Leaving the Congregation of Our Lady of Loreto was
the biggest sacrifice of my life," Mother Teresa told me. "I
suffered a lot when I was 18, and left my family and country to go to
the convent. But I suffered a lot more when I left the convent to begin
the new experience that Jesus had proposed.
"I had received my spiritual formation, become
a nun and consecrated my life to God in the Congregation of Our Lady of
Loreto. I loved the work to which the congregation had assigned me at
St. Mary's High School in Calcutta. For this reason, I paid a tremendous
price by taking the step of leaving forever what had become my second
family. When I closed the door of the convent behind me on Aug. 16,
1948, and found myself alone on the streets of Calcutta, I experienced a
strong feeling of loss and almost of fear that was difficult to
The day before she left her convent, the Church had
celebrated the feast of the Assumption, commemorating the Assumption
into heaven, body and soul, of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The feast
specifically exalts the ideals that Mother Teresa was striving to
achieve in her new life.
Mary, bodily assumed into heaven, showed us
Christians the importance of our bodies. The Church teaches that our
bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that they will be gloriously
resurrected. Jesus redeemed our bodies and souls by His passion and
death. Mother Teresa was about to begin serving the poorest of the poor,
people whose bodies often were appalling in appearance. But even in
these conditions, they were still children of God, whose bodies are
destined to be resurrected. Mother Teresa wanted her last day in the
convent to coincide with the feast of the Assumption as a way of giving
deeper meaning to what she was about to do. She dedicated that day to
prayer and meditation on the mission she was preparing to carry out,
which would bring life and hope, as Mary's assumption into heaven did.
Thus, Mother Teresa left the convent on the morning
of Aug. 16 for the first time in 18 years without her religious habit.
She hardly made it to the middle of the street when she was overcome by
anguish. Suddenly the reality of her new state in life became clear. She
was completely alone, with no house, no savings and no work. She did not
know what she would eat and where she would sleep. She found herself in
that same terrible condition of those who have nothing— those whom she
wanted to serve.
She had to plan her own future. She was no longer
part of a religious community, nor was she a layperson. She was still a
nun, committed to God by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She
had only obtained the Pope's permission to live temporarily outside the
convent in order to found a new religious order.
She already had a very clear idea of what she
wanted to do. The "command" that she received from Jesus was
to "serve the poorest of the poor and to live among them and like
This tremendous ideal included unimaginable
sacrifices. But it was an expression of total love, and for it, Mother
Teresa made a revolutionary change in her life.
First she had to choose a habit that would reflect
her lifestyle, and that of her future companions. She chose a simple
white sari and sandals, which was the most common form of dress in
India, and the color most often worn by the common people.
The poor that she would be serving were mostly sick
people, covered with sores and often smitten with leprosy. They urgently
needed medical care, so she took a nursing course.
To do this, she moved to Patna, in the middle of
the Ganges delta, where Mother Dengel and her Medical Missionary Sisters
ran a hospital and offered nursing courses. "She was a good
student," the sisters at Patna still remember. "She quickly
learned in four months what is generally taught in a year."
Mother Teresa decided to live like the poor she
would serve. The poor in Bengal ate rice and salt, so Mother Teresa
tried to sustain herself for a while eating only a little rice seasoned
with salt. However, such a diet did not provide enough nourishment.
Mother Dengel's sisters intervened decisively. "If you continue to
eat like that, in a short time you will waste away from consumption and
die," she told her. "Then you won't be able to do anything for
Mother Teresa pondered their advice. She realized
that she had been carried away by her enthusiasm and lack of experience
and that her zeal could be fatal. She decided she and her future sisters
would eat simply but sufficiently in order to remain in good health and
totally dedicate themselves to serving the poor.
After four months, she returned to Calcutta to the
only slum with which she was acquainted, located just behind St. Mary's
High School. She had heard many horrible stories about the misery in
this slum. While she was living at the convent, she had never wanted to
step foot in this slum. Now she decided it would be her home.
She went there on Christmas Day, visited with the
women and children, and searched for a place she could fix her living
quarters. A woman rented a miserable shack for five rupees a month. This
was her first house.
The next day, Mother Teresa's voice resounded in
the shack, repeating the first letters of the Bengali alphabet. She had
already found five children to teach. There was not even a table, chair,
basin or chalkboard in her room, and she used a stick to trace the
letters of the alphabet on the dirt floor.
A few months before, she had been the principal of
the famous high school located just a few steps away and had taught the
daughters of rich families. Now she was in a slum where people lived in
misery among rats and cockroaches, teaching the children of people who
The heat was suffocating in her shack: 115 degrees
with humidity surpassing 95 percent. Mother Teresa's clothing was
clinging to her sweating body; she felt as though she was being invaded
by filth. Everything was dirty: the shacks, the paths between the shacks
that also served as sewer drains, the people and the rags they wore. On
the floor of her shack she saw insects, rats and cockroaches. The
children's heads were full of lice.
Mother Teresa remembered her school, her nice bed,
the fans that ventilated the rooms, and the clean mosquito nets. She
felt as though she had passed from heaven to hell. But it was there in
that hell that the poor were living, the beloved brothers and sisters of
Jesus, the people whom she wanted to serve. As Mother Teresa told me:
"The change was extremely difficult. In the
convent I had lived without knowing what difficulties were. I had lacked
nothing. Now everything was different. I slept where I happened to be,
on the ground, often in hovels infested by rats. I ate what the people I
was serving ate, and only when there was a little food.
"But I had chosen that lifestyle in order to
literally live out the Gospel, especially where it says, 'I was hungry
and you gave Me to eat, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was in prison
and you came to find Me.' Among the poorest of the poor of Calcutta, I
loved Jesus. When I love like that, I don't feel suffering or fatigue.
"On the other hand, after the very beginning,
I didn't have time to get bored.
The five children that I had gathered on the first
day increased. Three days later there were 25, and by the end of the
year there were 41.
"Through the children, I began to penetrate
those labyrinths of the most squalid misery in Calcutta. At that time,
the number of homeless in the city was about 1 million. I went from hut
to hut, trying to be useful. I helped those who slept on the sides of
the street, who lived on garbage. I found the most atrocious suffering:
the blind, the crippled, lepers, people with disfigured faces and
deformed bodies, creatures who couldn't stand upright and who followed
me on all fours asking for a little food.
"One day, in a heap of rubbish, I found a
woman who was half dead. Her body had been bitten by rats and by ants. I
took her to a hospital, but they told me that they didn't want her
because they couldn't do anything for her. I protested and said that I
wouldn't leave unless they hospitalized her. They had a long meeting and
they finally granted my request. That woman was saved. Afterwards, when
thanking me for what I had done for her, she said, 'And to think that it
was my son who threw me in the garbage.'
"On another occasion, I absolutely needed to
find a hut where I could shelter some people who had been abandoned. To
find one, I walked for hours and hours under the scorching sun. By
evening I felt as if I were going to faint from fatigue. Only then did I
understand the degree of exhaustion that poor people reach looking for a
little food, a little medicine, or a roof for their heads.
"I gave my life completely to God, and He was
the one who guided me. I felt His presence at every moment, and I saw
His direct intervention.
One day, while I was walking along the streets of
Calcutta, a priest came up to me, asking me to give a contribution for
some worthy project. That morning I had left the house with all the
money I had, five rupees, which amounted to about 30 cents. During the
day, I had spent four on the poor. I had only one rupee to live on the
next day and the following days if something didn't happen. Trusting in
God, I gave my last rupee to that priest. In my mind I prayed, 'Lord, I
don't have anything more, [but] I must think of You.'
"That evening a person whom I didn't know came
to my shack. He gave me an envelope and said, 'This is for your work.' I
was surprised because I had started my apostolate only a few days before
and nobody knew me yet. I opened the envelope and found 50 rupees. At
that moment, I felt as though God wanted to give me a tangible sign of
His approval for everything I was doing."
This article is adapted from a chapter in the
new book "Teresa of the Poor: The Story of Her Life" (Servant
Publications), by Renzo Allegri. Allegri is a prize-winning journalist
and author of several successful Italian biographies, including
"Padre Pio, Man of Hope."