MOTHER TERESA - A Biography by Meg Greene, chapter name “RIGOROUS POVERTY IS OUR SAFEGUARD”


Lower Circular Road is a humming centre of activity in Calcutta. The street is filled with pedestrians and traffic. The everyday drone of people, car horns, rickshaw bells, and trams is broken occasionally by the passing of Hindu processions and political parades. With all the commotion, it is easy to overlook the residence located at 54A Lower Circular Road; the noise of the everyday world drowns out the daily prayers of the home’s res- idents.

To get to 54A Lower Circular Road, one takes a narrow lane that leads to a three-storied, grey-washed building. On closer inspection, however, one sees that there are really two houses that surround a small courtyard. Leaving the lane takes one to the front brown-painted door; here is a small chain attached to the frame, which, when pulled, rings a bell on the inside. The bell is an acknowledgement of the power outages that often plague Calcutta. Once inside the home, the visitor is in a very special place: the centre of activity for the Missionaries of Charity and their now-deceased founder, Mother Teresa.



With their move into Motherhouse in early 1953, the Missionaries of Charity had their own base of operations. Not only did the new residence offer more room for the growing number of newcomers to the order; it also had its own chapel and a dining hall. Mother Teresa also had her own quarters. Slowly, new recruits appeared asking to be taken into the con- gregation as a Missionary of Charity.

Despite the spacious new surroundings, Mother Teresa was determined that her congregation live a life shaped by extreme poverty. They would not deny themselves the necessities; however, they would reject with kind, but firm, graciousness any offers of material goods from the well intentioned, as they were seen by the order as luxuries. “Our rigorous poverty is our safeguard,” Mother Teresa said. She later explained that the Missionaries of Charity did not want to do what other religious orders had done throughout history—that is, to begin by serving the poor, but end- ing up servicing the rich, and themselves. “In order to understand and help those who have nothing, we must live like them The only difference is that they are poor by birth and we are poor by choice.”1

In the early days of the order, maintaining the vows of poverty was not that difficult. Besides their meagre possessions, the sisters soon learned how to beg for their needs as well as the needs of the poor. However, the poor came first and the needs of the order second. Still, that period was filled with a number of stories, many of them humorous, as the sisters learned to improvise given their situation and their mission.

Finding properly fitting shoes was a continual challenge for the nuns. On one occasion, Mother Teresa allocated the same pair of sandals to three different sisters, all of whom were in desperate need of footwear. On another occasion, the only pair of shoes available for one sister to wear to church services was a pair of red stiletto heels. However, she chose to wear them and the sight of her hobbling was the source of much amusement for many days.

Articles of clothing were also at a premium; habits were made out of old bulgur wheat sacks; sometimes the labels were still visible under the thin cloth cover of the white saris, even after repeated washings. One sister’s habit clearly bore the label Not for Resale under her sari. One Christmas, there were not enough shawls for the sisters to wear to Midnight mass; instead those without wore their bed covers.



When Mother Teresa first established the Missionaries of Charity, she worked hard to help prepare the young women who entered the order. Fa- ther Van Exem and Father Henry also helped instruct the newcomers in preparation for their lives as nuns. Gradually, these tasks became more the duties of senior nuns. Mother Teresa always emphasized that the work of a Missionary of Charity was no different from that of social workers. This is not completely true; social workers, while working with the disadvan- taged, often try to help correct the social ills that cause poverty in the first place. For Mother Teresa and her nuns, living among the poor and living like the poor was a means to find God and bear witness to his presence and his will.

Women who apply to join the order must meet four requirements. They must be physically and mentally healthy. They must have the abil- ity and the desire to learn. Common sense is a necessity as is a cheerful disposition; they would need all they could muster in working with the poor. Initially, women enter the order for only a few weeks or months; in this way, they can see if they are truly meant to become a Missionary of Charity. As in other religious vocations, some find the life too dismal or too hard. Others decide to leave and marry. Women who choose to re- main do so with the understanding that they will sever ties with their fam- ilies. Rarely are they allowed to return home, though periodic visits are allowed every 10 years or so; in the case of a family illness, permission is given for the sister to go home. Often, if the nun is to be sent to a mission abroad, she is allowed to visit family members before leaving.

When joining the order, a young woman spends the first six months as an aspirant and the following six months as a postulant. This period also offers an opportunity for those who wish to leave to do so. The next two years are spent as a novitiate; again if one chooses to leave the order, she may do so without receiving special permission. At the end of the two- year period, the novitiates take their first vows. The next five years are known as the juniorate; from then on, each year the candidates renew their vows in order to strengthen their spiritual commitment to God and the order. For those wishing to leave, special permission is now required from the head of the order. The sixth-year is known as the tertianship; be- fore taking their final vows, the nuns are sent home to visit with their families and to reflect upon whether they are ready to assume the duties and life of a Missionary of Charity. When asked once about what she expected of her nuns,

Mother Teresa replied: Let God radiate and live His life in her and through her in the slums. Let the sick and suffering find in her a real angel of com- fort and consolation. Let her be the friend of the little children in the street I would much rather they make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.2



The daily routine for those who chose to be Missionaries of Charity was long and gruelling. On weekdays, the sisters rose at 4:40 A.M. to the call of Benedicamus Domino (“Let us bless the Lord”) and the response of Deo Gratias (“Thanks be to God”). Dressing at their bedsides with a sheet cov- ering their heads, they went downstairs to wash their faces with water that came from the courtyard tank and was carried in empty powdered milk cans. They then collected ash from the kitchen stove to clean their teeth. Each sister washed herself with a small bit of soap; this same bit of soap was used to wash their clothes as well. Between 5:15 A.M. and 6:45 A.M. the sisters went for morning prayers, meditation, and then mass. They then went to the dining hall where each drank a glass of water before breakfast. In the beginning, there was no tea for breakfast; instead milk made from American powdered milk was given. Breakfast consisted of five chapattis (homemade bread made from wheat or other grain flours and baked without yeast) spread with clarified butter (ghee). The chapattis pro- vided strength and energy to the body and it was required that all eat their allotment, something that many had a harder time doing than going with- out food. Father Henry once told a story of how, when the first newcom- ers joined the order, they came with the expectation that food would be insufficient and one of many deprivations they would suffer. At their first meal, Mother Teresa put their plates before each one. Amazed, the women looked at the plates full of food. They were told to eat it, as it was their due. Mother Teresa then reminded them that God “wants obedience rather than victims.”3 In addition to their food, all of the residents took a vitamin pill with their meal. After their quick breakfast, the sisters were out on the streets by 7:45 A.M. to begin their work. The sisters made a point of traveling together in pairs for their own safety as well as to help one another.

In the parlour of the Motherhouse is a hand-drawn chart that lists the various activities the sisters are to do. These included providing child wel- fare and educational programs and operating nutritional daycares; family planning centers; dispensaries; leprosy clinics; rehabilitation centers; shelters for the homeless, crippled and mentally disabled; homes for unwed mothers; and hospices for the sick and the dying. A separate col- umn notes the total number of these institutions and the number of peo- ple who benefited from them. A world map with red pins denoted the areas where the Missionaries of Charity established homes or foundations. In time, Missionaries of Charity in Western Europe and the United States offered family visits and a prison ministry. The Missionaries of Charity’s emphasis in India and many Third World countries—besides helping to educate the poor and tend the dying—came to be on homes for alco- holics, shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens, and hospices for AIDS patients.

By noontime, many sisters returned to Motherhouse for prayers and a midday meal, which consisted of five ladles of bulgur wheat and three bits of meat if there was any available. After the meal, housework was at- tended to and then came a rest of 30 minutes. Afterwards, there was more prayer and afternoon tea at which the nuns ate two dry chapattis. There followed another half-hour of spiritual reading and instruction from Mother Teresa. The sisters then returned to the city.

By 6 in the evening, the sisters returned to the Motherhouse for prayers and dinner, which usually consisted of rice, dhal (a spicy dish made with lentils), tomatoes, onions and various seasonings, and other vegetables. During the meal, there was also 10 minutes of spiritual readings. After dinner, attention was given to darning and mending, using a razor blade, needle, and darning thread kept in a cigarette tin. There was also time for recreation; this was the one time that conversation about subjects other than work was permitted. The signal for this recreational conversation to begin was Laudetur Jesus Christus (“Praise be Jesus Christ”), to which the sisters answered “Amen.” Now was the time that all could share what happened to them during the day. Then at 10 o’clock, the day was over; and everyone retired for the night.

Because Sundays were often as busy as weekdays, Mother Teresa set aside Thursdays as days of respite for the residents of Motherhouse. On this day, the sisters might engage in prayer and meditation. Quite often in the early days, Mother Teresa would take her group to the home of a Calcutta doctor, where they would have a picnic and relax on the grounds. The physical demands of the sisters’ work were strenuous. On any given day, they might have to jump railway tracks or ditches or slog through pools of standing water. During the rainy seasons, there was the danger of being caught in a flash flood. Mother Teresa instructed her nuns always to say their rosaries that each sister carried with her. In time, mea- suring distances covered was not added up in miles, but in how many rosaries were said. When the conditions they encountered were desperate or terrible, the Sisters sang High Mass in Latin.

Even with the emphasis on poverty, there were times when the sisters went without necessities. When there was no fuel to cook their meals, the sisters ate raw wheat that had been soaked overnight. When their curry was too bitter and there was nothing available to improve its taste, the sis- ters ate it for the sake of the conversion to Catholicism of the Mau Mau tribe in Africa. No matter the sacrifice, the sisters did it willingly and often with smiles on their faces.

Not all welcomed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity into their lives. Some of the poor resisted the sisters’ efforts to help them, seeing them as trying to convert the poor to Catholicism. Others simply did not want charity. For those young women who offered their lives in ser- vice to the poor, rejection also waited. Many girls’ families were ashamed of their vocation to help the poor and outcasts of the city. In some cases, family members, if coming upon a daughter or sister who had become a Missionary of Charity, crossed the streets or turned away to avoid looking at them. Many parents urged their daughters to leave and were often disappointed and surprised to hear their advice rejected.



Throughout the early years of her congregation’s existence, Mother Teresa continued to work hard. Up before any of her nuns and often toil- ing long after they had gone to bed, she never ceased to work. There was always something to do, whether it was persuading those with much to part with some of their goods, overseeing the everyday activities of the Mother-house, or writing a history of the congregation. She appeared tireless, full of good cheer and ready to move on to the next task. For members of her congregation, she was nothing short of a marvel. As one sister explained, it was as if the constitution of the congregation was being acted out before their eyes. Mother Teresa exemplified for the order the joy of being poor, working hard, and having strong faith in God’s providence.

No task was too menial or disgusting for Mother Teresa to undertake. One sister, repelled at the thought of cleaning the toilet, hid away. Mother Teresa passed by, not noticing the Sister in the hall. Seeing the state of the toilet, she immediately rolled up her sleeves and cleaned the toilet herself. The sister never forgot the experience and applied herself more fully to her tasks.

From all the sisters, Mother Teresa asked for obedience. Those unable to eat the allotted five chapattis a day were not considered Missionaries of Charity material and were asked to leave. Other requirements of the order included speaking English at all times. Those who came to the order without finishing their studies were to complete them in addition to their work at the Motherhouse.

The nuns made other sacrifices in the face of cultural taboos. For in- stance, realizing that the congregation needed people with medical train- ing, Mother Teresa asked some of the first sisters to earn medical degrees even though studying medicine meant mixing with men under conditions of unacceptable intimacy. Nevertheless, the women did as they were asked even though it meant being further ostracized from their families and cultural traditions.

Mother Teresa asked nothing of others that she would not do herself. She worked with her sisters and was protective of their well being. She also continued to trust that God would meet the needs of the congrega- tion. This faith and devotion to God often rewarded Mother Teresa and her sisters in amazing ways. On one occasion when there was no food in the house, a knock came at the door. A woman standing outside had with her bags of rice. She later told Mother Teresa that she did not have any intention of going there, but for some reason came bringing the rice. That evening, Mother Teresa and the sisters had their dinner.

In another instance, Father Henry asked Mother Teresa for some money to print some leaflets. She searched the house and found only two rupees, which she gladly turned over to Father Henry. As he was leaving, he remembered a letter that he had brought for her. Opening it, Mother Teresa discovered a gift of 100 rupees. When a newcomer arrived at the Motherhouse, there was no pillow available for her; Mother Teresa offered the young woman hers, but the sisters refused to allow it, stating that she needed the pillow for her own rest. Mother Teresa insisted and while doing so, an Englishman appeared at the Motherhouse with a mattress. He was leaving the country and wanted to know if the sisters would have any use for his mattress. This and other events demonstrated to Mother Teresa the power of faith as well as God’s providence when people com- pletely surrendered their lives into his care.

As the sisters soon learned, there was a great joy to be had from small things when living the life of the poor. One of the first Christmas holidays celebrated by the group was an example. One sister recalled how on Christmas morning the sisters awoke to find that the dining area had been decorated with streamers and balloons; by each place at the table was a white paper bag with a sister’s name on it. Inside of each bag were letters from home and gifts from Mother Teresa. All the sisters received pencils; one remembered gifts of a bar of soap, a clothes peg, St. Christopher and Miraculous Medals, sweets, and a balloon. The sister remembered how thrilled she was by the gifts and Mother Teresa’s generosity toward her congregation.



By 1953, the work of the Missionaries of Charity had grown tremendously. On April 12, 1953, the initial group of Missionary Sisters took their first vows in Calcutta’s Roman Catholic Cathedral; during the same ceremony, Mother Teresa took her final vows as a Missionary of Charity. She also now succeeded Archbishop Périer as superior of the order she had founded. Despite his early resistance to Mother Teresa’s efforts, the archbishop had demonstrated his full support in the order’s early years, believing, as many others did, that God’s hand clearly was at work in his city. In time, Mother Teresa and her sisters became a familiar sight in the streets of Calcutta. As news of their endeavours spread, Mother Teresa was asked on occasion to speak about her work. As a result, many groups and organizations pledged their aid to carry out the work of the Missionaries of Charity. It took time, but soon doctors, nurses, and other lay people were volunteering their time and skills to help Calcutta’s poor. As the number of volunteer medical personnel increased, so did the number of dispen- saries to help tend to the sick and dying. Mother Teresa was also able to increase the number of schools in the slum areas; with more teachers, more poor children had the opportunity to learn how to read and write. Even the City of Calcutta eventually relented: whenever there were 100 pupils studying with the Missionaries of Charity in one area, the city

agreed to build a small school building for them.

Despite these strides, Mother Teresa felt that still she and her congre- gation were not doing enough to help the growing numbers of poor. In the wake of Indian independence, conditions had worsened throughout India and particularly in Calcutta. Malnutrition and overcrowded living condi- tions contributed to even more illness and suffering. Even the governing body of the city, the Calcutta Corporation, was powerless to help.

In the 3,000 official slums in the city, there resided more than two mil- lion persons. The overcrowded conditions forced many to seek shelter on railway platforms, in alleyways, or on city streets. Prisons were overflowing- ing and hospitals had to turn away people because they had no room. Even with the help of relief organizations, the city struggled to take care of the problem. As a result, the sick and the starving, weakened by disease and hunger, simply dropped wherever they were to die. To many, Mother Teresa and her nuns were but a small trickle of hope in a growing sea of suffering.



Confronted with the changes that the Roman Catholic Church faced as a result of Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, many of the Church’s religious orders struggled to find their place in the changing world. The pope’s goal was to revitalize the church, and he believed that changes in the liturgy and in some of the rules govern- ing religious orders would make an effective beginning. However, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, many religious orders not only implemented changes but tried to make the religious vocations more meaningful and pertinent to keep in step with the twentieth century. Not everyone welcomed these changes; some orders preferred the old ways.

Beginning in the 1970s, many religious orders underwent dramatic transformations as the Catholic Church struggled to become more mod- ern and accessible to its followers. For some women’s religious congrega- tions, these changes meant modifying the nun’s habit, and in some cases completely forgoing it. Many nuns believed that if one was to be of gen- uine service in the world, then one must wear the clothes of the real world. Others believed that by leaving behind their religious habit, which was often viewed as a barrier to working with the public, they would make people feel more comfortable around them. The practice of doing away with the religious uniform also encouraged individuality among the order’s nuns, and hopefully along with it, one’s particular talents. Others eased their rules in order to attract potential applicants to their order, es- pecially those women with backgrounds in social services, medicine, or other advanced degrees.

However, in the case of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa made virtually no concessions; even today, the order continues to attract many young women who wish to take the vows of extreme poverty and give their lives over to the service of the poor. Everything about the life of a Missionary of Charity emphasizes the long-held ideal of caring feminin- ity; that is, the traditional role of women as caretakers subservient to men. It is an ideal that also asks one to suppress one’s own will for the common good. The image is a particularly potent one in Western culture, where a woman in a nun’s habit ministering to the needs of the ill and poor is seen as the epitome of female selflessness, despite the efforts of the modern-day women’s movement to counteract this image.

Even the manner in which Mother Teresa spoke of her order reinforced this ideal. To Mother Teresa, she and her nuns were the wives of Christ crucified, their bond to God like a mystical marriage; she described the love that the Missionaries of Charity professed for Jesus in terms similar to the love between husband and wife. This is an even more dramatic con- trast to the thinking of many of today’s religious orders, who find the notion of a nun as a bride of Christ not only outdated but ridiculous.

In establishing the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa also made it clear that she would brook no interference from priests, or meddling, no matter how well-intentioned, from outsiders. She also deflected any advice about how to teach her nuns. This rigid sense of control has had some impact on the order. Although one can understand the decision not to have televisions in the homes of monastics, it was harder for outsiders to understand the absence of newspapers or magazines; in fact, there is little in the way of reading material at any of the homes. Being informed about world events, Mother Teresa thought, was a distraction. She preferred to put her trust in God, who would make known to her all that she needed to know. What books were available for the nuns tended to be of a reli- gious nature, such as books on piety or the lives of the saints. Except for the nuns who became medical doctors, Mother Teresa did not want her sisters to be any better informed or educated than those they were trying to serve, a startling contrast to orders that encouraged their members to seek advanced college degrees or specialized training.

This practice drew a great deal of criticism from within the Church. Some officials believe that education is necessary, not just the knowledge of theology but also of secular disciplines. Mother Teresa’s attitude toward education is especially puzzling since she herself valued education. Perhaps she came to regard education, like wealth and worldly goods, as a source of vanity that the devout ought to sacrifice to the glory of the Lord.

Mother Teresa left her imprint on almost every aspect of the order. The old-fashioned discipline and rigid obedience required were and are today, more than some can bear. Some did not like being told what to do all the time. Others felt that even as the women grew older and more senior in the order’s hierarchy, they were often forced to maintain a student-teacher relationship with Mother Teresa. For many, that clearly was no longer appropriate and had the effect of preventing the women from growing up. Some even felt uncomfortable using the term “Mother” as it denoted a childish dependence on Mother Teresa, which she encouraged.

Others, though, found themselves drawn to the Missionaries of Char- ity precisely because they did not have to grow up and make difficult decisions that adulthood requires. The black-and-white life of the order is such that those who are immature will have an easier time coping with its rigours than those who are prone to questioning and learning. This is in contrast to what was taking place in other orders, as rules became more relaxed and nuns were allowed to make more of their own decisions. The reforms of Vatican Council II, ironically, also contributed to a drop in vocations. In 1990, the number of women in religious orders had dropped by more than half, from a record high of almost a million women serving as nuns in 1970. Today, third-world vocations continue to increase, while in the West, the numbers continue to decline.




One of the greatest challenges that faced Mother Teresa, and that con- tinues today, was the difficult balance of realism and idealism. In some cases, the Missionaries of Charity, in their zeal to serve the poor, have made some questionable choices. In one instance the sisters removed a ra- diator from a house because the poor had no heat in their homes. Ac- cording to a nun who is a member of the Sisters of Sion, the act was patronizing to the poor   We are learning from the poor, the way we should respond to the poor is that we are in this together. Some of us are emotionally poor or poor in education. Of course, you can deprive yourself but I have had the opportu- nities of a good education, there I’m a rich person; we must recognize that and not play at being poor. You can live along- side the poor but you must also be realistic.4

While Mother Teresa and her nuns adapted to life among the poor in India and later in other Third World countries, when it came time to es- tablish homes in the West, the order often faced a different set of circum- stances. To what extent should the order inculturate, that is adapt to the culture of the poor in the West, which is often very different from that in the third world. For instance, in establishing a shelter for women in the United States, did the sisters have an obligation to make sure that the women they helped not only received housing and meals, but also help to navigate the extensive red tape of the various social agencies to find aid, jobs, or other support services? The Missionaries of Charity would say no; that their vows do not extend to doing this type of work. However, there are those in the Church who would come to feel otherwise.

In one instance, Mother Teresa’s rigorous attitude toward austerity for her order made headlines. In San Francisco, the order was given a former convent. When Mother Teresa arrived at the house, she was very un- happy, telling the bishop that the house was too big and elegant for their purposes. As a result, the mattresses, carpets, and many pieces of furniture were thrown out of the house into the street. A boiler that provided hot water was also taken out. Some in the order believed the matter could have been taken care of more discreetly and were unhappy at the ruckus the incident caused. On another occasion, Mother Teresa scolded her nuns for storing some canned tomatoes. She lectured them, reminding them that the order did not store food, but relied on God to provide for them.



The theology that Mother Teresa followed is rooted in Church teach- ings prior to Vatican II. This doctrine emphasizes the spirit over the flesh; as such, it is the spirit that must be taken care of first. This attitude stressed the glory of suffering, as the human body was often identified as weak and sinful. Modern Catholic theologians have modified this view and speak of the importance of good health for both body and soul. Gloratified suffering serves no purpose and is thought to be an evil in which no good is found. To suffer is only good if there is a purpose and the possibil- ity of turning it into something worthwhile.

For Mother Teresa, by contrast, suffering was the expected path one must travel in order to reach heaven. This attitude helps explain how such places as Nirmal Hriday, which became the home for the dying, would be run. In caring for the very ill and dying, Mother Teresa was drawing on the traditional practice of offering solace and comfort instead of medical aid. This practice dates from the medieval period when religious orders ran hospices for pilgrims or sanctuaries for the poor. There was, at best, limited medical care available; what the sisters did in these places was a help to prepare the dying person’s soul for heaven.

By the nineteenth century, this attitude underwent a dramatic trans- formation with sisters such as Mother Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Irish Sisters of Charity, whose work helped lay the foundation for the modern hospice movement. There were others too such as Dame Cicely Saunders or Sister Frances Dominica, who helped change the way that religious orders treated the seriously ill and dying. Their work is often over- shadowed by Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, whom many in the West believe had done the most to transform the way the dying are cared for. In India and other Third World countries, there is little choice in how one dies. Because of that, Mother Teresa’s work had been elevated and in some cases misunderstood. It was an approach that would make her an easy target in later years.

But for now, many of these criticisms were far in the future. Clearly, the Missionaries of Charity had struck a resounding chord within the Cal- cutta community. For Mother Teresa, there was still much to do. She and her order had only just begun their work.



  1. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1997), p. 44.
  2. Raghu Rai and Navin Chawla, Faith and Compassion: The Life and Work of Mother Teresa (Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1999), p. 47.  
  3. Edward Le Joly, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Biography (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 23.
  4. Anne Sebba, Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 169.