At just 5 feet tall and very slim, she was almost as tiny as a mustard seed. Her faith, however, was anything but small. Both the powerful and the average Joe were humbled in her presence.
Mother Teresa, an international humanitarian, is today on the path to the designation of “saint” in the Catholic Church she so loved, having already been beatified. She inspired the world with her kindness, faith in action, and steely determination — and was known for startling the politicians and world leaders who came to call on her in India by handing them a baby and a bottle and saying, “Go on, feed him while we talk.”
She chose as her life’s work aiding the poor, the ill and the destitute of the world, after receiving a “call within a call,” as she described it, on a train ride from Calcutta to the Himalayan foothills.
Mother Teresa died 18 years ago, and many of the world’s faithful will remember this humble nun’s journey from her birth in Macedonia to her work around the globe. Her journey led to many honors and awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mother Maria Thomas-Beil, abbess emeritus for the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colorado, remembers the day her abbey got a surprise visit.
“It was in May of 1989,” she told LifeZette, her slight European accent threading through her words.
“My first thought when I heard about her surprise visit to us? Awkward. We were renovating our abbey, and I was concerned about the mess,” she added with a laugh. “But Mother Teresa was attending a Right to Life Conference in Denver, and the archbishop let me know she was coming.”
Mother Teresa was already a household name by then. Born in Skopje, Macedonia, in 1910, young Mother Teresa (then known by her given name, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu) was raised in a devout Catholic family. Her father worked in the construction business and was also a trader of goods and medicine.
“We sang hymns and Mother sang very convincingly, very devoutly — and totally out of key!”
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When Agnes was 8 her father died suddenly. She became very close to her mother, who was extremely devout and had a deep commitment to charity.
“My child, never eat a mouthful unless you are sharing it with others,” she told Agnes.
At 12, Agnes felt her first calling to religious life, and at 18 she became a nun. She set off for Ireland to join the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin. It was there that she took the name Teresa after Saint Therese of Lisieux. In 1937, she took her final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“She had that special ability to always be totally present in the moment. She looked right into the eyes of the person she was speaking to.”
Thomas-Beil recalled the excitement of Mother Teresa’s visit to the abbey in 1989, telling LifeZette, “She came with five or six security guards — around that time she had been very vocal about pro-life issues, you see, and they were concerned for her safety. What I remember most is that through all the excitement, she was very warm and down-to-earth.”
Somehow, the media found out about Mother Teresa’s secret visit to the Colorado abbey, and soon they assembled in the sanctuary of the chapel.
“There was so much interest in her visit, and Mother Teresa was so kind. She had that special ability to always be totally present in the moment,” Thomas-Beil said. “She looked right into the eyes of the person she was speaking to.”
Thomas-Beil remembers one special moment of the visit: While walking through the abbey on a quick tour, Mother Teresa stood under a crucifix mounted on the wall. She paused for several minutes, looking intently at the depiction of Christ in his agony. “He said, ‘I serve,’” she commented, before moving on.
She shared later on that Christ spoke to her, telling her to abandon her teaching to aid the poor and sick in the slums of Calcutta.
Thomas-Beil also remembers a concentration that day on Psalm 139 in the Bible. “We sang hymns and Mother sang very convincingly, very devoutly – and totally out of key!”
As a young woman about to take her vows, Mother Teresa traveled to Darjeeling, India, to teach children. After she experienced her “call within a call,” her life’s path abruptly changed. She shared later on that Christ spoke to her, telling her to abandon her teaching to aid the poor and sick in the slums of Calcutta.
And so her life’s great work began. After six months of medical training, she traveled to Calcutta’s slums, with a vague but sincere goal of helping “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared-for.”
Thomas-Beil remembers this stand-out moment of Mother Teresa’s visit to the Colorado abbey in 1989: “As she was leaving, a mother came up to Mother Teresa with a child whose face was extremely deformed. She held the child’s face, giving him and his mother whatever she could offer of herself at that moment.”
Always concerned about the unborn, she said in her Nobel lecture, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”
The mission of this woman began to grow outside the slums of Calcutta after she founded the Missionaries of Charity — at first just a handful of former students and teachers gathered to help her with her work. Throughout both the 1950s and ’60s, she established a leper colony, mobile health clinics, an orphanage and a nursing home in India. The pope bestowed the Decree of Praise on her in 1965.
In 1971, now a world traveler, she came to New York City and started her first house of charity there. In 1982, on a divine mission, she secretly crossed between warring East Beirut, which was Christian, and West Beirut, which was Muslim, to aid the children of both faiths. She spread help and healing around the globe, and by 1997, at the time of her death, there were 4,000 Missionaries of Charity and 610 foundations in 123 countries on all seven continents.
In 1989, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of her work “in bringing help to suffering humanity.” Always concerned about the unborn, she said in her Nobel lecture, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”
And what of her “dark night of the soul,” discussed after her private correspondence was published in 2003, which revealed a crisis of faith for an extended period, perhaps as long as 50 years?
Thomas-Beil answered this question simply and confidently.
“Many saints as well as regular people have suffered despair of the soul and deep questioning of faith. It is very purifying — at those despairing moments, we drop all distracting crutches in our lives, and we find God in the absences.”
Mother Teresa remains an inspiring example of God’s wish for all of humanity to keep an eye on the most vulnerable in society: the homeless, the ill, the sick in spirit, and the poor.