When Queen Elizabeth II met Mother Teresa
Queen Elizabeth II has met many icons during her 70-year reign but few more inspiring than Mother Teresa, the legendary nun and missionary.
Credited with changing the world through charity, Mother Teresa’s efforts have funded many worthy causes to help the poorest people in society.
Her Majesty is currently celebrating her Platinum Jubilee, marking her achievements as monarch. She has served as head of the British royal family since the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952. Her official coronation took place on 2nd June 1953.
The 96-year-old has always spoken with great admiration for Mother Teresa since they met in 1983. In recognition of her outstanding services to humanity; the Queen awarded the missionary an honorary Order of Merit.
Mother Teresa’s calling
Born in Skopje, North Macedonia, in August 1910, Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu had decided by the age of 12 to commit herself to a religious life. Inspired by stories of missionaries serving in Bengal, she left home at 18 to join a convent in Ireland, the Sisters of Loreto, in Rathfarnham, where she learned to speak English.
Arriving in India in 1929, to serve the Sisters of Loreto, she became a teacher at first. She took her religious vows at the age of 21 in 1931, taking the title “Mother” as part of Loreto custom. While teaching at the Loreto convent school in Entally, Calcutta, she became increasingly aware of the poverty surrounding her.
In 1943, the Bengal famine brought more misery to the city. In 1946, she realised her true calling was to help the poor of India and asked permission to leave the school.
In 1950, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, receiving Vatican permission. To focus on missionary work with the poor, she left the Loreto convent and lived with the people, replacing her traditional nun’s habit with a simple white cotton sari with blue border.
As part of her charity work, she opened soup kitchens, orphanages, a leper colony and a home for terminally ill people who otherwise would die destitute. She educated the poorest children in society, who would not have been able to go to school without her help. She cared for the lepers, who were shunned by most of society, and made sure homeless people had food. No matter who they were, she always treated everyone like they were her family.
The Missionaries of Charity took in hundreds of homeless children over the years. Mother Teresa opened the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart, which was a safe haven for homeless young people and orphans.
By the 1960s, she had opened more orphanages, hospices and homes for people with leprosy across India. The cause expanded internationally and a further house opened in Venezuela in 1965, run by nuns. More houses for the needy opened in Rome, Austria and Tanzania.
During the 1970s, the charity spread to the United States and many countries across Europe, Africa and Asia. Both Catholics and non-Catholics enlisted as co-workers and missionaries to spread the good work.
By the end of the 1990s, the original 13-member Calcutta organisation had grown to more than 4,000 sisters all over the world, who looked after AIDS hospices, orphanages and charity centres. No one was discriminated against. Refugees, disabled people, elderly people, alcoholics, flood victims, the impoverished and the homeless: everyone was welcomed.
In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for her work to “overcome poverty and distress” and the “threat to peace” that they caused. She would not agree to the conventional ceremonial banquet that normally accompanied the prize giving. Instead, she asked that the £153,000 cost be donated to the poor in India.
When Queen Elizabeth II met Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun had been awarded the honorary Order of Merit at the age of 73. She was only the fifth non-British citizen in history to receive the honour.
Her Majesty travelled to India to present the award in a simple ceremony on the lawn of the Presidential Lodge in New Delhi. The Queen presented Mother Teresa with the symbolic red metal insignia in recognition of her outstanding services to humanity.
Only around 12 people attended the ceremony, including some of Mother Teresa’s co-workers. There were no elaborate speeches or citations. On receiving the award, Mother Teresa said she accepted it “for the glory by God and also our work”.
Founded by Edward VII, in 1902; the award recognises people for their distinguished service in a number of fields, including the armed forces. The four previous recipients who were not British were US President Dwight Eisenhower, the US ambassador to London during World War II John Winant, physician and missionary Albert Schweitzer and former Indian president Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan.
Sadly, Mother Teresa passed away in 1997, at the age of 87, after a lifetime spent helping other people. Her legacy lives on in the shape of her global charity institutions for the needy.
In 2016, Pope Francis canonised Mother Teresa at a ceremony in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City. The ceremony was attended by thousands of people, including around 1,500 homeless people from around Italy who wished to pay their respects.
The Queen spoke with fond memories of Mother Teresa at the time. In her Christmas message in December 2016, she expressed her appreciation for everything Mother Teresa of Calcutta had done. The Queen said ordinary people could do “extraordinary things” through their quiet dedication.
In her televised speech, the Queen revealed how she drew strength from people such as carers, volunteers, community organisers and good neighbours. She described them as “unsung heroes” who were special as a result of their quiet dedication. “They are an inspiration to those who know them,” Queen Elizabeth said. “Their lives frequently embody a truth expressed by Mother Teresa – from this year, Saint Teresa of Calcutta.”
Although they met only once, the Queen never forgot the determined and dedicated missionary and nun who changed the lives of thousands of people all over the world.
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