By Jim Towey
St. Teresa of Calcutta, known during her lifetime as Mother Teresa, died on Sept. 5, 1997. The 25th anniversary should be an occasion for reflection on the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation she founded in 1950 to work with the destitute. As religious vocations for women have declined by around a quarter since 1997, Mother Teresa’s order has grown by a third—with more than 5,100 sisters serving in 139 countries.
Why has it flourished? Perhaps in part because the strenuous demands of the calling attract only those who are fully committed to God. Missionaries of Charity wake up at 4:40 each morning and go to bed late in the evening. They receive no salaries or health benefits, forgo material comforts like air-conditioning and television, and see their families only once a decade.
Mother Teresa’s example of self-sacrifice and fearless faith serves as inspiration for her sisters as they live out their vow to provide “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.” The Missionaries of Charity operate 275 soup kitchens, 224 children’s homes, 438 homes for the dying and 10 communities for lepers. They visit elderly shut-ins, hospitalized patients and prison inmates, regularly serve or distribute food to more than a million people annually and shelter pregnant and abused women. The sisters charge nothing for their services and take no government money.
They are able to do so much with so little because they do everything with love. I saw this firsthand when I volunteered at one of their soup kitchens, in Washington in September 1985. They carefully saved everything, down to the aluminum foil they’d used to cook the chicken. When I offered to buy the sisters as much Reynolds Wrap as they needed, Sister Manorama politely declined. That wasn’t the point, she explained. They were sharing the poverty of those they served.
The conversation was similar to one that Mother Teresa had many years ago, when someone suggested that the sisters use washing machines instead of cleaning clothes by hand. Mother Teresa responded by saying that she’d taken a vow of poverty, not efficiency, and preferred “the insecurity of divine providence.”
Such heroic trust in God’s plans can lead to the ultimate of sacrifices. A year after Mother Teresa died, three sisters were gunned down by an Islamic extremist outside their convent in Hodeidah, Yemen. Three brave sisters volunteered to continue the work the order had started 25 years earlier with the city’s disabled population. But anti-Christian sentiment in Yemen only intensified, and in 2016 two gunmen stormed a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden and executed four sisters. The order hasn’t returned to that city, but they continue to operate other homes in the country.
Such harrowing situations come with the territory. A year ago, five sisters were operating a home for severely handicapped children in Kabul when the U.S. abruptly withdrew and the Afghan government collapsed. The sisters were offered seats on a plane to Italy, but they refused to abandon the 11 girls and three boys in their care. By God’s grace and with the help of the Italian government, the sisters and the 14 children were spirited from the country on the second-to-last plane to leave.
The sisters’ resolve is on display everywhere they go. In Haiti, where they’ve been since 1979, they’ve encountered two major earthquakes and unprecedented lawlessness that left the country in near ruins. They have dodged gunfire at their medical clinic, survived a highway kidnapping by gang members, and overcome blockades of their food, water and medicine by the government. The people of Port-au-Prince refer to the Missionaries of Charity as “the sisters who stay.”
Earlier this year, when Russian missiles bombarded Kyiv, the Missionaries of Charity took in 35 people and huddled with them in the basement of their convent, praying around the clock. When the siege ended, the sisters emerged and began distributing food in the neighborhood.
If a tree is known by its fruit, Mother Teresa’s was the most bountiful of harvests. The anniversary of her death gives the world the opportunity to ponder her legacy and recommit to those who need compassion and care. Few of us can hope to change the world as she did, but all of us can change the world of those around us, starting in our own families and neighborhoods, bringing a smile to the forlorn, hope to the despairing and love to the unloved. As she often said, love is a fruit always in season.
Mr. Towey is founder of the nonprofit Aging with Dignity and is author of “To Love and Be Loved: A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa,” forthcoming in September.
(Mr. Towey’s commentary originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal in its September 2, 2022 print edition.)