MOTHER TERESA - A Biography by Meg Greene, chapter name A NEW DIRECTION AND A NEW JOURNEY


Few would disagree that Inspiration Day was a turning point for Mother Teresa. But there have been accounts of her life that have made erroneous connections between her desire to leave Loreto and her calling on the train to Darjeeling. One popular story stated that the killings and carnage she viewed during the August 1946 riots were the sole inspiration for her leaving. Another account incorrectly stated that she could view the slums of Calcutta from her bedroom window, which led to her decision.

Mother Teresa was no stranger to the poverty in Calcutta. She had seen it firsthand upon her arrival as a novitiate and later as a teacher instruct- ing the children of the poor. But until her train ride to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa firmly believed that she was carrying out God’s plan for her life and that she would best serve God as a nun living in Loreto. That was now all about to change.



As Mother Teresa recalled “The message was clear, I knew where I be- longed, but I did not know how to get there.”1 On her return from Dar- jeeling, she immediately sought out Father Van Exem, showing him two sheets of paper on which she had written down her plans. Upon returning to his room at Baithakana, Father Van Exem placed the pieces of paper underneath a picture of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which Mother Teresa had given to him as a Christmas gift. Two hours later, he returned and read the papers. He found the key ingredients as to what she was sup- posed to do: she was to leave Loreto, but she was to keep her vows. She was to start a new congregation or order of nuns, who would work for the poor in the slums. The members of this new congregation would have to take a special vow of charity for the poor. There were to be no institutions, hospitals, or clinics to help in this endeavor. Mother Teresa and her nuns were to work and live among the poorest of the poor. Special attention, too, was to be focused on those people who had no family or were un- wanted in any way.

Father Van Exem did not even question Mother Teresa’s explanation. Years later, he stated that he believed her new vocation was just as true as her decision to leave Skopje and become a nun. To answer this latest call- ing, it did not matter to Mother Teresa that she had already made one sac- rifice in leaving her mother. Now she was fully prepared to make a second: leaving the safe confines of the convent at Loreto and venturing out into the streets of Calcutta to work with the poor.

When Mother Teresa returned to Loreto in October, she led a retreat in which the seeds of her new venture began to sprout. Drawing on the story of Jesus on the cross crying, “I thirst,” Mother Teresa put forth the basic tenets that would guide her journey: “to quench the infinite thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross for love of souls.”2 The importance of this idea was so great that as her organization grew and built chapels, each one would be inscribed with the two words: “I thirst.” In creating the Mis- sionaries of Charity, she expected those chosen not only to take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, but to take an additional vow as well: to offer themselves to the poorest of the poor.

Leaving the convent was not easy for Mother Teresa. It was, she admitted years later, the most difficult thing she had ever done, even harder than leaving her family and homeland. Besides the emotional turmoil, she still needed permission to leave. Upon consulting Father Van Exem, Mother Teresa decided to pray about her decision for a few months. In January 1947, Mother Teresa decided to write to Archbishop Ferdinand Périer about her plans; Father Van Exem would follow up with a visit.

If Father Van Exem thought that the archbishop would readily agree to Mother Teresa’s plans, he was mistaken. Years later, Périer described the first time he learned of Mother Teresa:

One day, as I was making the visit of the Entally convent, someone told me that a young nun of the Community had some queer ideas. Now, whenever anyone tried to put me on my guard in this way, I always asked my self whether the hand of God might not be there, and gave full freedom to the person to explain his or her case. If the religious is humble, obedient, dutiful the impulse may come from God.3


Despite his open-mindedness, Archbishop Périer was not only against the idea of a lone nun living among the poor on the Calcutta streets, but he was also alarmed that one of his priests was apparently treating the idea with some seriousness. Soon after his meeting with Van Exem, the Archbishop ordered Mother Teresa transferred to Asansol, a city located about 175 miles northwest of Calcutta. Here, she was to maintain the kitchen as well as the garden; she would also continue teaching geogra- phy. Father Van Exem then cautioned Mother Teresa to say nothing more of her plans for the time being. The two kept up regular correspon- dence by mail.



While Mother Teresa was away from Entally, Archbishop Périer made several inquiries about her. Keeping her identity a secret, he spoke with Father Julien Henry of St. Teresa’s Church, who also served as the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Darjeeling and was a teacher of theology. The archbishop carefully asked Father Henry what he thought of a European woman dressed in the traditional sari of Bengali women, working among the poor and dying in the city. The two also discussed whether she could succeed and if such a new order would draw in young women to serve. Then there were political questions to be considered: what would the re- action of the public be to such an idea, when already there were individ- uals trying to help the poor?

Father Henry believed that the archbishop’s proposal was, in theory, possible. At the very least, it was a gamble, but Father Henry told the archbishop it was a gamble worth taking. Excited at the prospect of some- thing being done for the poor of Calcutta, Father Henry even asked his congregation to pray for the success of such a program. But little did he or anyone else realize that the person behind this idea was Mother Teresa. The archbishop was not finished. In addition to speaking with Father Henry, the archbishop sought the advice of the father general of the Soci- ety of Jesus (the Jesuit Order), who in turn asked the provincial in India for his thoughts. The archbishop also sought counsel from a specialist in church law.

There was another difficulty to be considered as well. The Vatican did not look favorably on the unnecessary growth of religious vocations for women. As it was, there were already too many small orders of nuns. A bishop applying for a new congregation had to demonstrate that the ex- isting orders did not do the work for which the new one was being estab- lished. In Calcutta, the order of the Daughters of St. Anne, with whom Mother Teresa had worked while at the Loreto school, already ministered among the poor. They also dressed in Indian style, slept in a dormitory, ate simple food, and spoke Bengali. How would Mother Teresa’s new congre- gation be different?

The archbishop asked Mother Teresa if she could work with the Daughters of St. Anne. Mother Teresa did not think so. The Daughters had their own way of doing things and their own traditions. What Mother Teresa was proposing was quite different. Her congregation would be more mobile; they would visit the poor where needed. And she did not want just to work among the poor; she made it clear that she intended to work among the “poorest of the poor.”4 She also wanted to start from scratch and train her novices in her own way.

An entire year passed before the archbishop was satisfied with the in- formation he had received. Only then did he give permission to Mother Teresa to write to the mother general of the Loreto Sisters, asking for per- mission to be released from the Order. In the letter that Father Van Exem typed for her, Mother Teresa explained her reasons for seeking her release: she wished to continue her vocation among the poor. In asking the mother superior to leave, Mother Teresa requested exclaustration,which simply meant that she would continue to live by her vows but would serve as a Loreto Sister in a new setting.

However, when the archbishop read the letter, he insisted that Mother Teresa change exclaustrationtosecularization.To be secularized meant that Mother Teresa would no longer be a member of the Loreto Order, but she would continue to honor her vows as a nun. Having to leave the Loreto Order was a severe disappointment, but as Archbishop Périer explained, she was to trust God fully and send the letter.

With a heavy heart, Mother Teresa posted the letter to the mother gen- eral in Rathfarnham in early January 1948. Less than a month later, she had her reply:

Since this is manifestly the will of God, I hereby give you per- mission to write to the Congregation in Rome and for the in- dult. Do not speak to the Provincial. Do not speak to your Superiors. Speak to nobody. I did not speak to my own coun- selors. My consent is sufficient. However, do not ask for the in- dult of secularization, ask for the indult of exclaustration.5

The mother general could not have sent stronger support. Both Mother Teresa and Father Van Exem were overjoyed with the response. Mother Teresa now wrote another letter, this time to the office of the Vatican in Rome. Although the mother general told her to consult no one, Mother Teresa again gave the letter to Father Van Exem, who in turn gave it to Archbishop Périer. The archbishop again stipulated that if the letter was to be sent to Rome, Mother Teresa include her request for secularization. Despite her fears about having to leave her religious order, Mother Teresa was more worried about how to write to a cardinal. She asked Father Van Exem for help; he simply replied that a “Dear Father” would suffice and not to worry about titles, but to state her case clearly and simply. Finally in February 1948, she sent the letter to Rome. In addition to Mother Teresa’s request, Archbishop Périer also included a letter that outlined her life and service in Calcutta.

Weeks and then months went by with no response from Rome. Finally

in July 1948, Archbishop Périer summoned Father Van Exem to his office. He had received news from the Vatican that very afternoon. Rome had granted Mother Teresa’s request for exclaustration. She would be allowed to remain a member of the Loreto Order and work outside of the convent. It was a wonderful victory for Mother Teresa and a vindication of the very principals that the Loreto Sisters’ founder, Mary Ward, had been denied. There was, however, one condition: Mother Teresa would remain outside the cloister for a year, at which time, the archbishop would review her progress and decide whether she would return to the convent.

The archbishop also made it clear to Father Van Exem that the news from Rome was not to be given to Mother Teresa until after the school week was completed. Despite Mother Teresa’s appeals to be told of the de- cision, the archbishop was adamant: she would be told the following Sun- day. An elated Father Van Exem agreed to the archbishop’s request.

On Sunday, August 8, 1948, Father Van Exem arose as usual and cele- brated mass in the chapel at the Loreto convent. Following his usual cus- tom, he gave the first sermon in Bengali, and then, after mass was concluded, another sermon in Hindi. He then asked Mother Teresa to meet with him in the convent parlor. When she arrived, he told her that he had received news from Rome. According to his account, Mother Teresa turned pale and requested to go to the chapel to pray. When she returned, he gave her the good news: not only did Rome agree to her request to leave the con- vent, but also that she continue her life as a Loreto Sister. She then signed three copies of the permission: one for Rome, one for the archbishop, and one for herself. She then asked, “Can I go to the slums now?”6




Despite Mother Teresa’s willingness to leave immediately to begin her work, there was still much to be done to prepare for her departure. First, she needed to inform the convent that she was leaving. Archbishop Périer had feared a shocked reaction from the sisters. His fears were justified. When the decree was made public, the mother superior took to her bed for a week. Another sister wept uncontrollably; many were shocked at the announcement or mystified as to why one of their own, particularly one who seemed happy in her surroundings, would want to leave the convent. Those close to Mother Teresa worried about her health and whether she could sustain a rigorous life on the Calcutta streets. A notice posted on a Loreto blackboard requested that the sisters not criticize or praise Mother Teresa, but pray for her and her decision.

In preparation for her departure from the convent, Mother Teresa pur- chased three saris from a local bazaar. Each one was white with three blue stripes; this simple garment would become the distinctive habit of her new order. The fabric was the cheapest available at the time, and was of the kind usually worn by poor Bengali women. The blue stripes held a spe- cial meaning for Mother Teresa, as the color is usually associated with the Virgin Mary. Father Van Exem later blessed the garments, along with a small cross and rosary, which had been placed on each garment in the St. Mary’s chapel while Father Henry and another nun watched. Among the last tasks that needed to be done required Father Van Exem’s help. Mother Teresa needed to write a letter to her mother, explaining all that had happened. She believed that if her spiritual advisor also wrote the let- ter, that would settle any fears or worries her mother might have about her daughter’s decision to leave Loreto.

Father Van Exem suggested that Mother Teresa take some medical training. Working in the slums, there would be plenty of opportunity to offer medical assistance. She agreed and decided to go to Patna in the state of Bihar where she would receive training from the Medical Mission Sisters at their hospital. Archbishop Périer supported the decision and Sister Stephanie Ingendaa, the mother superior at the hospital, warmly agreed to the request to help Mother Teresa in whatever way the sisters could.

On August 16, a week after learning of the Vatican’s decision, Mother Teresa changed her clothes. The long black habit, with its floor-length skirt, the white coif, and black veil were laid aside. She now wore her new religious habit, a symbolic breaking with the religious uniform she had worn for the past two decades. Even though many of her former pupils wished to see their teacher in a sari, her leaving was a solitary affair. That evening, she left the convent grounds in a taxi as quietly as she had come almost 20 years before. In her pocket, she carried five rupees and a ticket to Patna.



On August 17, Mother Teresa arrived at Patna, an old city located on the banks of the Ganges River. Sister Stephanie was there waiting to wel- come her. They went together to the Holy Family Hospital, where Mother Teresa would spend the next few months receiving her medical training.

The hospital and convent buildings were located in the poorer section of Patna, known as Padri ki Haveli (House of the Fathers), and was named after the first church built in the town. The Holy Family Hospital, which formerly served as a school building, was modest: two stories high with a small separate building to one side that housed the operating and delivery rooms. The hospital was staffed by nuns who were doctors, mainly gyne- cologists, obstetricians, and surgeons. Other nuns served as nurses, labora- tory technicians, and nutritionists. The hospital also housed a nursing school that many Indian girls attended.

The convent where Mother Teresa would take her meals and sleep oc- cupied part of the former church. Built of stone blocks, it had a high ceil- ing, a worn stone floor, small gothic-shaped windows, and whitewashed walls. The main part of the church was divided into small cubicles by bamboo rods and white cotton sheets. The garden was once the cemetery; on very hot nights, many slept between the tombstones covered with mosquito netting. The hopsital staff ate in the former servant’s quarters with an old Hindu cook maintaining the small kitchen.

Because the hospital was so busy, there was little fanfare to welcome Mother Teresa. Instead, she was put into a cubicle, given a chair in the dining room, and included in the day-to-day running of the hospital. Many of the sisters realized that she was in a period of transition, and while Mother Teresa knew what she was to do, she was still unclear about how she was to carry out her calling. In the meantime, the Medical Mis- sion Sisters tried to make her feel at home and helped prepare her for the grueling work ahead.

Now, instead of lecturing students, Mother Teresa’s days were filled with new experiences; she never knew what to expect from one day to the next. Whenever there was a new admission, an impending birth-or- operation, Mother Teresa was summoned at the same time as a doctor was called. This experience not only gave Mother Teresa an opportunity to practice her Hindi, in which she was not very fluent, but to become ac- quainted with expectant mothers, fatal accidents, ill and abandoned chil- dren, and death on the operating table.

She also learned to tend to patients ill and dying with cholera or small- pox. One nun remembered that, no matter what the calamity, Mother Teresa remained unfazed by it, maintaining her focus on the patient. She could always be counted on to hold a dying patient’s hand, to comfort a small child frightened by the hospital, or to cradle a newborn infant in her arms. She learned how to do many simple medical procedures such as making a hospital bed, giving injections, and administering medicines. She helped assist in delivering babies, something in which she took spe- cial delight. Working with the nutritionists, Mother Teresa learned about the importance of a healthy diet, hygiene, and adequate rest. This knowl- edge was key to carrying out her work in the slums. As Mother Teresa came to know many of the poor families of the area, she attended wed- dings, feasts, and funerals, slowly entering their world and becoming one of them.

During her time at Patna, Mother Teresa gained her first associate. A young girl, suffering from advanced stages of tuberculosis, asked Mother Teresa whether she could help her in serving the poor. Toward the end of her stay at Holy Family, she appointed the young girl as an associate in her work. Her new helper ministered to other patients sick with tuberculosis and offered prayers for the recovery of those stricken with the disease. Un- fortunately, she did not accompany Mother Teresa to Calcutta for she died at Holy Family soon after.



During the evenings when not working at the hospital, Mother Teresa discussed her plans with the many members of the Medical Mission Sis- ters. She welcomed ideas, practical suggestions, and criticism from the others about how she should best implement her plans. One thing that did become clear: if Mother Teresa’s proposed order wanted to work with the poor, they would have to commit themselves to working onlyfor the poor.

Out of these discussions came the foundation for Mother Teresa’s con- gregation as well as many of the rules and routines that the group would follow. Perhaps the most valuable lesson was the rule of balance as prac- ticed by the founding mother of the Medical Mission Sisters, Mother Anna Dengel. Like Mother Teresa, Dengal also had to obtain special permission from the Vatican in order to establish an order of nuns who were also practicing surgeons and midwives. Among Mother Dengel’s tenets was that heavy tasks, physical or emotional, could not be carried out for long without rest and renewal. Therefore, it was imperative for her nuns to take regular rests when needed and retreats to recharge their bodies and minds.

The sisters suggested that with the poor living conditions and hard work that was to be done everyday, prayer should be strictly observed, but no prayer should be scheduled after 9 P.M. This would allow the nuns plenty of rest and relaxation. There should be plenty of protein-rich food for meals, especially at breakfast, but the selection should be simple; no exceptions to meals were to be made except in cases of illness. Mother Teresa had thought that she and her nuns would eat nothing more than rice and salt, the basic diet of the poor. But she learned that this diet was too sparse; she and her nuns would then be unable to work efficiently at their jobs. This kind of diet also left one open to the very diseases of the poor that Mother Teresa hoped to treat and fight. Mother Teresa sagely took the advice given to her.

Mother Teresa envisioned an eight-hour workday beginning at five in the morning. For that schedule to work, the Medical Missionaries sug- gested there be one daily hour of rest so that the nuns would have the en- ergy to carry out their tasks. They also suggested that one day a week should be taken off, usually a Sunday, but for those who worked Sundays, one full day of rest should be scheduled sometime during the week. There should also be an annual retreat for all, which took place away from their work. Clothing should remain simple; the Medical Mission Sisters wore white cotton habits and veils that were changed everyday, sometimes even twice a day. When Mother Teresa explained that the white cotton sari was to be the habit, the nuns suggested that for the sake of health, all saris should be washed everyday, and each nun should be given three saris: one to wear, one to wash, and one for special occasions and emergencies. Head coverings, while necessary to protect oneself from the hot Indian summers, were to be kept to a minimum with no starch used on any part of the headdress veil.



After only a few weeks, Mother Teresa wrote to Father Van Exem ask- ing for permission to go to Calcutta. She felt she had learned all that she could for now, and was anxious to begin her work. Reading her request, Father Van Exem was skeptical. Mother Teresa had been with the Medical Mission Sisters for too short a time. He had fully expected her to stay much longer: at least six months, even up to a year. The archbishop felt similarly; both men wanted Mother Teresa to stay longer, to make sure she had taken advantage of every opportunity for her medical training.

Still, her letters kept coming, asking for permission to leave for Cal- cutta. She had learned all she could, plus receiving knowledge about dis- eases that she most likely would not encounter in the city’s slums. Further, she argued, she would learn more about cholera, sores, and other diseases that were prevalent in the slums if she were living and working among the poor who suffered from them. The Medical Missionaries agreed with Mother Teresa; it was time for Mother Teresa to begin her mission.

Not convinced, Father Van Exem traveled to Patna to meet with Mother Teresa and Sister Stephanie to discuss what was to be done. When he arrived at Holy Family, he looked for Mother Teresa, but could not find her in the group of nurses at the hospital. Finally, a small voice answered, “But Father, I am here.”7 Father Van Exem, having never seen Mother Teresa in her sari, completely overlooked her.

Meeting with Sister Stephanie and the sister-doctor who had been overseeing Mother Teresa, Father Van Exem listened as the two explained why it was time for Mother Teresa to leave. She was ready to begin her life in the slums they told him, and they would always be there should she need advice or direction in medical matters. Father Van Exem then ex- plained that both he and the archbishop were concerned about the possi- bility of a church scandal should Mother Teresa fail in her mission. She would not make a mistake, the sisters assured him, and again they re- minded him that there were others who would share in the responsibility of her undertaking. Finding himself outnumbered, Father Van Exem re- lented: Mother Teresa could go to Calcutta.



  1. Navin Chawla, Mother Teresa: The Authorized Biography(Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1992), p. 21.
  2. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1997), p. 24.
  3. Edward Le Joly, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Biography(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 10–11.
  4. Le Joly, Mother Teresa,p. 12.
  5. Spink, Mother Teresa,p. 29.
  6. Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother TeresaThe Spirit and the Work(Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1986), p. 35.
  7. Spink, Mother Teresa,p. 33.