive Albanian woman create an organization of 570 missions all over the world, comprised of 4000 nuns, a brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers?

Easy: she did it with moral power and determination, plus an absolute certainty of purpose.

“I was traveling to Darjeeling by train, when I heard the voice of God.”

Born in 1910 as the third child of a Catholic family in Skopje, Albania, Agnes Bojaxhiu rarely spoke of her childhood: compared to the glory of working for God, her childhood was unimportant.

Although the early years of Agnes’ life were comfortable, her father, Kole, was murdered when she was a young girl, probably poisoned because of his political activity. A well-to-do businessman, Kole had been generous and kind, always providing money for the family to feed anybody of need who came to their door. He was serious about the children’s education but Agnes’ mother, Drana, a member of the Catholic Sacred Heart congregation, was the more religious of the two.

After Kole’s death, Drana continued to feed and help others despite the family’s significantly reduced circumstances. Agnes, an inherently thoughtful and obedient child, helped and followed her mother in religious and charitable activity.

“The more you invest in the vision, the more it becomes your own.”
– John C. Maxwell, In 360 Leadership

By the age of twelve Agnes had decided that the religious life was for her. She thought and prayed about it for the next six years, until a new Jesuit priest at Sacred Heart, Father Jambrekovic, talked to her about missionary work and passed along written accounts of Yugoslav priests in Calcutta, India.

Agnes soon applied to join the Loreto Sisters, the Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After a brief initiation training in Ireland, she traveled to Calcutta in 1929 with another initiate, entering a world of massive disparity. On one side were well-to-do Hindus, Muslims, and members of the British Raj; on the other were millions of the impoverished.

Calcutta, originally a trading outpost established by the British East Indian Company in 1690, had become industrialized in the 1850s. Once the capital of British India, the city lost its crown in 1911 when the British moved the capital to New Delhi. The city had been sliding economically downhill ever since.

For the first two years the young Loreto novice served in Darjeeling, a hillside resort town north of Calcutta, until taking her vows as Sister Teresa on May 24, 1931. She was then assigned to Calcutta and Loreto Entally. In the heart of the industrial slum area, Entally was a compound of schools walled off from the rest of the city. Such Catholic Missionary schools had found a niche in educating Bengali children who could afford school fees.

Sister Teresa, forbidden to leave the convent alone, was severely restricted and so remained largely ignorant of Indian life. However, in 1935 she began teaching at St Teresa primary school just outside the compound, where she came into daily contact with grinding poverty.

In 1937 she committed herself to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for life, thus becoming Mother Teresa. She then became head mistress of Entally. On Sundays she visited the poor in the bustees, Calcutta’s slum areas.

“This is a new life. Our centre here is very fine. I am a teacher, and I love the work. I am also the Head of the whole school, and everybody wishes me well.”

Calcutta and the Bengal region continued its economic downslide, and during World War II the demands of war on the British Empire brought increased disruption. In 1943 famine struck, several million died, and many converged on Calcutta seeking food and work. When the British military took over the Entally compound and created a hospital, the school and Mother Teresa were forced to move elsewhere in Calcutta. After the war, she and her students moved back to the old compound. Soon the city was engulfed by India’s quest for independence and the clash between Muslims and Hindus.

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
– Archilochus

On August 16, 1946 Calcutta broke into major violence. In search of food for her pupils, Mother Teresa left the compound. “We were not to supposed to go out in the streets,” she later observed, “but I went anyway. Then I saw the bodies.” Stopped by the troops, she was escorted back to the compound in a lorry with bags of rice.

During 1946, Mother Teresa was often weak and ill, but she found it difficult to stay in bed and not work. Concerned about her health, her superiors directed her to enter a retreat in Darjeeling for “spiritual renewal.”

Inspiration Day

On the dusty train to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa heard a “call within call” — “I was sure it was God’s voice. The message was clear. I must leave the convent to help the poor by living with them. This was a command, something to be done. Something definite. I knew where I had to be. But I did not know to get there.” To serve the “poorest of the poor” was her idea. This was her hedgehog concept that would serve her for the rest of her life.

Father Van Exem was entrusted by Mother Teresa with a request for guidance and advice. Based on her notes, a plan was formulated. “She was to leave Loreto but was to keep her vows. She was to start a new congregation. That congregation would work for the poorest of the poor in the slums in a spirit of poverty and cheerfulness. There would be a special vow of charity for the poor. There would be no institutions, hospitals, or big dispensaries. The work was to be among the abandoned, those with nobody, the very poorest.”

Van Exem felt that Mother Teresa should apply for an indult of exclaustration, allowing her to leave the convent but stay within the Catholic Church. However, her superior, Archbishop Perier, believed that an indult of secularization, where she would become a layman again, was more appropriate. In the end, Rome decided on an indult of exclaustration; she would no longer be a Loreto nun, but would operate under the Archbishop. When informed of the decree, her response was merely: “Father, can I go to the slums now?”

Theologically and temperamentally, Mother Teresa was a firm believer in strict adherence to regulations regarding discipline, housekeeping, religious dress, and uniform styles of prayer. She never questioned the Catholic church in its teachings, rules, and conventions.

“To leave Loreto was my greatest sacrifice,” she recalled, “the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was much more difficult than to leave my family and country to enter religious life.”

Initially she used a small room from a sister organization, Little Sisters of the Poor, as her base, but soon found a room on the second floor of a house on Creek Lane, near the slum of Motijhil. Mother Teresa didn’t need much of anything to start working with the “poorest of the poor.” Her accommodations were spartan; at first she didn’t even have a bed.

In December Mother Teresa obtained permission to open a slum school an open space among the huts. The children squatted in the dirt, and Mother Teresa scratched the letters of the Bengali alphabet in the mud with a stick. From this humble beginning, she slowly built a strong following among the poor. There were times when she went hungry or was forced to ask others for food.

Guardians are natural Good-Samaritans, ever on the lookout for ways to help their fellow man, especially when it comes to matters of food, clothing, and shelter. [ Please Understand Me II , p94]

“I saw a woman dying on the street outside Campbell Hospital. I picked her up and took her to the hospital but she was refused admission because she was poor. She died on the street. I knew then that I must make a home for the dying , a resting place for people going to Heaven.”

In 1949 one of Mother Teresa’s pupils from Entally joined her. Soon there were others. They began the work of serving the poorest of the poor, begging from door to door, taking what they gathered to those who were starving in the streets, comforting the sick and the dying, and teaching children.

Be willing to do what others won’t do.
– John C. Maxwell, In 360 Leadership

Mother Teresa was tireless; throughout the day she exhibited zeal and general optimism, and nothing could get in her way. She was fearless in the way she attacked work; nothing was too menial or too great an obstacle. Sisters competed to see if they could get up sooner than she did in the morning; they often failed, even when Mother Teresa had worked late the night before.

The least hedonistic of all types, the Protectors are willing to work long, long hours doing all the thankless jobs the other types seem content to ignore. [ Please Understand Me II , p113]

Mother Teresa was effective in leading by example. For instance, one day a new Sister discovered a filthy toilet and hid, horrified with disgust. From her hiding place she observed Mother Teresa happen by, roll up her sleeves, quickly clean the toilet, and continue on her way. The new (and now-shamed) Sister never forgot the lesson.

Mother Teresa didn’t concentrate on her leadership style; she focused on serving the poorest of the poor she created her organizations solely for that purpose. She had no interest in leading, only in serving God.

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.

We are all pencils in the hand of God.”


People are often unreasonable,
illogical, and self-centered;
forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may
accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you
will win some false friends
and some true enemies;
succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you;
be honest and frank anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous;
be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people
will often forget tomorrow;
do good anyways.

Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
give the world the best
you have anyways.

You see, in the final analysis,
all of this is between
you and God.

It was never between
you and them anyway.

Wisdom # 2

If you help only one person please help one person and dont worry about the other 99 you can’t help,

Our involvement with our hands and our feet, our voices and our hearts is all the poor can count on.

n poverty
“I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?” — 1974 interview.

“When I see waste here, I feel angry on the inside. I don’t approve of myself getting angry. But it’s something you can’t help after seeing Ethiopia.” — Washington 1984.


On the Nobel Peace Prize
“I choose the poverty of our poor people. But I am grateful to receive (the Nobel) in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the lepers, of 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.” — Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, 1979.


On war
“I have never been in a war before, but I have seen famine and death. I was asking (myself), ‘What do they feel when they do this?’ I don’t understand it. They are all children of God. Why do they do it? I don’t understand.” — Beirut 1982, during fighting between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas.

“Please choose the way of peace. … In the short term there may be winners and losers in this war that we all dread. But that never can, nor never will justify the suffering, pain and loss of life your weapons will cause.” — Letter to U.S. President George Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, January 1991.


On abortion
Abortion “is murder in the womb … A child is a gift of God. If you do not want him, give him to me.”


On retirement
“God will find another person, more humble, more devoted, more obedient to him, and the society will go on.” — Calcutta 1989, after announcing her intention to retire.

“I was expecting to be free, but God has his own plans.” — Calcutta 1990, when the sisters of her order persuaded her to withdraw her resignation.


On her life’s work
“The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven. And St. Peter said, ‘Go back to Earth. There are no slums up here.'” — Quoted as telling Prince Michael of Greece in 1996.

Mother Teresa’s Biography

Mother Teresa was born August 27, 1910, in Skopje, Macedonia, as Gonxhe Bojaxhiu from Albanian parents Nikollë and Drandafille Bojaxhiu.

Her father was a successful and well known contractor, her mother was a housewife.She was the youngest of three children.

Mother Teresa’s family was a devoted catholic family, they prayed every evening and went to church almost everyday.
It was her family’s generosity, care for the poor and the less fortunate that made a great impact on young Mother Teresa’s life.

By age 12, she had made up her mind, she realized that her vocation was aiding the poor.
She decides to become a nun, travels to Dublin, Ireland, to join the Sisters of Loretto.
After about a year in Ireland, she leaves to join the Loretto convent in the northeast Indian city of Darjeeling, where she spent 17 years teaching and being principal of St.Mary’s high school in Calcutta.

In 1946, her life changed forever.

While riding a train to the mountain town of Darjeeling to recover from suspected tuberculosis, on the 10th of September she said she received a calling from God “to serve him among the poorest of the poor.”
Less then a year later she gets permission from to leave her order and moves to Calcutta’s slums to set up her first school.
“Sister Agnes” who was a former student, becomes Mother Teresa’s first follower.

Others soon follow, and papal approval arrives to create a religious order of nuns called the Missionaries of Charity.
The foundation is celebrated Oct. 7 1950, the feast of the Holy Rosary.
To identify herself with the poor she chooses a plain white sari with a blue border and a simple cross pinned to her left shoulder.
Their mission is as she would say hen she accepted the Nobel Peace prize: “to care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, 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.”

With the help of Calcutta officials she converts a portion of the abandoned temple to Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction into Kalighat Home for the Dying, where even the poorest people would die with dignity.

Soon after she opens Nirmal Hriday (“Pure Heart”), also a home for the dying, Shanti Nagar (Town of Peace), a leper colony and later her first orphanage.

Mother Teresa and the sisters continued opening houses all over India caring for the poor, washing their wounds, soothing their sores, making them feel wanted.

But her order’s work spread across the world after 1965, when Pope Paul VI granted Mother Teresa’s request to globally expand her order.

Whether it was in Ethiopia feeding the hungry, the ghettos of South Africa or it was her native country Albania when the communist regime collapsed, Calcutta’s Mother Teresa “the living saint” was there.

In 1982, at the height of the siege in Beirut she
convinced the parties to stop the war so she could rescue 37 sick children trapped inside .

Mother Teresa became a symbol of untiring commitment to the poor and suffering.

She was probably the most admired women of all time, received many rewards and prices for her outstanding work and she used her reputation traveling all over the world raising money and support for her causes.

1962: She received the Pandma Shri prize for “extraordinary services”

1971: Pope Paul VI honors Mother Teresa by awarding her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize.

1972: Government of India presents her with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.

1979: Wins Nobel Peace Prize

1985: President Reagan presents her the Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award.

1996: She becomes only the fourth person in the world to receive an honorary U.S. citizenship.

When she received the Nobel Prize she wore the same trademark 1$ sari and convinced the committee to cancel a dinner in her honor, using they money instead to ” feed 400 poor children for a year in India”

Today Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity now has 570 missions all over the world, comprising of 4000 nuns, a brotherhood of 300 members and over100,000 lay volunteers operating homes for AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis patients; soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, orphanages, and schools.

Mother Teresa’s health was deteriorating, part from her age, part from the conditions where she was living, part from her trips all over the world, opening new houses and raising money for the poor.

1985:She suffers a heart attack while in Rome visiting Pope John Paul II.

1989: Another almost fatal heart attack, a pacemaker is implanted.

1991: She suffers pneumonia in Tijuana, Mexico which leads to heart failure.

1996: Suffers malaria, chest infection and undergoes heart surgery.

On march 13th 1997: Sister Nirmala is selected as Mother Teresa’s successor.

September 5th 1997 :The world learns that Mother Teresa “Angel Of Mercy” has died at age 87.


Mother Teresa and the Beggar Boy

One day Mother Teresa came back from her work in the slums. As she walked to her residence, a beggar boy stood suddenly in front of her and asked her to accept his income of that day: ten rupees. Mother Teresa was very surprised and at first she refused, saying to the boy, ‘Oh no, you have earned this little money for yourself, for your own food.’ But the boy insisted that she accept the money. Reluctantly she took the ten rupees. She said that the boy was happier than she had ever seen anyone who had given her a lot of money.

Involuntarily we are reminded of the Bible story of the widow and her two small coins,* of whom Jesus says, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to line on.’

This is a true story, that I heard from Mother Teresa, when I was a theological student at bishop’s College in Calcutta.
*Mark 12:41–4

Paul Sarker
Pilgrim People