A Brief History Of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu
By Marlene T. Elias
The little girl who was destined to become one of the most famous women on earth, was born in a small village in Albania, Skopje. Agnes was born on August 26th, 1910 to Nikola and Dronda Bojaxhiu. Nikola and Dronda wasted no time in getting their new little girl baptized, and the very next day the village priest greeted them at the village church, where he christened the baby, Agnes Gonxha. Her father called her his little Gonxha which means ‘flower bud’ (or ‘rosebud’), because of a special devotion to the “‘Little Flower” of Jesus, St. Therese of Lisieux. He cherished his rosebud and showered her with love. She blossomed in that love and the love of her mother Dronda , and her older sister, Aga and older brother, Lazar. They were a most happy family.
Nikola provided them with a good life. He co-owned a construction company and they had two homes. In the little village of Skopje, they were considered to be wealthy. Here, their little family lived a peaceful life. Agnes was a very active girl who loved to dance and sing. She and Aga sang in the church choir, where Gonxha was a frequent soloist, and many remarked, that Gonxha ‘sang like an angel. She also liked to run and play and became a tomboy of sorts, trying to compete with the boys and outdo them in games of sport. But in school, she far from excelled although she was a fairly good student.
The children’s mother and father taught them at an early age to feed the poor and help those in need, often giving money to those less fortunate than they. Dronda would take them with her when she took food, clothing or medicines to the poor. They watched her example of giving and absorbed readily the lessons taught by their Momma. Her Papa, Nikola, was an Albanian activist and Nationalist and their home was a meeting place where the children were exposed to talk of Albanian independence. He was strong in his beliefs and determined in his cause. And Gonxha learned, as she watched her Papa and listened, as he espoused the causes for freedom and fairness to his people. She learned the values of having determination and being strong in following a cause in which you believed.
In 1919, when Agnes was only nine years old, her beloved Papa, returned from one of his political dinners and became very ill. He was rushed to the hospital and in spite of all the efforts put forth by the best surgeons, they could not save Nikola, and he died. POISON was the diagnosis! Someone who wished to silence his voice, though it was never proven, saw to it that he would not go on in his fight to save his people. Gonxha was devastated. Her whole world changed. Without her Papa to take care of the family business, his partner soon robbed the business of its assets and the Bojaxhui family lost everything but their home. Dronda, a strong and enterprising woman started a small business doing sewing and embroidering and managed through hard work to keep the family together, saving her home and keeping her integrity. Where once the political bent of Nikola had entered the family, the deep religious beliefs and practices of Dronda took over. Gonxha and her siblings witnessed their mother’s compassion, when Dronda took in a woman who was mortally ill. She fed her, nursed her and gave her all the love she gave to her own children, until the woman became well enough to leave and make her way. Yes, Gonxha learned the virtue of compassion from her mother.
Dronda had the foresight to know that she must give her two daughters an education. She put them through high school, no small accomplishment in those days. Dronda taught her children to have an enterprising spirit, meeting adversity and poverty, head-on. Mother and children often attended lectures which were given by the Catholic priests and nuns, who served as missionaries. Gonxha belonged to a church group called the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where letters from Jesuit Missionaries were often read. And she heard stories about Bengal, a place in faraway India, in which they had opened churches and schools and helped the poor. Hearing that thousands died of hunger for lack of food, this inflamed Agnes’s heart and soul, delicately planting the seeds of desire to become a missionary. The many accounts touched her deeply and fired these dreams. By the time she reached her eighteenth birthday, she knew that above anything else in the world, she longed to become a missionary, so she too, could feed the hungry and help those in need.
As her desire grew, and her wish to leave became stronger, her brother, Lazar, fired by his father Nikola’s example of patriotism, left home to go to military school. When he was old enough, he joined the Albanian Army. It was a tearful and sad farewell as he left for the army. Little did he, or his beloved sister, Agnes. Gonxha, realize, that this would be the last time they would be seeing each other in this world.
With the desire growing in her heart for serving God, Agnes began corresponding with the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland, expressing her desire to go to India and serve the poor as a nun. She wrote to tell her brother, now, Lieutenant Lazar Bojaxhui, of her life choice. He was less eager than his sister about her choice. He wrote, “How can a girl like you become a nun? Do you realize that you are burying yourself?”
I can just imagine her writing her big brother her reply, which was: “Dear Lazar, You think you are so important, as an official serving the king of two million subjects. Well, I am an official, too-serving the King of the world! Which one of us is right?”
In November of 1928, Agnes left her home to join the Sisters of Loreto, a strict order of nuns who were devoted to prayer and teaching. She embarked on a journey to Ireland to begin her studies. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu would never see her mother or her village of Skopje again. She gave up all to follow Christ, never looking back.
There, in Ireland, on the 29th of November, she entered as a novice, Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, where she began her studies and learned the English language. She was fluent in the Serbo-Croation and Albanian languages. In a relatively short time, after only six weeks, Agnes did so well, she was told that she was going to be sent to India. She sailed there, and upon arrival, quickly made her way to the convent of the Loreto Sisters in Darjeeling. There she studied the languages of Hindu and Bengali and also taught classes to children at the convent.
After three years, on May 24th, 1931, Sister Teresa took her vows of Poverty, (to remain without possessions), Chastity, (promising to be pure in mind and body) and Obedience, (promising to obey her religious superiors). Agnes was Agnes no more. She now would be known by the name she had chosen, Teresa, for the saint called “Little Therese” or the “Little Flower.” She chose this name because the “Little Flower” was a Saint who believed that doing small things for others and for God, in a perfect way, was what made people saints, and, it was pleasing to God. She altered the spelling of her name to Teresa, because another nun had chosen the name Therese, and so Mother took the ‘h’ out of her new name, used an ‘a’ instead of the French ‘e’, becoming, Sister Teresa. This young nun, who would later become “Mother Teresa”, lived and practiced this ‘little way’, as her patron saint had done before her, until the day she died.
Leaving Darjeeling, she traveled south to Calcutta. Though her desire was to work with the poor, she followed her vow of obedience when her superiors assigned Sister Teresa to teach at St. Mary’s, Entally. She taught these rich Bengali girls geography and history. Eventually, Sister Teresa became the principal of St. Mary’s and shortly thereafter, the Sister Superior of the Daughters of St. Anne, a group of Bengali Sisters teaching at the school. Still her heart burned within her and her dream of helping the poor was still very much alive. As she listened to the crying on the streets outside the convent walls, she knew without a doubt, that her place was out there with the poor. That voice inside her that would not be stilled.
On September 1Oth of 1946. the day Mother Teresa called her “Inspiration Day,” Mother said, “…1 was going to Darjeeling, to make my retreat. It was in that train, I heard the call to give up all and follow Him into the slums to serve Him among the poorest of the poor…1 knew it was His Will and that I had to follow Him. There was no doubt that is was going to be His work. “This deep spiritual experience on the train (which I shall tell more about later), prompted Sister Teresa to leave the order and her position at St. Mary’s and go to live with the poor.
She sought the permission of the Archbishop, the head of the Catholic Church in Calcutta , to do just that. She asked his blessing to start a new order of nuns to help her in her work as she helped the poor. She was questioned thoroughly by the Archbishop. He sought the advice of other hierarchy on this subject and prayed with Sister Teresa, that this desire be from God. After much prayer and consideration, Sister Teresa was given the permission to be released from the Sisters of Loreto and told to await the decision of the Pope, on establishing a new order. The Holy Father approved of the formation of a new order.
And so, on August 16th 1948, at the age of thirty-seven, Sister Teresa removed the black veil and habit of the Order of Loreto and donned a white cotton sari, with three stripes of blue. On her left shoulder she pinned a small crucifix, slipped into a pair of open sandals and walked through the gates of St. Mary’s with nothing but blind, total faith, to begin her new life.
The first thing she did was to journey to the city of Patna to study nursing, the knowledge for which she knew she would have a definite need, if she were to help the sick and poor. She learned how to give injections, measure the doses of medicines, deliver babies, and perform simple first aid.
Making her way back to Calcutta, she arrived on December 21, 1948, and with five rupees (which is less than a dollar), in her pocket, she began her work with the children. She set up a make-shift school. She knelt in the dirt in between the huts, using a stick to write the letters of the alphabet on the ground. Becoming curious, the slum children, came over to investigate what this little lady was doing in the dirt. Slowly, the children came to learn. Soon, there were thirty children crouching on the ground beside Sister Teresa, learning to read and write.
After she taught them, she would beg for food to feed the poor. She and those who gradually came to help her, decided that they too, would eat the diet of the poor. Some who had been her students at St. Mary’s came to work with her, their hearts having been touched by her examples of love and caring. They collected food, by going to the church with tin pans and asking the people not to throwaway left-over food. Then, to procure the medical supplies so sorely needed. She would go each day to the offices of the medical suppliers, “waiting and praying until the suppliers gave me my medical supplies, FREE.”
Soon more nuns joined her. A friend gave them free room and board in his home. All the Sisters slept in one room, ate simple foods and lived just like the poor for whom they cared.
The permission to establish a new order came from the Pope on October 7th, 1950, the Feast of the Holy Rosary. The Order of The Missionaries of Charity was born! As head of this new order, Sister Teresa became the Mother Superior and would hereafter be known as Mother Teresa, M.C. She then officially became a citizen of India. Many young Indian girls, attracted by this holy woman, joined her order. They all took the vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. But Mother Teresa added one more vow to her order: the vow to give free service to the poorest of the poor. The order was growing so quickly, that they outgrew their first house. They needed larger quarters and were given by the government of India, an old building located at 54 A Lower Circular Road , a main street in Calcutta. On February 5, 1952_ the Missionaries of Charity moved into what was to be their Motherhouse, or main house of the order. From here Mother Teresa witnessed people who were dying in the streets, unattended and unwanted. She decided to open a home for these people who lay dying in the streets. First she had to locate such a building and have the approval of the government. She located a building close to a temple on the Ganges River. She talked to the police, the health department, and anyone of importance that she could contact, in Calcutta. Persuading them that poor people had the right to die like human beings, she did not give up her relentless inveigling on behalf of the poor. Despite heated protests of those who were wary of her, the authorities relented and gave her permission to use this building. On August 22nd, Mother and the Sisters moved into this building, which would be called Kalighat, the House of the Destitute and Dying.
Slowly, through patient effort on the part of the Sisters and Mother, they gained the trust of the Indian people. What the citizens feared was that Mother would try to change the religion of these people. But there was no attempt to do this and their main thrust was to care for their needs. When they died they were buried according to their own faith. The people who had contracted leprosy, numbered in the thousands, a disease which measured in almost epidemic proportions. Seeing this horrible disease, which is contagious, but treatable, Mother yearned to give them a haven where she could get them medical treatment and care for them as well as helping them to help themselves. She established a leper town. Here, they and their families could live in a clean, safe place and learn skills that would enable them to support themselves.
In 1960, the Missionaries of Charity began to expand their work to other cities. With Prime Minister Nehru’s enthusiastic support, a new children’s home was opened in Delhi Then, when Mother Teresa saw the city of Bombay, she openly condemned their streets as worse than those of Calcutta. At first upset with her, officials, over time, and with much patience and cajoling by Mother Teresa, were won over, and gave their support to open a mission in Bombay, which flourished and grew. The Holy Father came to India for a visit in the 1960′s. While visiting in this country, the Pope was presented with a new white Cadillac automobile in which to travel. After meeting with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity and seeing their work with the poor, the Holy Father donated the car to Mother Teresa as a parting gift. She immediately raffled off the automobile and used the money for her new leper settlement. This act was picked up by all the News Media and propelled her into the spotlight around the world! This obscure, little-known nun was now world famous. Requests for mission houses for the poor and needy poured in from all over the world.
Mother Teresa responded to these requests throughout her lifetime, establishing over seven hundred fifty places/all around the world. One by one, sending five or six Sisters to each place, a location in which there was a need, they would find a house, clean it, and soon, a mission or a school was in existence. In 1979, at the age of sixty-nine, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the highest awards to be bestowed upon an individual. The Nobel committee stated that hunger and poverty can lead to war and Mother Teresa’s efforts to fight both hunger and poverty made the world a more peaceful place. All of India rejoiced as their Mother Teresa won this most coveted award. Mother asked that instead of a banquet in her honor to celebrate the prize, that the money they would have spent be given to her to feed the poor. This and the $90,000.00 prize would feed so many poor and save many from starving to death. Mother Teresa did not stop in her never-ending battle against hunger. She continued to feed and care for the hungry, the sick and the dying, relying each day totally upon the Providence of God for this help. She never wanted to be given any glory, but instead, pointed to the God Whom she loved and said she was just His instrument. He, and He alone, deserved the honor and the praise. Thus she lived, burning herself out for others, working until she could work no more, for her beloved poorest of the poor. And so on September 5. 1997, at the age of eighty-seven, she went home to be with her God, leaving a legacy of the purest, most unconditional of loves, for her slum people, and loving all men and women, as her brothers and sisters. She spent her life in sacrifice, leaving all to serve Him in others. Her example of this selfless love, shines brilliantly, as a guiding beacon in a dark world. As the torch is passed on to Sister Nirmala and the Missionaries of Charity, we pray that her work will continue in them and bring God’s Love to a dark and hungry world. Requiescat in Pacem! Amen.