Canonized by Pope Francis in September 2016, Mother Teresa (1910–97) is undoubtedly Kolkata’s most famous citizen. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents, she grew up in Skopje in the former Yugoslavia. Joining the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish order, she was sent as a teacher to Darjeeling, where she took her vows in May 1931 and became Teresa. While working in Kolkata, she was moved by the terrible poverty around her; in 1948 she changed her nun’s habit for the simple blue-bordered white sari that became the uniform of the Missionaries of Charity.
The best known of their many homes and clinics is Nirmal Hriday at 251 Kalighat Rd, a hospice for the destitute. Despite local resistance, Mother Teresa chose its site by Kalighat temple in the knowledge that many poor people come here to die next to a holy tirtha or crossing-place. Her piety and single-minded devotion to the poor won her international acclaim, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. However, she also attracted significant controversy thanks to her fierce anti-abortion stance and was accused of disregarding advances in medicine in favour of saving souls. The late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens wrote a searing polemic, The Missionary Position, describing her as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”, alleging misappropriation of donations, questioning her choice of friends (including the likes of brutal Haitian dictator Papa Doc), and challenging her regressive attitudes to contraception and reproductive rights.
If you’re interested in the work of the Missionaries of Charity, they can be contacted at Mother House, near Sealdah Station at 54A AJC Bose Rd. Mother Teresa is buried here, and along with her tomb there is a small museum dedicated to her life. The appalling poverty highlighted by Mother Teresa has led to a number of NGO charities developing in the city. Established in 1979, Calcutta Rescue is a nonreligious organization that runs clinics, schools and a creche in Kolkata, as well as an outreach programme to help people in need further afield in West Bengal. An organization dedicated to the welfare and rehabilitation of street and slum children, Hope relies on volunteers and donors for its many projects throughout the city and further afield.