MOTHER TERESA - A Biography by Meg Greene, chapter name ANSWERING THE CALL


As the train pulled away from the Zagreb station on its way to Paris, Gonxha must have thought about the consequences of her decision. Not only was she leaving family and friends, she was also leaving the only home she had ever known. If the Loreto Sisters accepted her application it would mean lifetime separation from her family and her country. She could prob- ably never even visit her homeland again. The chances of her family visit- ing her were equally remote; travel was expensive and there would be little opportunity for her mother, brother, or sister to come to India. Whether she felt sad and lonely as the train rolled on toward Paris, Gonxha knew that she had made the right choice. Her life belonged to God.



The order that Gonxha hoped to join has a long and difficult history. In 1609, an English woman named Mary Ward established the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), with which the Loreto Sisters are affili- ated. Ward believed passionately in the equality of women, and deter- mined that they should be educated accordingly. In creating the IBVM, Ward envisioned women living and acting in the world. She did not want members of the Institute to live cloistered lives, as was the tradition for Catholic women’s religious orders. Rather, inspired by the Gospels, women would carry the love of Christ to those most in need of it: the poor, the downtrodden, and the helpless. Ward also saw this woman- centered order as being relatively free from the governance of male hier- archy that dominated the church.

Ward took as her model the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Founded in 1539 by Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier turned priest, the Jesuits were not only missionaries but teachers. Loyola believed that by offering reli- gious and moral instruction, by making devotional life accessible to the young, and by preaching a message of service to others, the Jesuits offered the greatest service to God and His holy church.

Ward’s interest in Catholic education arose in part because of the con- tinuing religious persecution of Catholics in England after King Henry VIII broke with the church in 1534; as a result, English Catholics often fled and sought their religious education on the continent. Ward and her associates established their first school at St. Omer, France. While there, Ward and her group became known to the locals as the English Ladies, a description still applied throughout much of Western Europe. Despite fac- ing continuous financial difficulty, Ward in time established houses and schools in Bavaria (Germany), Austria, and Italy. To communicate with these different convents, Ward traveled between countries mostly on foot. Although successful, Ward’s vision came at a price. Her ideas about women’s role in religious life were so novel, especially in the Catholic world, that in 1631, church authorities suppressed the Institute. Charged with heresy, Mary was herself imprisoned by the Inquisition and briefly excommunicated, or banned, from the Roman Catholic Church. Only through the intervention of Pope Urban VIII was she eventually freed and reinstated to full church membership, her organization now operating under papal protection.

In 1639, Ward returned to England where the climate toward Catho- lics had improved during the reign of King Charles I, who had married a Catholic princess and was himself sympathetic to Catholicism. Ward re- mained in England until she died in Yorkshire in 1645. Upon her death, the Institute was in shambles. Embroiled in a civil war against his politi- cal and religious enemies—a war he was destined to lose, and with it his kingdom and his head—Charles could offer the order scant protection. Radical English Protestants, known as the Puritans, who prevailed in the civil war against Charles, disbanded Ward’s houses and schools in En- gland. In 1650, the year after Puritan leaders had executed Charles, the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary again fled England, seeking refuge in Catholic France. Not until 1677 did they return to Yorkshire under the protection of Charles II, the son of Charles I who had been restored to the throne in 1660. Like his father, Charles II was sympathetic to Catholi- cism. It was only through the perseverance of Ward’s followers, and the protection that both the Vatican and the English crown extended, that the IBVM survived to continue the work that she had inspired.


Recognizing the need for Catholic education in their homeland, Irish church officials invited the IBVM sisters to establish a school in Dublin. However, the Institute was not in a position to send Sisters immediately, but arranged that a young local woman, Frances Ball, would join the or- ganization and recruit other Irish women. In 1814, Ball traveled to York, returning to Dublin in 1821. Now known as Mother Teresa, Ball settled at Rathfarnham House with two companions. Because the three women lived together in Rathfarnham House, Mother Teresa decided to call their order “Loreto” after the Italian village to which the home of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) was supposed to have been miraculously transported. The name stuck, and eventually the order became known as “Loreto Sisters,” although the official title remains the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Early in 1841, a German missionary asked Mother Teresa to send members of her order to India. By then, generations of Irish, having en- listed in the British Army, were stationed in India, which was part of the British Empire. Many had married and started families. If, however, one or another of the parents died or if they deserted their family, scores of Irish children were lost to the Catholic Church. Beginning in 1834, the Jesuits began arriving in Bengal near Calcutta to deal with this problem. They established St. Xavier’s School in which they taught Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims alike. It soon became apparent, though, that the community needed a separate school for the daughters of Irish Catholic military families.

When first approached about the possibility of sending nuns to India to staff the girls school, Mother Teresa gently but firmly refused. There were too many children in Ireland in need of assistance. There was also a short- age of nuns. Her German visitor countered that in refusing to send mem- bers of her order to India, Mother Teresa was, in effect, refusing to provide a Christian education for those children. Mother Teresa relented. The priest could make his case before the entire community; they would de- cide whether to accept the mission to India.

In the end, seven sisters decided to go to India, marking the beginning of Loreto missionary work there. On August 23, 1841, the seven, accom- panied by two priests and six postulants, or novice nuns, set sail. Almost four months later, they disembarked in Calcutta. The little band took pos- session of the house at 5 Middleton Row, where they were to live and teach. The sisters prepared the once lavishly furnished house into simpler living quarters and classrooms. The 67-foot dining room became the school hall.



The sisters then traveled to the local orphanage near the cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary to meet with church officials and the children. Fi- nally, on January 10, 1842, the Loreto School opened its doors to board- ers and day students. As became the custom with the Loreto Sisters, students whose families could afford to do so paid tuition. Their monies, combined with other donations, enabled the sisters to provide a free edu- cation for children of the poor and to operate an orphanage and a widow’s asylum.

The initial reports that Mother Teresa received from India were enthu- siastic. Streams of volunteers now offered to go to India to aid the Loreto Sisters of Calcutta. Even when a number of the nuns died of cholera, the flow of volunteers did not stop. It was this pioneering and courageous group of teachers that Gonxha Bojaxhiu soon hoped to join.



Upon their arrival in Paris, the two girls were taken to the Villa Moli- tor to see Mother Eugene MacAvin, the sister in charge of the Loreto House in Paris. There they were interviewed with the help of an inter- preter from the Yugoslavian embassy. Both Gonxha and Betike were ap- proved and then sent on to Dublin where they would stay at the Loreto Abbey at Rathfarnham House.

The two arrived at Rathfarnham, a simple red-brick building, in Sep- tember; Gonxha was somewhat comforted upon seeing the statue of the Blessed Mother in the courtyard. The two young women, wearing the long white habit, or dress, and black veil of the Loreto nuns, spent most of the next six weeks studying English, the language in which they were to teach. In order to help them become more comfortable with the language, the two were instructed never to speak in their native tongue, something that both Betike and Gonxha obediently followed. Unlike the native- speaking novitiates, Gonxha and Betike received little other instruction and had little opportunity to get to know many of the other sisters and postulates staying at Loreto Abbey. From all accounts, though, it appeared that Gonxha had inherited her father’s flair for languages and was further helped in her studies by Mother Mary Emmanuel McDermott who was another postulant at Loreto Abbey. At the end of six weeks, on December 1, 1928, the two women set sail for India and their new life. Upon their arrival there, the two would begin their novitiate, that is the period of study and prayer which every nun takes before her final vows.

The sea voyage proved long and arduous, winding its way through the

Suez Canal, then the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and finally the Bay of Bengal. Christmas was celebrated aboard the ship with three other Fran- ciscan nuns, also missionaries bound for India. The group sang Christmas carols around a small paper crib made quickly for the celebration. Their only regret was that there was no priest aboard to celebrate mass. But that all changed when the ship made port at Colombo, where a priest would accompany the nuns for the rest of the voyage.

On January 6, 1929, the ship made port at Calcutta. But at this point, Gonxha had little chance to become acquainted with her surroundings. After just a few days, on January 16, she was sent to the Loreto Novitiate located in Darjeeling, a fashionable hill resort about 400 miles north of Calcutta.



Life at the Loreto Convent for Gonxha Bojaxhiu was disciplined and rigorous. Entering a Catholic convent during the early twentieth century was like being plunged into another world, one that was isolated and rel- atively contained. For the next two years, dressed in the black habit and veil of the order, Gonxha kept up with her English studies as well as learn- ing the Bengali language. Under the watchful eye of the novice mistress, who oversaw the novitiates’ training, the young women went weekly to confession. Dinnertime was spent listing to one of the sisters reading about the lives of the saints, or from the rules of Loreto. Every day from 9 to 11, Gonxha and the other novitiates taught at St. Teresa’s School, a one-room schoolhouse affiliated with the convent. Here 20 small boys and girls met to receive instruction. She quickly earned a reputation for being hard working, cheerful, and charitable in her dealings with others. On March 24, 1931, Gonxha Bojaxhiu took her first vows—a lifetime promised to chastity, poverty, and obedience to God as a sister of Loreto. As was the custom, Gonxha had chosen a new name for herself to sym- bolize her new life with God. Her choice was an inspired one based on the late-nineteenth-century French nun Thérèse Martin who received her call to serve Christ at a young age and was especially interested in mis- sionary work. She entered the Carmelite order at the age of 15, and throughout her life, Thérèse dedicated her prayers and service toward mis- sionaries and their success. She hoped one day to become a missionary herself to serve with the Carmelite convent in Hanoi, Indochina (now Vietnam). Unfortunately, her dream was never realized, as she was struck down by tuberculosis at the age of 24.

Throughout her short life, Thérèse Martin strove to honor God in what she called her “little way,” that is a life given to the Lord in complete trust and self-surrender, much like a child with a loving parent. In 1927, Pope Pius XI canonized Thérèse Martin who now became St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, and the patron saint of missions. In light of Gonxha’s own life, her choice came as no surprise.

Unfortunately, there was a problem with her choice. There was al- ready one nun in the convent with the name Marie-Thérèse. Not want- ing to change her chosen name, Gonxha merely decided to go by the Spanish spelling “Teresa.” Still the name change caused some confusion throughout her life, as she was thought to have taken the name of the great Spanish saint, Teresa of Avila. Whenever asked, however, she al- ways patiently explained her choice. For the sisters in the Loreto Con- vent, however, the new Teresa soon had a nickname that further distinguished her: Bengali Teresa, an acknowledgment of her ability to speak the language so well.



Not long after taking her vows, Gonxha Bojaxhiu, now called Sister Teresa, took the train from Darjeeling to Calcutta. There, she was to begin teaching at St. Mary’s School, located in the eastern district of Calcutta. It was to be her place of residence and work for the next 17 years.

During the 1920s, the contrast between the cities of Darjeeling and Calcutta was startling. In Darjeeling, one breathed clear mountain air, and a walk in a flower-filled meadow was not far away. It was a city of re- fined culture, of modern European architecture and imported luxury, a re- treat for those unaccustomed to the heat and humidity of India. Calcutta, while a dynamic and cosmopolitan city, serving as the political capital of British India, was another story. The city teemed with humanity, over- crowded and spilling into the streets and alleys throughout. It was on one hand a city enriched by the culture and arts of India; on the other, it was a cesspool of human misery and degradation.

Upon her arrival, Sister Teresa was taken to the eastern district of the city where the school and living quarters for the Loreto nuns was located. Here the Loreto Sisters worked with the Daughters of Saint Anne, a local congregation of nuns founded by the Loreto Sisters in 1898. These nuns, who were Bengali women, wore not the long black habit and veil of the European order, but the traditional sari, the dress worn by Indian women. For the hot summers, the sari worn was white; blue was used for the cooler autumn and winter months.




The school was hidden from the everyday world by high gray walls and tall iron gates. Upon passing through the entrance gates, one came upon a complex of buildings with playing fields and well-tended lawns. The campus comprised several buildings of varying architectural styles. Besides an administrative building and smaller gray classroom building was St. Mary’s School. There were also quarters for the nuns and for those stu- dents who boarded at the school, mostly orphans, girls from broken homes, and children with only one parent.

The school had already established a reputation for itself. Established in 1841, as one of the six Loreto schools in Calcutta, the Calcutta school in Entally educated orphans, the sons and daughters of the affluent and foreign families living in the city. All children wore the same uniform; there was no distinction by the sisters of the rich from the poor, the Euro- pean from the Indian, Catholic from non-Catholic. The school was also known for educating “Loreto Girls,” that is young Indian women who graduated from Loreto College and who would go on to positions in edu- cation and social welfare within Calcutta and India. Not only did teach- ers and welfare workers graduate from Loreto College, but in time the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, a judge of the High Court of Cal- cutta, and several members of the Indian Parliament all received degrees from Loreto. In all, some 500 children and young women were in atten- dance at the Loreto schools at Entally.

Here Sister Teresa took her place, teaching alongside the Daughters of St. Anne. She taught history and geography. She also became more com- fortable in her use of the Bengali language as St. Mary’s classes were taught in both English and Bengali. She soon added another language, Hindi. Her classrooms varied: sometimes, she taught in what once had been a chapel and was now broken into five class areas; other times, she taught in what was once the stables, or outside in the courtyard.

Though the Loreto Sisters might have been sequestered behind the walls of their school and convent, they were not sheltered from the over- whelming poverty of the area; for the poor conditions of the area were found in the shabby environment of the school itself. Everyday, before be- ginning the day’s lessons, Sister Teresa rolled up the sleeves of her habit, found water and a broom, and proceeded to sweep the floor, much to the delight and amazement of her students, as only people of the very lowest caste performed menial duties such as these. When Teresa saw where the children ate and slept, she was distressed at the terrible condition there.



Yet, she also found solace and comfort through the happiness and grati- tude of her young charges. Merely placing a hand on a dirty forehead or holding the hand of a small child brought her great joy. Many of the chil- dren took to calling her “Ma” which meant “Mother,” a term that she treasured.

According to one former student, among the tasks Sister Teresa will- ingly took on was the organization of classes for the primary school chil- dren. Sister Teresa also made sure that the children received baths; for many, this was a real treat and something to look forward to. Prizes were awarded at the end of the school year for the students; in many cases, the most coveted were bars of soap.

Former students remember Sister Teresa as an engaging teacher. When teaching Sunday School catechism lessons, she often told stories of her own childhood in Skopje. Her geography classes were exciting; many stu- dents believed that she made the world come alive for them in a way not seen or felt before. This is, perhaps, ironic because Sister Teresa had seen little of the world herself and would not leave the area she resided in for over 30 years.

By all accounts, Sister Teresa again showed her willingness to work hard. She needed her fortitude; the days at St. Mary’s were long. Each day began at half past five in the morning. Upon awakening, the sisters would pray and read their prescribed lessons in the prayer book, or from the Scriptures or New Testament. All were expected to attend morning mass at six o’clock. Classes were held from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M., with tea held after- ward. Other hours at St. Mary’s were used for looking after the small chil- dren there. There were also other duties awaiting them: papers and lessons to be corrected and a children’s recreation hour to be supervised. Sister Teresa also oversaw the children’s evening meals and bedtime. Self- discipline was essential if one was to accomplish everything in a timely fashion. Failure to do so indicated an inability to stay within the order.

Throughout her time at the school, Sister Teresa showed herself to be a pious but not overly demonstrative woman. She was charitable and did not tolerate unkindness from anyone, whether a child or an adult. Taking a firm attitude toward her young charges, Sister Teresa rarely displayed her temper at wrongdoing. In spite of the backbreaking work, she always had a smile and a kind word for people. She was no stranger to humor either: when told a good joke or funny story, Sister Teresa clasped her waist in both hands and would often bend over with laughter.

Although the sisters of Loreto took vows to live in poverty, Sister Teresa somehow managed to acquire those things that no one else wanted. Her sheets had more patches and darns than the others. She often wore ill-fitting second-hand shoes, which over time would misshape and deform her feet. Yet she never complained, maintaining a humble and steady demeanor. She was, by all appearances, an ordinary nun, carrying out her religious duties. Neither was she particularly intelligent: her edu- cation at best was adequate. Some at the convent remember her more for her inability to light the candles at the Benediction service. As one sister who lived with her during this period recalled, “She was very ordinary. We just looked upon her as one of our Sisters who was very devoted and ded- icated.”1 It was this very ordinariness that made the journey Sister Teresa embarked upon so extraordinary.

Sister Teresa also helped with the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, the same organization that had so heavily influenced her life in Skopje. Work- ing with Father Julien Henry, a Belgian Jesuit priest, Sister Teresa partici- pated in the meetings, prayers, and study club sponsored by the group. In addition, Sister Teresa, working with Father Henry, helped the girls of so- dality aid the poor.

On the other side of the convent wall was the slum area (bustee) known as Motijihl, or Pearl Lake, named for a discolored sump-water pond lo- cated in the center of the area. It was from this pond that the residents drew their drinking, cooking, and washing water. Surrounding the pond were the wretched, mud-floor huts of the poor who lived in the neighbor- hood. It was an area desperately in need of comfort. For Father Henry, this was an opportunity to teach the older girls of St. Mary’s about works of service. Every day during the school week, the priest met with the girls whose ages ranged from the early teens to their early twenties.

On Saturday, the girls left the walls of their compound and ventured into Motijihl in groups to visit with these families, often bearing small items for the children of the poor. Other groups traveled to the Nilratan Sarkar Hospital to visit the sick, where they comforted family members or wrote letters for those unable to do so. Although Sister Teresa took great stock in the efforts of her students, she could not join them because of the rule of enclosure practiced by the Loreto nuns. But perhaps the most im- portant outcome of these efforts was the indirect link forged between the poor of Calcutta and Sister Teresa.

On May 24, 1937, Sister Teresa traveled to Darjeeling to take her final vows. During the ceremony, Teresa solemnly committed herself to the Loreto Sisters and to a lifetime of poverty, chastity, and obedience in ser- vice to the Lord. Upon her return to Calcutta, she once again plunged into her busy days and teaching, much to the delight of several young children who feared that she had gone away for good. Nothing had changed, save Sister Teresa’s name. She was now to be addressed as Mother Teresa, the name she would go by for the rest of her life. At the age of 27, her destiny seemed to be fulfilled. At the same time, India was in the midst of trying to fulfill its own destiny.



The India that Mother Teresa came to was no longer the bright and glittering jewel in the British Empire’s crown. By 1929, the British had been in India for a little over three centuries and had governed it exclu- sively for over 70 years. Now in the early years of the twentieth century, a growing unrest among Indian natives for self-government was increasing and British control over its largest colony was waning.

The British presence in India is a long and dramatic story. Beginning in the late fifteenth century with the early sea voyages of Portuguese ex- plorer Vasco da Gama, India became a prized possession eagerly sought by many European countries. The Portuguese were the first to claim India, her people, and her natural resources for their own. Over the next two centuries, the Dutch, British, and French challenged the Portuguese for the Indian trade.

Of all the European nations to lay claim to India, Britain eventually won and stayed. Beginning in 1600, with the creation of the British East India Company, the British established trading posts in the key cities of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. Despite an encroaching French presence, the English held fast. By 1757, the British had established a strong foothold in the country.

What began as a trading empire gradually grew into political rule. That the conquest came about as the result of a private trading company en- gaging in conflict chiefly through the use of native Indian soldiers, known as Sepoys, seemed to matter little. By 1849, the rule of the British East India Company was extended over virtually the whole of the subconti- nent by conquest or treaties.

Despite the use of natives as soldiers, the British took a rather high- handed approach to their new possession. Missionaries introduced Chris- tianity and English customs, but not all Indians were eager to give up their traditional ways. As a result, a great wave of unrest began building, and exploded in 1857, when a rumor was circulated among the company’s In- dian soldiers that the rifle cartridge-papers they had to tear with their teeth were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. The cow is sacred to Hin- dus, and the pig is abhorred by Muslims. The rumor provoked the great Sepoy Revolt, or Indian Mutiny, of 1857 in which hundreds of British were killed. By the time the mutiny was quelled, the East India Company no longer controlled British India, and a year later, the British Crown took over the administration. Almost two decades later, in 1876, Parlia- ment ruled that India should be designated part of the British empire; the following year Queen Victoria was crowned empress of India.



For the next quarter century following the Indian Mutiny, British rule, or raj, of India was at its peak. Haunted by the horrific memory of the mutiny, the British government enacted a series of measures to avoid an- other conflict from taking place. To oversee the day-to-day administration of the colony’s provinces, a viceroy of India was appointed by the crown. However, Hindu and Muslim princes continued to govern almost 600 na- tive states, which were for the most part autonomous. However, they were forbidden to make war on one another, and to keep an eye on things, the viceroy appointed an agent to each royal state whose job it was to advise the ruler.

British rule brought internal peace and economic development to India. The British not only built roads and railways, but canals, irrigation works, mills, and factories. They introduced Western law and police sys- tems, modernized cities, and built schools. Despite these efforts at nation building, many Indians resented the aloof and exacting attitude of the British government. A growing number of Indian intellectuals, many of whom were the products of an English education, began dreaming of a free India. In 1885, the Indian National Congress was created; its estab- lishment marked the beginnings of a growing and organized protest for In- dian independence.



At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Indian troops were called upon to aid the British and their allies against the Germans. Although In- dians did so, in the wake of the war, nationalist agitation increased. The British Parliament, recognizing that something had to be done to appease the nationalists, passed a reform act in 1919, which provided for the cre- ation of provincial councils that allowed Indians to participate in helping form policy with regard to agriculture, education, and public health. But the provincial councils were not enough for the extreme nationalists, such as those under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi. This group soon gained control of the Indian National Congress. In addition, Gandhi preached resistance to the British by noncooperation,or nonviolent resistance in most every aspect of daily life. This meant boycotting all British- made goods, refusing to send children to British schools and colleges, ig- noring British courts of law, and rejecting British titles and honors. Noncompliance extended to British elections and the British tax system. By withdrawing their support, the Indian people hoped to stop completely the British in India and allow for the creation of an independent Indian nation. Hundreds of thousands responded to Gandhi’s plea and joined his civil disobedience campaigns, and the Indian National Congress quickly gained a mass following.

The situation in India was a powder keg waiting to explode. In 1927, rioting broke out when the British Parliament placed no Indians on a commission created to investigate the government of India. Soon after, the British imprisoned Gandhi and his associates but could not silence their message. In 1929, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected president of the Congress. Like Gandhi, Nehru was passionately devoted to the cause of independence. Finally in 1935, the British Parliament passed the Gov- ernment of India Act, which provided for elected legislatures in the provinces, but restricted the number of eligible voters based on property and educational requirements. Amid this growing agitation between the British colonial government and Indian peoples, Mother Teresa arrived to do her work.



Nonviolent resistance to the British in India continued to grow. By 1939, anti-British feelings intensified as the Indian people watched Britain once more plunge into hostilities with the Germans. The Parlia- ment, as it had during World War I, declared a state of war with Germany on behalf of the Indian people without consulting them.

The consequences of British actions were horrendous in India, result- ing in the Great Famine of 1942–1943. The transportation system was now taken over by the British military; even the small river crafts used to deliver rice to Calcutta from the paddies of Bengal were pressed into ser- vice. Burmese rice, which accounted for 10 percent of the staple food for Bengal, was cut off, causing a shortage. The Indian government, preoccu- pied by the war, saw the problem as one that needed to be solved locally. Prices started to rise and both black marketers and money lenders pros- pered. Poor families in the rural areas, depleted of their meager savings, sold their land. With no food to eat, thousands fled the region for Cal- cutta, flocking to the city’s already overburdened soup kitchens. Housing for the poor was already overstretched, and thousands of people died in the streets everyday. Adding to the overcrowding and chaos were the swarms of refuges fleeing the Japanese. The noise of the streets was si- lenced only when people sought shelter from Japanese bombs. In the end, the Great Famine claimed the lives of at least two million, though some figures put the number of deaths closer to four or five million. The death toll was so high, that the traditional funeral pyres lit for the dead, known asghats,never stopped burning in some areas.

The nuns at Entally felt the war’s effects, too. The number of war ba- bies or small infants left at the doorsteps of Loreto multiplied. At one point, Mother Teresa was faced with the problem of how to feed 24 babies by bottle. Orphans fleeing the Japanese came to the convent and school looking for refuge. The convent also opened its doors to other Catholic missionaries escaping from the Japanese.

In time, the British requisitioned the Entally convent and school as a British military hospital; the dormitories, which once housed orphans, were now taken over by sick, wounded, and dying British soldiers. The Sisters of Loreto evacuated, taking with them their students and other or- phans, and relocated to hotels in Darjeeling, Shillong, and Lucknow. Mother Teresa stayed in Calcutta in a building located on Convent Road. There she continued to teach and care for her young charges.



In 1937, Mother Teresa had taken on more responsibilities; she was put in charge of the St. Teresa’s Primary School as well as Sunday school classes for the children. During the war, she also took on the responsibili- ties of headmistress when Mother du Cenacle became ill in 1944. That she stayed in the city during the war made a tremendous impact on her students, for it was Mother Teresa’s wish that the lives of the children not be any more disrupted than necessary. The school may have been moved to a different location for the time being, but Mother Teresa worked to make sure that the children’s daily routine stayed as intact as possible.

It was during this period that Mother Teresa met a man who would serve as her spiritual advisor and companion for the next 45 years. Father Celeste Van Exem was a Belgian Jesuit who came to India in 1944. An ex- pert in Arabic and the Muslim faith, he came to Calcutta with the specific intention of working with the city’s Muslims. On July 11, 1944, he and two other priests moved into a house in Baithakana, located not far from Mother Teresa’s small community on Convent Road. When asked whether he would celebrate Mass for Mother Teresa, Father Van Exem re- called how he initially refused, stating that he was “called to India to work for the Muslims and not for Sisters. I was a young priest who wanted to work with intellectuals; I did not want to be busy with nuns.”2

The following day, though, Father Van Exem met with Mother Teresa. His initial impression was of a very simple nun, concerned with the plight of the poor, but for the most part unremarkable. However, Mother Teresa came away with a much higher opinion of the priest, for not long after, she asked him to become her spiritual advisor. Again, Father Van Exem de- murred, saying that he had no desire to become a nun’s spiritual father and that he considered the request a diversion from what he believed to be his true reason for being in Calcutta. But he told Mother Teresa that she needed to put her request in writing to the archbishop of the city. The arch- bishop granted Mother Teresa’s request. In obedience to the bishop, Father Van Exem reluctantly assumed the role of Mother Teresa’s spiritual father and director. She would turn to him often for spiritual advice and direction.



By 1945, the war ended and Mother Teresa and her charges moved back to the convent at Entally. During this period, Mother Teresa had written home to her mother describing her life in Calcutta. By now, Drana had moved to Tirana, Albania, where both Aga and Lazar lived. Drana reminded her daughter that she went to India to work with the poor; Drana also asked her daughter to recall the woman whom Drana had taken in, when no one else would. Perhaps this advice spurred Mother Teresa to rethink her duties in the convent.

No sooner had the hostilities ended with Japan, when India and Cal- cutta were once more plunged into hostilities and bloodshed. The Indian National Congress had been busy making preparations for India’s even- tual independence from British rule. Working with the Congress was the Muslim League, under the leadership of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a lawyer. The League was pressing the Congress for the establishment of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims to be called Pakistan. The new country was to be formed from a partition of India.

On August 16, 1946, the Muslim League called a meeting—what members referred to as Direct Action Day—in Calcutta in the Maidan. The speeches given by league members inflamed an already passionate crowd. As a result, for the next four nights, the city was the scene of bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims. Life came to a grinding halt as the city was pitched into terror. Militants set fire to shops with people still inside. Sewers were filled with the bodies of the dead. Men, women and children, cut by the deadly blades of knives, were left in the streets to bleed to death. Entrails spilled onto sidewalks already red with blood; most everywhere one looked there were dead bodies, while vultures cir- cled overhead. By the end, at least 5,000 persons had perished and an- other 15,000 were wounded.

For Mother Teresa and the children, the riots also meant no food de- liveries. Faced with the prospect of her 300 students going hungry, Mother Teresa broke one of the cardinal rules of the order: she left the convent and went into the streets alone to search for food. Years later, Mother Teresa described the scene:


I went out from St. Mary’s Entally. I had three hundred girls in the boarding school and nothing to eat. We were not supposed to go out into the streets, but I went anyway. Then I saw the bodies on the streets, stabbed, beaten, lying there in strange positions in their dried blood.   A lorry [truck full] of soldiers stopped me and told me that I should not be out on the street.  I told them that I had to come out and take the risk.

I had three hundred children with nothing to eat. The soldiers had rice and they drove me back to the school and unloaded bags of rice.3


In the aftermath of the riots, Mother Teresa became weak and ill and was directed to rest every afternoon for three hours. Her superiors feared that her condition might make her susceptible to tuberculosis, a malady that claimed many nuns in Calcutta. Father Van Exem remembered this pe- riod as the only time he ever saw his spiritual charge cry, frustrated at her weak condition and inability to carry out her duties.

Finally it was decided that Mother Teresa needed a spiritual renewal and a physical reprieve from the work at the convent and school. She was ordered to travel to the convent in Darjeeling for a retreat, which would allow her to rest and meditate. On September 10, 1946, a day that is now celebrated annually by the Missionaries of Charity as Inspiration Day, while traveling to Darjeeling on a dusty, noisy train, Mother Teresa expe- rienced another call. Later she would have little to say about the experi- ence, much as she did when she first received her calling to become a nun. But to one writer, many years later, she offered her memories of that train ride: “It was on the tenth of September 1946, in the train that took me to Darjeeling,  that I heard the call of God. The message was quite clear: I

was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them.”4

Many years later she also stated that the call was quite clear, “It was an order. To fail it would have been to break the faith.”5




  1. Navin Chawla, Mother Teresa: The Authorized Biography(Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1992), p. 15.
  2. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography(San Fran- cisco: Harper & Row, 1997), p. 20.
  3. Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother TeresaThe Spirit and the Work(Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1986), pp. 27–28.
  4. Edward Le Joly, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Biography(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 9.
  5. Spink, Mother Teresa,p. 22.