By 1955, Mother Teresa turned her energies to another group in need: the children of the poor. In a relatively short time, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity had made progress in providing education for poor children with the creation of schools in the slums. But providing children with an education paled beside an even bigger problem: what to do with the growing number of unwanted and abandoned children in the city.

Since India’s independence, the number of unwanted children roaming in the streets of Calcutta has increased. Orphaned, sick, and disabled children were often cast into the streets to fend for themselves. Some children tried to eke out a living by begging, others through petty crime such as stealing. Poor families, faced with the growing burden of supporting their children, abandoned them. Young girls and infants particularly were at great risk, because in Indian society boys are considered more valuable. Evidence of this cultural bias was everywhere; for the Missionaries of Charity the sight of a newborn female infant, alone and left to die, was common. For Mother Teresa, children were a special gift from God. She wrote:

Children long for somebody to accept them, to love them, to praise them, to be proud of them. Let us bring the child back to the centre of our care and concern. This is the only way the world can survive because our children are the only hope for the future. As older people are called to God, only their children can take their place.1

Even though many Catholic charities were active in this area and Calcutta had a number of orphanages, the number of children on the streets were growing too quickly for these groups to manage.



To Mother Teresa, the sight of so many unloved children was heartbreaking. It was not enough to rescue as many children as possible from the streets, the gutters, the garbage heaps, and the alleyways. What was needed was a refuge where the children could be taken, nurtured, and loved. For Mother Teresa, these children were nothing less than a symbol of the Christ child. Although other charities in Calcutta did their best to deal with the problem, it was clear that they needed help. As with Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa had once again identified a problem that was causing the city officials of Calcutta a great deal of embarrassment. As a result of her previous successes, she received recognition and cooperation from the highest offices in the city.

During one of her many forays through the city, Mother Teresa made the acquaintance of Dr B. C. Roy, Chief Minister of West Bengal and a medical doctor. Dr Roy often gave free consultations at his home office and Mother Teresa lined up with the rest of the poor every day at 6 A.M. More often than not, her requests were political, rather than medical. She told the doctor about the need for water or electricity in a slum area that she had visited. Dr Roy dutifully wrote memos to the official responsible, informing him of the problem. In time, he began to pay closer attention to the tiny nun who showed such great concern for the poor of his city. He then told her to come to his office, where he helped open the doors of various city offices to her. Mother Teresa now could call on him freely; in turn, Dr Roy trusted her completely. With his help, she began to implement her latest project for the children of the poor.

And so it was on September 23, 1955, Mother Teresa opened the first Shishu Bhavan, a home for children. Located near Creek Lane, and just a short walk from the Motherhouse, the small unpainted bungalow was the first of several children’s homes established by the Missionaries of Charity. Like Nirmal Hriday, the sisters had to clean the house thoroughly to get it ready for its new occupants. Though the house was small, it opened into a spacious courtyard; Mother Teresa had rented the home from a Muslim who had left the city.

When the first Shishu Bhavan was ready, the sisters went about in search of residents. They did not have to look far; most everywhere they went, they found children in need, many of them infants, some not even a day old. The infants were brought back to the house, cleaned, fed, and given medical treatment, as many suffered from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Those that survived were dressed in green-and-white checked clothing, then placed in boxes, packing crates, or even on the floor. Those who were too sick were held lovingly by the sisters until they died. Like the home for the dying, Mother Teresa wanted these small infants and children to be cleansed, held, and loved, even though death was imminent. As crowded as the Shishu Bhavan was, Mother Teresa never turned away a child, even if it meant that infants slept three to a cot; for those fighting for their life, a box heated by a light bulb was used.

By 1958, the Missionaries of Charity had established Shishu Bhavans to care for more than 90 children. In addition, Mother Teresa accepted a government grant that provided 33 rupees for each child. But after a few months of working within the government guidelines, Mother Teresa decided to stop taking the grant money. She believed she could do just as well spending 17 rupees per child; this allowed her to take in more children and provide them with the care they needed.

Besides seeking out children themselves, the Missionaries of Charity also sent letters to all medical clinics and nursing homes in Calcutta, stating that they would welcome any child without a home. Periodically, young pregnant women, many of whom had been cast out of their homes, would show up at a Shishu Bhavan seeking refuge. The sisters took them in, and the expectant mothers worked in the homes until they gave birth. If for some reason the new mother could not care for her child, the sisters took the child, but only as a last resort. The home also acted as an afternoon high school for young boys who would otherwise have been on the streets learning to rob and steal.



As with many of her undertakings, Mother Teresa chose a practical approach in overseeing the Shishu Bhavans. She firmly believed in teaching the older children a skill or giving them a practical education that would allow them to make their way in the world. Among the first things she did when opening the home was to acquire some old typewriters. She taught some of the older girls how to type with the hope that they could find secretarial jobs. The sisters also taught carpentry for boys and needlework for girls. Because Mother Teresa’s schools were not recognized by the government, nor would the Calcutta schools accept the children unless they paid tuition or fees, she depended on the largesse of benefactors to sponsor the children. One of the first was a wealthy Hindu woman who sponsored 10 children for 10 years.

In time, other donors would do the same. This practice helped the children to receive the education or technical skills they needed to become self-supporting. It was common, for instance, for an Indian donor to pay tuition for an infant from birth to the end of the child’s school years. Over the years, the circle of donors widened considerably, as donors throughout the world sponsored children at the Shishu Bhavans. The support monies donated for the children were placed in a bank account until the child reached school age; the funds were then used to pay for the child’s education. This system proved so successful that in 1975 Mother Teresa organized the World Child Welfare Fund, which shared the financial assistance among all of the children under the care of the Missionaries of Charity.



For residents of Shishu Bhavan who were of marrying age, Mother Teresa, in accordance with Hindu custom, helped arrange marriages. Act- ing as a marriage broker, Mother Teresa worked with other Hindu families seeking a bride for a male relative. While the social status of the girls who lived at Shishu Bhavan was, in general, low, Mother Teresa made sure that each young woman had a dowry, or gifts, to present to the prospective bridegroom’s family. These dowries always included a new sari, a few trinkets, and a wedding ring. Local benefactors also helped in many instances adding to the dowry some gold ornaments, household utensils, furniture, and in many cases, money in a small bank account opened in the future bride’s name. On any given day, the couples could be found gathering outside the Motherhouse to greet Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity. In time, a joke started to make the rounds that a prospective bridegroom had better watch his step as he was inheriting not one mother-in-law, but several.

Perhaps the most important program that Mother Teresa created for the children’s homes were adoptions. When the program began, the majority of children were placed with Christian families. Slowly, many Hindu middle-class families opened their homes to unwanted and abandoned children. Initially, boys were still preferred over girls, but, over time, many Hindu families were happy to welcome a new child, regardless of sex, into their homes. Soon, Mother Teresa began to find homes for Indian children with overseas adoptive parents from Europe and North America. However, the majority of families wishing to adopt wanted only healthy children. Though physically disabled children might find a home with European families, children with severe mental disabilities stayed at the Shishu Bhavan.

In emphasizing adoption, Mother Teresa was also battling abortion, which she strongly opposed. She once wrote that with abortion: the mother kills even her own child to solve her problems. And, by abortion, the father is told he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion leads to abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love but to use violence to get what they want.2

For Mother Teresa, adoption was the best way to combat not only abortion but the growing practice of sterilizing women to cut down on escalating birth rates. The Indian government advocated female sterilization as a way to combat population growth. To combat abortion clinics, Mother Teresa and her sisters sent word to medical clinics, hospitals, and police stations that the Missionaries of Charity would accept all unwanted children.

In addition to adoption, Mother Teresa also became involved in family planning. The Missionaries began instruction in what Mother Teresa called Holy Family Planning, which emphasized natural family planning based on the rhythm method, the only family-planning practice sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. The Missionaries also set up a number of family-planning centres where young married couples not only learned how the rhythm method worked but also learned that abstaining from sex was another way to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Despite the simplicity of these methods, teaching them to the poor had its drawbacks. One familiar story involved a woman who had already given birth to a large number of children. Wishing to avoid another pregnancy, she received instruction in the rhythm method and was given a string of beads of various colours to help her keep track of her ovulation. Several months later, she returned to one of the family planning centres, obviously pregnant. She told the sisters that she had hung the beads around a statue of Kali, and forgot about them. Then, she could not understand why she became pregnant.

As they had with her practices at Nirmal Hriday, detractors criticized Mother Teresa’s stance on abortion and sterilization. Many argued that there were too many unwanted children in India and that there was no way that the Missionaries of Charity could possibly care for every single one. Although abortion clinics were available, they were rare and costly, hardly justifying Mother Teresa’s outrage. Outlawing abortions might cause women to try to abort their unborn child themselves, often with terrible and fatal results. In the face of such criticism, Mother Teresa stood her ground and never veered away from the Church’s teachings on birth control and abortion. But the controversy was far from over; in the years to come, Mother Teresa would be a visible target for pro-choice advocates the world over.



Besides organizing the children’s homes, Mother Teresa reached out to the poor in other ways. In 1956, she organized her first mobile clinic to help those who could not get to one of the free clinics. She was aided by Catholic Relief Services in New York City, which donated $5,000 to transform an old van into a travelling medical dispensary that visited the slums throughout the city offering free medical services. With the help of some doctors, a small laboratory was set up in Shishu Bhavan to do medical testing.

The Shishu Bhavan also became a buzzing centre of activity for feeding the poor. In the home’s small kitchen, the sisters cooked as much rice as they could, which they handed out along with bananas. On any given afternoon, there were anywhere from 50 to 100 women with children waiting to receive food. For many, this was the only meal of the day.

There were some hazards in providing the free food. On one occasion, the sisters had nothing to give out for that day, for the agency that supplied them had stopped sending food to the home. The hungry crowd grew angrier and angrier; some even tried to set fire to the home. At one point Mother Teresa pushed back with surprising strength a whole line of women who rushed forward to receive their food. It was only because of the arrival of the police and fire brigade that the incident did not escalate into something more serious. On another, less dangerous occasion, the kitchen ran out of plates and the sisters used dinner plates from the Motherhouse to give to the poor.



Mother Teresa introduced the mobile dispensary in 1956 in response to another growing problem on the Calcutta streets: lepers. Earlier, the Gobra hospital, which housed many of the city’s leprosy cases, had closed,

leaving thousands of patients with no place to go. Mother Teresa had lobbied hard against the closing, but growing pressure from local residents and developers, who wanted the hospital moved away from the area, forced the city to shut down the facility. A new hospital for lepers was soon built further outside the city limits.

Mother Teresa, realizing that it would be difficult for the former patients of Gobra to go to the new facility, decided to open up her own clinic. Like the former Gobra facility, she found a site that was centrally located, which would make it easier for patients to receive treatment. However, residents in the neighbourhood, upon learning of the proposed clinic, did their best to stop her efforts. On one occasion, when she ar- rived in the neighbourhood to inspect the site, she was met by angry neighbourhood residents who began throwing stones at her. She took the angry response in stride and remarked that it appeared that God did not want the clinic in this area. She would pray for guidance.

As if in answer to her prayers, some American benefactors donated an ambulance to the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa hoped the vehicle would be the first of many mobile leprosy clinics. More help came from Dr. Sen, a physician and specialist in the treatment of skin disease and leprosy. Sen had recently retired from the Carmichael Hospital for Tropical Diseases. Unsure of what to do with his free time and having heard of the works of the Missionaries of Charity, he offered his services. Mother Teresa gratefully accepted. Assisting Dr. Sen were three sisters who had received nurse’s training.

In September 1957, the first mobile leprosy clinic was launched. The ambulance could hold six persons along with a generous supply of medicine, food, and medical records. Travelling from slum to slum, and also making a stop outside the walls of the Loreto convent, the Missionaries of Charity sought out the city’s lepers. In time, eight treatment stations were established throughout Calcutta offering hope to the city’s 30,000 persons afflicted by leprosy. The bright blue vehicle soon became a recognized symbol of help and comfort. At each stop, the sisters handed out vitamins and medicine, along with packets of food. By January 1958, over 600 lepers regularly sought treatment from the mobile clinic.



In trying to help those afflicted by leprosy, Mother Teresa faced a special kind of problem. The disease, also known as Hansen’s disease, has been documented since biblical times. It is a particularly insidious ailment, striking people with little warning. The bacterium that causes leprosy attacks the nervous system and destroys the body’s ability to feel pain. Without pain, people injured themselves without always knowing it. Injuries become infected and resulted in tissue loss. Fingers and toes become shortened and deformed as the cartilage is absorbed into the body.

 Early symptoms include discoloured or light patches on the skin accompanied by loss of feeling. When the nerves are affected, small muscles become paralyzed, which leads to the curling of the fingers and thumb. When leprosy attacks nerves in the legs, there is no sensation in the feet. The feet can become subject to erosion through untended wounds and infection. If the facial nerves are affected, a person loses the blinking reflex of the eye, which can eventually lead to dryness, ulceration, and blindness. Bacilli entering the mucous lining of the nose can lead to internal damage and scarring, which in time causes the nose to collapse. The disease is assisted in its spread by unsanitary conditions, coughing, and sneezing. In a small household with poor sanitation, it is easy for the entire family to become infected.

The disease also carried with it, in India and elsewhere, a deep social stigma. The fear of becoming contaminated often prompts lepers to be banished. After the Gobra hospital closed, there was no place for many of the lepers in Calcutta to go except the slums and the countryside, where many died neglected. Even when a person recovered from the disease, they were still shunned by the community and often could not find housing, work, or help—the social stigma of the disease was that prevalent. Although leprosy had all but disappeared in Europe and North America by the sixteenth century, it still existed in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. In 1873 Dr. Armauer Hansen of Norway discovered the bacteria that causes the disease, and a cure was almost a century away. During the 1950s, when Mother Teresa opened her first mobile clinics, leprosy was treated with dapsone pills. However, the leprosy bacilli began developing dapsone resistance hindering successful treatment.



For those stricken with leprosy, there was one place outside of Calcutta to go—Titlagarh, an industrial suburb located about an hour’s drive from Calcutta. Near the railway lines, a cluster of shanties had sprung up on either side. It was a village of the poor, with the lepers occupying the hovels alongside a swamp. The area was a human cesspool: there was no drainage or sewage, no drinking water, and no electricity. Even the wretchedly poor had nothing to do with the lepers. Townspeople and the police also stayed away for fear of infection. As a result, crime was rampant and indiscriminate; violence and murder were everyday happenings. The lepers, because of their disease and poverty, could not seek out treatment; no doctor, clinic, or hospital in Titlagarh would see them.

In the meantime, even with the success of the mobile clinic, Mother Teresa and her sisters realized that there were still a number of patients from Titlagarh who could not afford the bus or train fare every week to seek help. Those who could often found themselves banned from riding. In addition, Mother Teresa and the sisters were seeing more cases of newborns afflicted with leprosy; and it was a burden for mothers to come to the clinics. Many patients asked Mother Teresa to open a permanent clinic for them nearer to home.

When she made her first visit to Titlagarh, Mother Teresa realized that something needed to be done. Within a few months, she had established a small clinic in a shed near the railway lines. A few sisters were sent to handle the enormous caseload for the Titlagarh clinic. But it soon became evident that more needed to be done.

To draw attention to the plight of the lepers, Mother Teresa turned once again to her lay volunteers and benefactors. Many groups, hearing of the living conditions of the lepers, banded together to support a citywide collection to help them. The symbol used for the collection drive was a bell, the ancient symbol of the so-called unclean, but now pressed into service as a symbol of compassion. The slogan of the collection drive was Touch the Leper with Your Compassion; and the saying was carried on posters, signs, newspapers, and on the mobile van, too. The citywide campaign made it possible for even more lepers to be treated by uncovering other areas where groups of lepers resided.

Finally, work was begun on the construction of a more permanent building. But that project ran into early difficulties. The first attempts to improve the living conditions of the railway site were met with opposition from gang leaders who ran most of the illegal activities in the area. Stones greeted the volunteers who were cleaning up the site, but they persisted. Construction of two small cottages at last began, and with them, resistance to the construction faded. The gang leaders fled and many of the residents pitched in to help with the building. In addition to the clinic, which opened in March 1959, the facility housed a rehabilitation centre, a hospital, and a cafeteria. An assortment of utility buildings was added during a 10-year period. By the time construction was finished in 1968, the buildings constituted a mile-long stretch. Mother Teresa asked the municipality of Titlagarh for water, sewers, and electricity for the area. Children were put into local schools and slowly small shops and stalls appeared in the area where once only crime and violence had flourished.

But no sooner had the clinic opened than the municipal leaders feared an influx of lepers would come to Titlagarh. They begged Mother Teresa to consider opening yet another facility for lepers. With that in mind, Mother Teresa turned to her next project: Shantinagar.



In 1961, Mother Teresa received a gift from the Indian government: 34 acres of land located about 200 miles from Calcutta. She would pay the government an annual fee of one rupee a year for the land. The land was uncultivated, almost a jungle in appearance. With funds raised by German-children singing at a charity concert, Mother Teresa began construction of Shantinagar—The Place of Peace for Lepers.

There was not enough money to complete the project. Hoping for a miracle, the Missionaries of Charity prayed for guidance. Their prayers were answered in 1965 in the form of a white 1964 Lincoln Continental automobile. The car was originally a present from American Catholics to Pope Paul VI. The pope had the car specially flown in for his state visit to India in 1964. While there, he visited Mother Teresa and the home at Nirmal Hriday and was so touched by the work of the Missionaries of Charity that he gave the car to Mother Teresa before he left. Having no practical use for the car, Mother Teresa raffled it off, raising a much larger sum of money than she would have by simply selling the automobile. In the end, the raffle netted the order of approximately 460,000 rupees or

$100,000. With the funds raised by the raffle, Mother Teresa could pay for the main hospital block at Shantinagar.

In 1968, Mother Teresa sent Sister Francis Xavier along with several other sisters to Shantinagar to oversee the construction and maintenance of the grounds. Within the next two years, a number of key buildings went up including a rehabilitation centre and cottage for lepers built by the patients themselves. In addition, flowering trees and shrubs, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens were planted on the grounds. The nearby pond was stocked with fish, all with an eye to promoting self-sufficiency among the residents.

In time, the home for lepers offered treatment and a chance at a normal life for almost 400 lepers and their families. New arrivals were taught to make bricks in order to construct new homes for future patients. The residents tended their own cattle, grew their own rice and wheat, and tilled their own gardens. Others ran a grocer’s shop. Some residents made baskets, which are used in the nearby coal mines. There is even a printing press. Shantinagar also has its own local government with its leaders elected from among the residents. Medical treatment is not far away, and with the advent of better drugs since the 1970s, many lepers had a chance to recover from their illness. There is also a Shishu Bhavan on the premises, where children can live and be protected from the more infectious patients.

With each new success and each new undertaking, it was becoming clear that Mother Teresa possessed extraordinary vision. She was making a name for herself, not only throughout Calcutta but in India and beyond. Her great determination to help those who could not help themselves had earned her a host of supporters and a growing number of critics. As the size and scale of the Missionaries of Charity grew, so did the seeds of controversy. By the end of the 1950s, it was clear that Mother Teresa and her order would no longer toil in anonymity.



  1. Mother Teresa with Jaya Chaliha and Edward Le Joly, The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living (New York: Viking, 1996), p. 327.
  2. Mother Teresa with Chaliha and Le Joly, Joy, p. 371.