Mother Teresa Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her years of dedicated work with lepers and the poor, hungry, and destitute.

Summary of Event

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Ottoman Empire (now in Macedonia), on August 27, 1910, to Albanian parents. She was one of three children, one boy and two girls. At the age of eighteen, she volunteered for Roman Catholic missionary work and went to Ireland, where she joined the Loreto nuns. From there, she was sent to India to work first as a geography teacher and then as principal at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta. In 1948, she became an Indian citizen and received permission to work in the Calcutta slums. To prepare, she undertook intensive nursing training for three months with the American Medical Missionary Sisters. Nobel Peace Prize;Mother Teresa[Teresa] Missionaries of Charity [kw]Mother Teresa Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1979) [kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1979) [kw]Peace Prize, Mother Teresa Is Awarded the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1979) [kw]Prize, Mother Teresa Is Awarded the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1979) Nobel Peace Prize;Mother Teresa[Teresa] Missionaries of Charity [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1979: Mother Teresa Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03760] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1979: Mother Teresa Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03760] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Dec. 10, 1979: Mother Teresa Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03760] Teresa, Mother Sanness, John

Mother Teresa opened her first slum school on December 21, 1948, in Moto Jihl (Pearl Lake), named, ironically, for a discolored black sump-water pond at its center. Most of the children in Moti Jihl went naked, which emphasized their protruding stomachs, resulting from undernutrition, and their pathetically thin rib cages. Teresa’s was an “open-air” school, which she started with no slates, chalk, or blackboard. Within a few short weeks, more than forty children were attending the school every day.

On October 7, 1950, Mother Teresa’s New Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity was approved as the Diocesan Congregation of the Calcutta Diocese. Her Nirmal Hriday (Place of the Immaculate Heart) Home for Dying Destitutes Nirmal Hriday Home for Dying Destitutes was founded in 1952. Two particular events led to the home’s foundation. A naked beggar boy of thirteen had been rejected by a local hospital for treatment because of lack of funds; he returned to the streets and soon died alone in the gutter. Shortly afterward, Mother Teresa found a woman dying near a garbage dump with her body half eaten by rats and ants. Teresa carried the woman to a hospital and refused to leave until the hospital admitted the woman. That same day, Teresa went to the municipal government and offered to take care of the starving and those dying in the streets in return for the gift of a “house” to care for them. Nirmal Hriday was born from the love and care of one woman who refused to allow any “child of God” to die like an animal in the gutter.

In 1955, Mother Teresa founded Nirmala Shishu Bhavan Nirmala Shishu Bhavan (the Children’s Home of the Immaculate), a home for destitute children, including orphans, the sick, the physically and mentally disabled, children of mothers who had died in Nirmal Hriday, babies born of unwed mothers, and unwanted babies found abandoned. Most of the children suffered from undernutrition and tuberculosis. Usha, a baby girl, was just one of the reasons for Shishu Bhavan. When Mother Teresa brought the child’s mother—an emaciated, starving, feverish young girl—in from the streets, Usha was one continuous sore. Usha’s mother soon died, but the sisters nursed Usha back to health.

By 1958, ninety children were living at Shishu Bhavan. Shadona Mukherjee had also been found living on the streets with her mother and brother. Her mother died when she was seven, and she was in a state of constant physical need and psychological bereavement. She finally learned to smile again in the care of the sisters. Another child, Mary Ann, literally had been discarded on the trolley tracks at one of Calcutta’s busiest street crossings; she could neither walk nor talk, and she suffered from rickets as a result of long starvation. Rashid Sekandar, a Muslim boy of ten, was nursed back to health at Shishu Bhavan from the pain of tuberculosis of the bone. Shishu Bhavan also provided food—rice and bulgur wheat—to thousands of destitute families, and the home became a haven for many well children.

In addition, Shishu Bhavan provided free basic medical treatment and medicines to thousands of sick adults every month. The sisters distributed an array of medicines to numerous centers devoted to the treatment of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and gave free treatment to more than 13,000 leprosy victims.

In 1959, Mother Teresa opened a leprosy dispensary at Titagarh. At the time, there were 30,000 known lepers in India, and Titagarh was already treating 1,136 of them. Mother Teresa and her sisters opened Shanti Nagar Shanti Nagar (the Place of Peace), a small town for lepers, in 1969. The thirty-four-acre plot of land provided real homes and treatment for leper families and lone victims of leprosy.

Mother Teresa’s order was recognized by the Vatican as a Pontifical Congregation in 1965, thus opening the way for the Missionary Sisters’ international work with the poor and destitute. From 1965 through 1970, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity continued to expand, opening centers for the blind, the aged, the physically disabled, the ill, and the dying in nine foundations on three continents. These developments were in addition to thirteen new houses the order opened in towns and cities all over India during the same period as well as sixty centers, including schools and leper centers, in Calcutta.

Mother Teresa with John Sanness, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee, during the award ceremony in Oslo on December 10, 1979.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1970, a cyclone drowned more than 300,000 people in Bangladesh. West Pakistani troops killed three million more later that year; ten million men, women, and children fled to India to escape the violence. Mother Teresa set up a home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and several others in that country to care for the women and girls among the refugees. In one village, out of twenty-three male heads of families, seventeen were shot in a single day. The women were begging on the streets in order to feed their families. The sisters helped the women start a business making puffed rice in the “widow’s village” so that their fatherless children would not starve to death.

Before she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa had been the recipient of numerous honors and awards from her adopted country of India, from the Catholic Church, and from the world of academia. These included the Padmashree and Magsaysay awards (1962); the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding (1969); the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, the Good Samaritan Award, and the John F. Kennedy International Award (1971); the Templeton Award for Progress in Religion and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Ceres Medal (1973); and the Balzan Prize (1978).

When Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in December, 1979, she requested that the traditional Nobel banquet planned in her honor be canceled. She used the $6,000 saved in this way, along with the $190,000 Nobel prize money and other small sums of money she collected during her travels throughout Norway, to serve the poorest of the poor around the world. Mother Teresa was deeply moved when a group of children from a small Lutheran church in the Norwegian countryside donated $175 to her work out of their own pocket money.

Professor John Sanness, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, delivered the award speech, in which he recalled the work of previous recipients of the Peace Prize. Mother Teresa accepted the prize in the name of the poor. “The prize,” she said, “is the recognition of the poor World. Jesus said, ’I am hungry, I am naked, I am homeless.’ By serving the poor, I am serving him.” In her acceptance speech, she spoke of God’s love for all people, the joy of serving Jesus in the poor, the dignity of all people, and the importance of the family, of love and compassion, and of giving until it hurts. She used concrete examples from her life experience throughout her speech.


The impacts of Mother Teresa’s work for the world’s poor, sick, and destitute are not easily quantified, but the growth of her order and its missions provides an indication of her work’s importance. Teresa started her work alone and was soon joined by four nuns. By 1979, the year in which she received the Nobel Prize, the Missionary Sisters of Charity had operated 495 mobile clinics serving more than 4 million patients, 103 leprosy centers serving more than 258,000 patients, 8 leprosy rehabilitation centers serving 1,942 patients, 63 homes for the destitute dying and ill serving 7,632, 49 homes for abandoned children serving 2,770, 107 slum schools serving 15,815 children, 120 feeding centers serving 165,338, and 64 malnutrition centers serving 10,988, as well as night shelters, child-care centers, and homes for alcoholics and drug addicts. At the time of Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Missionary Sisters of Charity claimed more than 4,000 nuns, 300 associated brothers, and more than 100,000 lay volunteers working in more than 600 missions in more than 120 countries.

Mother Teresa often stated that her work hardly changed the immensity of human suffering. It is a great paradox that her work among the illiterate, drug addicts, abandoned children, and the poorest of the poor may have had a greater and more widespread impact on the educated and nonpoor. Her Nobel Peace Prize ignited a series of books and articles on her work and mission that were read not by the poor and dying but by the well-off. The humble nun became widely known and revered, and after her death, popular sentiment favored her swift canonization as a saint. On October 20, 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa, placing her one step away from canonization.

Mother Teresa tended to avoid politics; instead, she focused directly on concrete human lives and dignity. She wrote little, but her writing—like her speech—tended to be simple, clear, and direct. Her rationale for serving the poor was based not so much on a philosophical or political theory of human rights as it was on the inspiration she received from the poor themselves. Her work dramatized respect for the dignity of the human person. Mother Teresa realized that her clinics could not substitute for the widespread concern for basic human rights necessary to bring about the elimination of poverty, malnutrition, and sickness around the globe. Nobel Peace Prize;Mother Teresa[Teresa] Missionaries of Charity

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Egan, Eileen. Such a Vision of the Street. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. Definitive, in-depth account of Mother Teresa’s life and the spirit behind her work by an author who knew her personally for many years. Appendixes include dates and institutions of the Missionary Sisters and Brothers of Charity Worldwide and U.S.A., and of the International Association of Co-Workers of Mother Teresa. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le Joly, Edward. Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Biography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983. Biography written by Mother Teresa’s spiritual director of more than twenty-five years. Based on private conversations, tapes of Mother Teresa’s talks, and interviews with people associated with her work. Filled with interesting personal anecdotes. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muggeridge, Malcolm. Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 1971. Reprint. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Not a biography in the ordinary sense, this book arises out of a film on the same theme and with the same title. Includes extended quotations from Mother Teresa on a variety of topics, an interview, and an appendix that contains the constitution of the International Association of Co-Workers of Mother Teresa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porter, David. Mother Teresa: The Early Years. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986. Biography based heavily on the first complete biography of Mother Teresa published in the Albanian language, written by Mother Teresa’s cousin Lush Gjergji, an Albanian priest and journalist. Expands on the original work, adding background material and commentary. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Serrou, Robert. Teresa of Calcutta. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Pictorial biography includes an exclusive interview with Mother Teresa’s only surviving brother, Lazar Bojaxhiu, and an informative chapter, “Awards for Teresa and Her Work,” that contains her Nobel Prize address.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spink, Kathryn. Mother Teresa. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Comprehensive biography by an author who was personally involved with the work of Mother Teresa and her associates. Includes the text of Mother Teresa’s Nobel Prize address, a list of Missionaries of Charity Foundations, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Teresa, Mother. Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations, Prayers. Edited by Kathryn Spink. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983. An inspiring collection of writings by Mother Teresa and gospel texts. Organized around scriptural themes. Includes the addresses of the Missionaries of Charity in Australia, England, West Bengal, and the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. My Life for the Poor. Edited by José Luis González-Balado and Janet N. Playfoot. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. Not an autobiography in the strict sense, but the nearest thing to an expression of Mother Teresa’s story in her own spoken words. Drawn from tape-recorded speeches, letters to friends and coworkers, and other accounts of episodes in Mother Teresa’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vazhakala, Sebastian. Life with Mother Teresa: My Thirty-Year Friendship with the Mother of the Poor. Cincinnati: Servant Books, 2004. Memoir by a longtime associate of Mother Teresa. Includes letters from Mother Teresa to the author and photographs.

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