A solemn mass kicked off a day of remembrance Thursday on the birth centenary of Mother Teresa, known as the “Saint of the Gutters” for her life’s work with the sick and destitute of Kolkata.
The mass, presided over by Cardinal Telesphore Placidus Toppo of Ranchi, was held at the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity — the order of nuns that Mother Teresa founded in the eastern Indian city 60 years ago.
A message from Pope Benedict XVI was read out at the service, which drew around 1,000 people, hundreds of whom had to stand outside the packed chapel that was decorated with flowers and candles.
Afterwards, the nuns who succeeded Mother Teresa, Sister Nirmala and the current head of the order, Sister Prema, released some white doves as a symbol of peace and compassion.
“I am confident that this year will be, for the church and the world, an occasion of joyful gratitude to God for the inestimable gift that Mother Teresa was in her lifetime and continues to be through the affectionate and tireless work of you, her spiritual children,” the pope’s message read.
Mother Teresa, a Nobel peace prize winner and now Roman Catholic saint-in-waiting, was born on August 26, 1910 to Albanian parents in what is now Skopje in Macedonia.
As Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, she arrived in India in 1929 and two years later took her first religious vows as a nun and adopted the name under which she would achieve worldwide recognition.
As well as Kolkata, Thursday’s anniversary was to be marked in the three neighbouring Balkan states of Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo — all of which lay claim to a slice of the Mother Teresa legend.
Mother Teresa began her missionary work with the poor in Kolkata in 1948 and the teeming east Indian metropolis remained her base until her death in September 1997.
Her grave in the order’s headquarters has since become a pilgrimage site.
Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003, after being fast-tracked by the Vatican, but her elevation to sainthood is still awaiting proof of a medical miracle.
“We don’t have it yet,” Sister Prema, who took charge of the order last year, told AFP on Thursday. “Miracles depend on God, not on people. We are waiting.”
For all the reverence with which her name and memory are treated, Mother Teresa was not without her critics.
One her most vocal detractors was the British-born author Christopher Hitchens who, in a 1994 documentary called “Hell’s Angel,” accused her of being a political opportunist who failed those in her care and contributed to the misery of the poor with her strident opposition to contraception and abortion.
Questions have also been raised over the Missionaries of Charity’s finances, as well as conditions in the order’s hospices where there has been resistance to introducing modern hygiene methods.
A series of Mother Teresa’s letters published in 2007 also caused some consternation among her admirers as it became clear that she had suffered crises of faith for most of her life.
She was granted Indian citizenship in 1951 and received a state funeral after her death.