It's been 10 years since Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack and died on Sept. 5, 1997 in Calcutta. She was 87.
Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents in Skopje (then Macedonia, now former Yugoslavia), she entered the Loretto Sisters at age 18. After receiving a divine inspiration on a train ride, she left the upper-middle class that she served and moved to Calcutta to found her new religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, whose mission was "to nurse the sick and the dying of the slums, to educate the children of the streets, to take care of the beggars, to give a shelter to the abandoned ones."
Her most famous work began in 1950 with the opening of the first Nirmal Hriday (Tender Heart) home for the dying and destitute in Calcutta. To this day Mother's words remain inscribed on the walls of that home: "Nowadays the most horrible disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis. It is the feeling to be undesirable, rejected, abandoned by all."
Mother Teresa was set to lead an interfaith memorial prayer service in Calcutta the day after her death for her friend, Diana, Princess of Wales, who had been tragically killed in a car accident one week earlier.
Mother Teresa and the Princess could not have been more different -- one a devout Roman Catholic nun who spent her life in the slums of Calcutta, the other a glamorous aristocrat who tripped from palace to ski slopes to beach resorts. They had at least one thing in common: Both were drawn to the wretched, the shunned and the dying. Both women knew sadness and brokenness in their lives.
Mother Teresa was granted a state funeral by the government of India. The pomp, precision and sombre majesty of Princess Diana's London farewell one week earlier were hardly visible in the chaotic scenes of Mother Teresa's simple wooden casket riding on a gun carriage through the mobbed and chaotic streets of Calcutta.
Following her death in 1997, Pope John Paul II was inundated with requests from across the globe and put Mother Teresa on the fast track to sainthood. Six years later, the Pope beatified his friend at the Vatican, in the context of his own 25th anniversary celebrations as Bishop of Rome.
Mother Teresa's life was not a sound byte, but rather a metaphor for selfless devotion and holiness. Her order now numbers more than 4,500 women ministering in more than 100 countries. Today they run more than 500 homes, hospices and shelters for thousands of dying and destitute people, plus hundreds more schools, mobile clinics, leprosy homes and AIDS hospices. In Canada, they are present in Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, St. Paul, Alta., and Vancouver. The lay cooperators of the Missionaries of Charity are legion.
Years ago, during my graduate studies in Rome, I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta while I was teaching her sisters in a slum neighbourhood on the outskirts of the eternal city. At the end of our first visit, she blessed my forehead before placing into my hands one of her famous business cards unlike any I had ever seen.
On one side of the card were printed these words: "The fruit of silence is PRAYER. The fruit of prayer is FAITH. The fruit of faith is LOVE. The fruit of love is SERVICE. The fruit of service is PEACE. God bless you." --Mother Teresa.
There was no mailing address, phone or fax number on the card. Mother didn't need an address back then. And Blessed Teresa of Calcutta certainly doesn't need one now. Everyone knows where she is and how to reach her.