David G. Bromley Alexis Liverman

Missionaries of Charity


1910 (August 26):  Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Macedonia.

1919:  Nikola Bojaxhui, Agnes Gonxha’s father, died under suspicious circumstances.

1928:  Bojaxhiu joined the Loreto Sisters of Dublin.

1929:  Gonxha began her novitiate in Darjeeling, India. She also began teaching at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta.

1931:  Gonxha took her first vows, and the name “Teresa,” for the patron saint of missionaries.

1937:  Gonxha, now Mary Teresa, took her final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and also took the name “Mother.”

1946 (September 10):  Mother Teresa received a call from God to work with the “poorest of the poor.”

1948:  Mother Teresa became a citizen of India and underwent brief but crucial medical training to further her work.

1950:  Mother Teresa received permission from the Vatican to establish a new religious order, the Missionaries of Charity.

1953:  The first novitiates of the Missionaries of Charity took their first vows.

1963:  The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was established.

1965:  Mother Teresa received the Decree of Praise from Pope John Paul VI.

1969:  The Co-Workers became officially affiliated with the Missionaries of Charity.

1979:  Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize.

1983:  Mother Teresa suffered her first heart attack, in Rome.

1989:  After Mother Teresa suffered a second heart attack, a pace maker was implanted.

1997 (September 5):  Mother Teresa died after a third heart attack, this time in Calcutta, India. Sister Nirmala was elected to succeed Mother Teresa.

2009:  Sister Mary Prema succeeded Sister Mirmala Joshi as head of Missionaries of Charity.

2017 (September 6):  Mother Teresa and St. Francis Xavier were named co-patrons of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta.


Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, August 26, 1910, in Skopje, Macedonia, in what was part of the Ottoman Empire. The day after her birth, when she was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith, became the day she later came to recognize as her true birthday. Her father, Nikola, who was an Albanian, a local politician and advocate for Albanian independence, died unexpectedly when Agnes was eight, possibly a result of politically motivated poisoning. Her mother, Drana, who is described as a compassionate and generous woman despite the poverty of her own family, dedicated herself to raising her children as devout Roman Catholics. She emphasized the lesson that one should always help others before helping themselves (Greene 2008:6).

Agnes was twelve years old when, on a yearly pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Black Madonna, she reports having felt a “calling” to live her life for God and service to others. After a childhood and adolescence spent devoted to church activities, including singing, playing the mandolin, participating in a youth group, as well as teaching the catechism to younger members, in 1928, at eighteen years old, Agnes left her home to join the Loreto Sisters of Dublin. She first travelled to France to be interviewed, and when found suitable, was sent her to Ireland where she learned English and took the name “Mary Teresa,” for Saint Therese of Lisieux, the patron saint of missions (Greene 2008:17-18). In 1929, during her novitiate period, she was sent to Calcutta, India, to teach at St. Mary’s High School for Girls. During her time as a novice, she learned Bengali and Hindi, taught geography and history, and took her initial vows in 1931. When she took her final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 1937, she also took the name “Mother,” to precede Teresa, as is the custom in the order of the Loreto Sisters.

Mother Teresa continued to teach at St. Mary’s High School for Girls until she was made principal in 1944. Her experience at the school gave her a vivid, personal perspective on the poverty around her, and in 1946 on a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she received a “call within a call,” from Christ, who told her to leave the school and work with the “poorest of the poor,” those destitute, desperate, and alone. According to her account of the experience, God told her that she was as unworthy as any, and needed a woman like her to help the helpless and hopeless. In light of her vow of obedience to God and the Roman Catholic Church, Mother Teresa was unable to take up this calling until it was approved by the Vatican almost two years later (Van Biema 2007). She then became an Indian citizen in order to be able to receive some medical training in Calcutta. A few months later, Mother Teresa was living and working with the destitute.

By 1950, after working in the slums of Calcutta, establishing an open-air school for children, aiding in the education of impoverished adults, and opening a home for the dying, Mother Teresa had garnered financial as well as local community support. She obtained permission from the Vatican to start her own order with twelve other women who were either former students or teachers at St. Mary’s High School for Girls in Calcutta. They came to be called “Missionaries of Charity,” and were known for taking a fourth vow. After vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the sisters of this new order also vowed to “give whole-hearted and free service to the poorest of the poor” (Greene 2008:48). Pope John Paul VI awarded Missionaries of Charity the Decree of Praise in 1965, which allowed the order to expand internationally. With the help of organized lay people and lay faithful, called Co-Workers, Missionaries of Charity opened over 600 hospices, schools, counseling services, medical care facilities, homeless shelters, orphanages, and programs for alcoholism and addiction in more than 120 countries by 1997. The Missionaries succeeded in reaching countries in six of the seven continents with their aid.

After multiple hospitalizations and heart problems during her last ten years, Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack and died in Calcutta on September 5, 1997 as a result of heart, kidney, and lung complications. Sister Nirmala was elected to succeed Mother Teresa and served as head of the Missionaries of Charity until 2009 when Sister Mary Prema assumed leadership of the Missionaries. Mother Teresa’s successors continue to assert as the the Missionaries’ mission providing free relief to those most in need (Greene 2008:139).


As an order of the Roman Catholic Church, the Missionaries of Charity follow the doctrines and beliefs of the Church. Like many other Catholic orders, the Missionaries of Charity believe in self discipline and sacrifice, the renunciation of the outside world, and the seniority of the Pope (Johnson 2011a:58-84).In addition to generic Roman Catholic doctrine and doctrines of other renunciate orders, the Missionaries of Charity take a fourth vow, to wholeheartedly serve the poorest of the poor. It is not the goal of the Missionaries of Charity to correct what they may see as social ills, but rather to work with those that suffer on account of these ills, and to experience God’s love through service and their own poverty (Greene 2008:54-55). The daily rituals and traditions of the Missionaries of Charity are many, designed to ensure that no time is spent in frivolity. The Missionaries also believe that they should avoid temptation when out in the world; to do this, the Sisters are expected to keep “custody of the senses,” or avoid seeing, hearing, or touching anything unnecessary (Johnson 2011a, 2011b).


Like the Roman Catholic Church in which Mother Teresa was raised, The Missionaries of Charity follow the core rituals that distinguish Catholicism from other Christian faiths, as well as their own traditions that distinguish themselves from the over-arching Roman Catholic faith. The four traditions most central to the Catholic Church are the celebration of the Eucharist, the prayers of the Rosary, Confession and Absolution.

The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is celebrated during each Catholic mass. Bread (or wafer) and wine are used to represent the body and blood of Christ and presented to the clergy, those who have otherwise devoted themselves to the Church, and then the laity that have been confirmed within the Catholic Church. It is believed that during this time of communion, transubstantiation occurs, a change of the bread and wine to the true body and blood of Christ. This tradition is a recreation of the biblical Last Supper of Christ with his disciples.

The Rosary beads are used for prayer. Each bead is distinguished by repetitive grouping to represent specific prayers, Our Father, Hail Mary, or Glory Be. This repetition of prayer, facilitated by the pattern of the Rosary, is used for prayer and meditation on Mysteries of Christ, as well as for penance as recommended after confession.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, is a time during which clergy, those who have given their lives to the church, and laity, or the penitents, are given a chance to individually confess their sins to a priest. After the penitent confesses and expresses sorrow for his or her sins, the priest may offer an act of contrition, which may include praying the rosary or another act to benefit the community or attempt to right harm done. After the confession is heard, the priest offers Absolution, or releases the penitent of the guilt of his or her sin. Among many other daily rituals and traditions, the Missionaries of Charity pray the Act of Contrition nightly.

Other rituals distinct from the rest of the Catholic Church are two celebrations- Society Feast and Inspiration Day. Society Feast, held on August 22 of every year, is a celebration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, their patroness. Inspiration Day, celebrated yearly on September 10, is the anniversary of the day that Mother Teresa received her call to work whole heartedly with the poorest of the poor. Another yearly tradition is an eight-day retreat. In addition to silent rest and renewal, the retreat is overseen by a priest who offers daily talks and general confession (Johnson 2011a, 2011b).

Chapter of Faults is a monthly practice during which The Missionaries of Charity come together to confess and ask forgiveness for any faults they have committed over the course of the month. Each sister kneels, one by one, kisses the floor, confesses her faults, and kisses the floor again. Another tradition observed monthly is known as “renewal of permission.” Each sister kneels privately before her superior, kisses the floor, confesses her faults, and asks permission for the use of material goods. In addition to the Chapter of Faults, the Sisters also perform public penance for their sins. This might include begging for a meal then eating it kneeling, touching one’s forehead to the feet of each sister, kissing the footsteps of one’s fellow Sisters, or reciting the Paters. Once a week, the Sisters observe a “day in,” a time for rest and community gathering. During this day in gathering, reflections, apostolic work, and instructions of the superior are shared within the community. Once a month, a day in is dedicated to a silent day of recollection.

In daily corporal penance, the Sisters wear spiked chains around their waists and upper arms for at least an hour. The Sisters also engage in spiritual reading from books approved by the superiors of the Order, individually, or communally while others work. Otherwise, the Sisters work and live in silence except during meals and brief recreation time. This is meant to allow each Sister time to commune with God. The Missionaries of Charity make their own rosaries, and pray them daily, even when walking through the streets or taking part in daily chores.

Every morning and night, the superior blesses each Sister by putting her hands on each one of their heads, and saying “God bless you in blue par sari.” After waking each morning, the Sisters devote an hour to Morning Prayer, which includes prayers vocally recited from a book specific to the Order. The Sisters also practice meditation, inspired by St. Ignatius, during which they visualize themselves in a scene from the Gospel. This meditation, preceded by a short prayer for inspiration, lasts about a half hour. After meditation, the sisters vocally recite a prayer to the Virgin Mary and then St. Ignatius’ prayer called the Suscipe. Before each meal, the Sisters recite Grace as a community, and three times a day, in call and response form, along with the ringing of a bell, they recite Angelus, a traditional prayer in remembrance of the exchange between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Throughout the day, the Sisters recite parts of the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, praising Mary. An hour every day is spent in adoration of and monstrance before the Eucharist, and prayers are said before and after Communion.

Just as their form of meditation is modeled after that of St. Ignatius, the Sisters also borrow from his tradition in an examination of the conscience, or the examen. Twice a day, the Sisters visit the chapel to reflect silently on the time spent since the last examen, and then reflect upon a specific virtue to practice or vice to avoid that the Sister has chosen as a focus for months or years. The day’s first examination of the conscience is a part of Midday Prayer, during which time the Sisters gather at the Chapel and pray together before or after lunch. In the evening, the Sisters recognize a time called Vespers. This Evening Prayer is part of the Liturgy of the Hours, including psalms and the Magnificat. The Sisters revisit the chapel after dinner to pray, and there is a night prayer during which individual examen takes place again, and the Sisters participate in vocal prayers. The Sisters recite the Paters before retiring to bed, which includes Act of Contrition, Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Be. Finally, the Sisters end their nights in Grand Silence, which does not end until the next morning’s mass (Johnson 2011a, 2011b).


The Missionaries of Charity began with twelve members. In 1963, a corresponding
group to the Sisters, The Missionary of Charity Brothers, was established. Three years later Fr. Ian Travers-Ball (Brother Andrew), a Jesuit priest from Australia assumed leadership of the Brothers and headed the group for the first twenty years of its history. Contemplative branches of the Missionaries of Charity, sisters and brothers, were established in 1976 and 1979, respectively, and are devoted to prayer, penance and service. Daily routine in the contemplative branches involves substantial time devoted to prayer, spiritual reading, and silence. The Corpus Christi Movement for Priests was formed in 1981, after expressions of interest by a number of priests. Finally, in 1984, Mother Teresa co-founded the Missionaries of Charity Fathers with Friar Joseph Langford. Other organizations affiliated with the Missionaries of Charity include The Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, The Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and The Lay Missionaries of Charity (Greene 2008:140).

As the “foundress” of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa was Superior General until shortly before her death. The Superior General is elected by the Chapter General, which includes elected and appointed members. Every six years the Chapter General meets to review and evaluate the work of the Missionaries. The appointed members of the Chapter General include Superior General, Ex-Superiors General, Counselors General, and Regional Superiors. Elected members include representatives from every region covered, and representatives of Sisters in charge of formation (Johnson 2011a, 2011b). Sisters are expected to respect decisions of their superiors as result of prayer, and therefore these decisions are seen as the word of God. The Superior General oversees the active and contemplative Missionaries of Charity, Roman Catholics who not only take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but also “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.” The remaining three branches have their own hierarchy and Superior Generals.

To become a Sister of the Missionaries of Charity, the first six months are spent in aspirancy, both working and studying to further their commitment and understanding of the order. Following the period of aspirancy there is one year of postulancy, which also includes working and studying, and, for the first time, wearing of a white sari. The year of postulancy is followed by two years as a novitiate, the first including full days of prayer and study and the second including working and studying. The final novitiate period lasts six years, during which the novitiate takes temporary vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and the wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. The novitiate then begins wearing a white sari with a blue border. The novitiate works in the missions, is referred to as junior Sister, and takes her vows yearly. By the sixth year, the novitiate wears a blue sari and takes her final vows (Johnson 2011a, 2011b).

By the time of Mother Teresa’s death in 2007, the Missionaries of Charity had grown to five thousand sisters, nearly five hundred brothers, and over 600 missions, charitable organizations, shelters, and schools in over 120 countries.


The Missionaries of Charity, and Mother Teresa personally, have received both adulation and criticism. Criticisms of the Mothers of Charity and Mother Teresa have included the revelation of her long period of loss of faith even while she was presenting herself a doing God’s work, allegations of accepting donations from disreputable sources and accumulating massive funds in foundation bank accounts rather than expending them to assist the poor. The various criticisms notwithstanding, Mother Teresa has become a revered figure by world figures and ordinary individuals of all faiths around the world.

Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith became public as a result of personal letters, published posthumously in 2003. This crisis apparently began in the mid-1940s when she was working in the Calcutta slums and establishing Missionaries of Charity. According to the letters, this crisis of faith continued throughout the remainder of her life, even as she worked in response to her “call within a call.” Mother Teresa likened her lack of faith, her feeling of abandonment by Christ, to hell. At times, even as she worked in the name of God, she reported having doubted his existence. Though Mother Teresa asked for the letters containing these admissions to be destroyed, her confessors and superiors did not honor her wish, and they were published in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Van Biema 2007). In one letter to Rev. Michael Van Der Peet in September, 1979 she stated that “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear” (Van Biema 2007). The possibility that her career might be interpreted as hypocritical did not escape her, and she described her half of a century working without faith as in some ways “torture.”

A second controversy that has followed the Missionaries of Charity is their funding sources and use of charitable contributions. Mother Teresa reportedly received funding for her causes from disreputable sources, including Haiti’s Duvalier family and Charles Keating, the central figure in “The Keating Five” scandal that involved allegations of illicit protection of Keating by five United States Senators during the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis. The Missionaries of Charity has also been accused of allowing and ignoring squalid conditions to persist at Charity supported facilities, such as hospices and orphanages, while refusing to make public accountings of their expenditures of funds to support these facilities (Hitchens 1995). As one critic reported, “The donations rolled in and were deposited in the bank, but they had no effect on our ascetic lives and very little effect on the lives of the poor we were trying to help” (Shields 1998). Another critic has alleged that homes for the dying run by the Missionaries of Charity are known for having a lack of doctors to properly diagnose patients’ illnesses, using previously used or unsanitary hypodermic needles, refusing to administer pain killers to those in excruciating pain, and otherwise relying on outdated and dangerous medical practices (Fox 1994). An undercover volunteer authored reports of abusive treatment of children; he reports having seen children bound, force-fed, and left outside at night during monsoon rains (MacIntyre 2005). In addition to criticism from the medical personnel and investigative journalists, former co-workers and former Sisters in the Missionaries of Charity, including Colette Livermore (2008), have written similar accounts of the poor treatment of the suffering the Sisters were ostensibly committed to helping. According to Fox (1994), the Missionaries of Charity justify what would appear to be the furthering of suffering of the needy, abandoned, and afflicted, as reflecting Mother Teresa’s teaching that suffering brings one closer to Jesus. She allegedly has equated the suffering of man with that of Christ and therefore a gift. This “theology of suffering,” has caused the disillusionment among a number of former co-workers and Sisters (Livermore 2008), and caused skepticism about the organizations commitment to the fourth vow of “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.”

A final controversy has been whether Mother Teresa was deserving of beatification and canonization and whether the process was being handled in a fair and rigorous way or being unduly promoted by the Vatican in response to Mother Teresa’s enormous popularity. While the Vatican traditionally cannot begin the beatification process until five years after the candidate’s death, the Holy See, governed by Pope John Paul II, started the process in 1997. She was beatified in 2003, making her known to the Catholic community as “Blessed” Mother Teresa. The Holy See also abandoned the process of adversarial investigation, a process to critically explore her extraordinary work. Two miracles, involving the personal intercession of Mother Teresa, are also required as part of the process of consideration for sainthood. There is currently only one claim of a miracle, made by a Bengali woman who maintains that she was miraculously healed after holding a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa to her abdomen. However, this one claim is contested as both the woman’s husband and the attending physician insist that the woman’s cysts were cured after nearly a year of medication and treatment (Rohde 2003).

Though there are those who claim that Mother Teresa’s legacy of service is not as charitable as her champions view them, it is clear that through her world-wide efforts
and organizations, she has become a prominent and much loved figure in India, the Catholic community, and all over the world. In 1971, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize for “bringing help to suffering humanity.” She was also awarded honors such as India’s Padma Shri and the Jawajarlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, England’s Order of Merit, the Gold Medal of the Soviet Peace Committee, the United States Congressional Gold Medal, along with over a hundred other awards, including honorary degrees from a number of other countries and organizations for her endeavors with Missionaries of Charity. Perhaps the most impressive indicator of widespread respect for Mother Teresa is that she was ranked first in the United States’ 1999 Gallup Poll’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20 th Century, ahead of luminaries such as Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and Pope John Paul II.


Fox, Robin. 1994. “Mother Teresa’s Care for the Dying.” The Lancet 344 (8925): 807.

Greene, Meg. 2008. Mother Teresa: A Biography. Mumbai, India: Jaico Publishing House.

Hitchens, Christopher. 1995. The Missionary Position. London: Verso.

Johnson, Mary. 2011a. An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life. New York: Spiegel and Grau.

Johnson, Mary. 2011b. “More About the MCs.” 2011. Accessed from http://www.maryjohnson.co/more-about-the-mcs/ on 10 December 2012.

Livermore, Colette. 2008. “KERA’s Think Podcast: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning.” 15 December 2008. Accessed from http://www.podcast.com/I-451506.htm on 12 December 2012.

MacIntyre, Donal. 2005. “The Squalid Truth Behind the Legacy of Mother Teresa.” NewStatesman. 22 August 2005. Accessed from http://www.newstatesman.com/node/151370 on 12 December 2012.

Rohde, David. 2003. “Her Legacy: Acceptance And Doubts Of a Miracle.” The New York Times. 20 October 2003. Accessed from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/20/world/her-legacy-acceptance-and-doubts-of-a-miracle.html on 15 December 2012.

Sheilds, Susan. 1998. “Mother Teresa’s House of Illusions: How She Harmed Her Helpers As Well As Those They ‘Helped’.” Free Inquiry Magazine Accessed from http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/shields_18_1.html on 10 December 10 2012.

“Sister Nirmala: Mother Teresa Successor Passes Away.” BBC, Accessed from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-33234989 on 10 July 2015.

Van Biema, David. 2007. “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” TIME, 23 August 2007. Accessed from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1655720,00.html on 10 December 2012.

Post Date:
3 January 2012