For the Wretched Poor of Calcutta, Mother Teresa Is Revered as the Sidewalk Saint

Mother Teresa was supervising the distribution of free milk to a long line of gaunt women near Calcutta’s Sealdah station, gathering place of the wretched city’s most desperate poor. A woman approached the nun explaining that the week-old infant girl in her arms had been abandoned in a nearby public toilet.

“Will you keep the baby?” asked Mother Teresa in Bengali.

“I cannot. I am destitute,” replied the woman. “Will you take it?”

“Yes,” said Mother Teresa, reaching out for the child. “What a sweet baby.”

What Mother Teresa will do in such circumstances is never in doubt. Founder of the Society of the Missionaries of Charity in 1950, the 64-year-old native of Yugoslavia has become revered as the Saint of the Sidewalks—taking in the homeless, the dying and the unwanted of Calcutta. (The baby found that evening was christened Carmelita and sent to the Society’s orphanage.)

Mother Teresa’s ministry is not limited to Calcutta, the teeming (3.2 million population) capital of West Bengal. She recently returned from a month-long inspection tour of the five centers her order runs in Australia and the Southwest Pacific. In 25 years the Society has grown into a worldwide organization, with 954 sisters operating 80 homes for the poor—26 of them outside India, in such places as Peru, Tanzania and even New York’s South Bronx. “Our work is for people who have forgotten how to smile, forgotten the human touch and have a greater hunger for these than for a plate of rice,” Mother Teresa says. “Such hunger is even greater in the West than in India and Africa, where the problem is material poverty.”

Mother Teresa herself has been honored in many lands. She received the Philippines’ Magsaysay Foundation Award in 1962, the Vatican’s first John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1972 and the American Templeton Prize in 1973 for “progress in religion.” This year she has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by members of the Indian parliament.

But as celebrated as she has become, Mother Teresa still spends most of her days at a relentless pace that begins at 4:30 a.m. and rarely ends before 9 p.m. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910, the daughter of an Albanian grocer in Skoplje, she decided at the age of 12 to become a nun. Six years later she joined the Loreto order in Ireland that was doing work in India. Not long after her 19th birthday, she sailed for Darjeeling.

Mother Teresa had been in India for 17 years and was principal of a Loreto convent school when, on a train to Darjeeling for a retreat in 1946, she “heard the call to give up all and follow Him into the slums to serve Him among the poorest of the poor.”

She promptly asked for a release from her vow to spend the rest of her life within the convent. Her request granted by Pope Pius XII, the 38-year-old woman entered the city’s slums, clad in the blue-trimmed, white cotton sari that would become the habit of her order. At first she started a small school for poor children. But one day she saw an ambulance driver drop a dying man onto the sidewalk because no hospital would take him in. She was inspired to establish a center where the poor could die with dignity.

Mother Teresa won the support of the Calcutta municipal government, which was eager to get the dying off the streets. She was given a building at the entrance to the ancient Kali Temple in 1952, which she called Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart). Since then more than 31,000 people have been given refuge—and half of them have died there.

As other women, most of them Indian, came to join Mother Teresa, she formed the new order. Her Society is financed by individual contributions, the prize money that accompanies the awards to Mother Teresa and by her considerable business acumen. When Pope Paul visited India in 1964 he left Mother Teresa the white Lincoln he had used to tour the country, “to assist her,” he said, “in her universal mission of love.” She promptly raffled off the car to raise money for a leper colony.

Mother Teresa, in fact, has shown such genius for recruiting government cooperation and efficiently using her meager resources that an acquaintance suggested recently that she would have made a great dictator or general.

“I wouldn’t want to be either of those,” she said with a laugh. “I would rather make a mistake with kindness than work miracles with unkindness.”

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