WASHINGTON, DC - For many, she’s known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Kolkata), but her real name is Anjece Gonxhe Bojaxhiu. On September 4, she’ll become "St. Teresa of Calcutta."
As the world readies for her canonization, “one of her legacies is her community, the Missionaries of Charity, who embody her convictions and try to live it out in the world today,” says Michael Witczak, associate professor of Liturgical Studies in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America in Washington.
Today Witczak says there are about 4,500 sisters worldwide continuing the work of Mother Teresa, serving in hospices, orphanages, homes for people with AIDS and drug addictions, unwed mothers, etc.
Missionary of Charity, Washington, DC
“Every day we serve, except for Thursdays… sisters cook, some volunteers come and serve. Some days they want to serve so they cook and they bring… We start to cook at 8:30 in the morning,” Sister Nishi Gidt, one of the nuns running a Missionaries of Charity home on Wheeler Road in Southeast Washington, told VOA.
An hour later, they started to pray just before serving food that volunteers helped put together to everyone who joined the group that day.
“When I see her life and how she led by example; the good things she did for the people, her holiness, her words inspire me every day,” she said, referring to Mother Teresa.
But her conviction to serve for the rest of her life didn’t happen overnight.
“One day I was playing as a kid, then I heard some ladies who were talking about mother… I heard their life is very hard, tough life. Then I thought I am not going to join if I become a nun the mother Teresa sisterhood,” she said, adding “but as I grew…and when I was in 3rd grade, that was the first time in the school I read about her life. It struck me how the sisters are helping in relief work. That inspired me and slowly, slowly I developed my prayer life."
The center is able to function because of the dedicated helpers, some of whom have been regulars for a long time. In the past five years, Houston Roberson, a member of the Peter Claver congregation, has gone from volunteering once a month in this location to once a week.
“[I do] Whatever the women in the kitchen tell me to do,” he laughs. “Mostly I cook, help prep the food ... mop the floors when we finish also."
Roberson says you measure a man or a woman by how they treat others who have no one to speak for them. Mother Teresa was the voice of the poor and her voice still speaks to volunteers like him and others.
“Mother Teresa lives on in all of us. She showed us what it was like to be a Christian Catholic… she took the poorest of the poor and treated them with dignity and that's what we do here. We treat everyone with dignity. We don’t look down on anyone. We are just here to serve and be of service to them.”
In 2003, Mother Teresa was beatified by the late Pope John Paul II. Beatification, which requires one miracle, is the last step before sainthood, which requires two.
But while some viewed her as an international icon of charity, celebrated by heads of states and adored by millions worldwide, others criticized her heavily. That includes Christopher Hitchens author of the book “Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.”
“There’s a role in the canonization process that’s called the devil’s advocate whose whole job is to come up with all the reasons why this wouldn’t be a good thing to do." (Hitchens was invited to share his point during the process)… that she wasn’t really interested in the poor but rather in poverty and that she didn’t provide the highest quality of medical care for people, that she seems to be enamored of death rather than life,” associate professor Witczak said, recalling passages from the book.
“But Mother Teresa’s motivation was spiritual rather than medical,” Witczak noted. “The criticisms are there and they’ve been taken seriously but weren’t considered by the church to override the conviction that what she did was primarily for the good and primarily for the good of people and for the benefit of the life of the church and provided a good example for other people to follow."
She represented a good example for people like Sister Leonard, who met Mother Teresa in 1981 when she came to inaugurate this center.
“She was so peaceful and a loving person…her legacy for me is kind and merciful sister and sunshine of God’s love to the world,” she told VOA. And as she gets ready to turn 70, she feels so energetic every day, she tells herself 'just go on'. I am happy because I know that God has called me to serve the poor.”
Visitors to the mission got a chance to share some birthday cake and a birthday song for Mother Teresa, who would have turned 106 years old on August 26.