Shining A Light On Mother Teresa Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of Mother Teresa's birth. Though we may argue about her religious convictions and whether or not to project the colors of her sari onto the Empire State Building, commentator Mary Johnson says we can agree that she offered all of herself in service.
NPR logo Shining A Light On Mother Teresa

Shining A Light On Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity order in 1950 to care for the poor and downtrodden. She would have turned 100 years old this August. Tekee Tanwar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Tekee Tanwar/AFP/Getty Images

Mary Johnson served as one of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity for 20 years. Her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, will be published next spring.

I picture Mother Teresa in heaven hearing people squabble over whether to light the Empire State Building for what would have been her 100th birthday. She shakes her head, wrinkles her already wrinkled nose, and mutters, "My birthday?"

Mother deplored fuss, and even ordinary courtesy when it focused on her. She canceled the traditional Nobel banquet and scolded sisters who suggested she rest. Once when I rushed through a downpour to hold an umbrella over her, she told me, "Mother doesn't need tamasha." Even birthdays qualified as such useless bother: Missionaries of Charity don't celebrate them. When asked the date of her birth, Mother frequently replied August 27, the day she was baptized.

I was 18 at the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia when I first saw this short, homely woman mesmerize crowds. She spoke of a young sister who spent hours removing maggots from a homeless man's wounds and of a hungry Hindu family who shared the rice she gave them with their Muslim neighbors. Mother Teresa gave us hope that we could make the world better. I joined her Missionaries of Charity less than a year later.

During the next 20 years I watched as Mother rushed to help earthquake victims in Armenia, disabled children in Beirut and orphans in Bucharest. Mother opened the world's first hospice for AIDS patients in Greenwich Village and even persuaded the Albanian government to change its Constitution so the country's most famous daughter could bring her sisters home. Her determination "to love Jesus as he has never been loved before" made Mother Teresa the Empire State Building of the spiritual world.

Mary Johnson is a former nun turned writer. Miriam Berkley hide caption

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Miriam Berkley

I'm not a sister anymore, and Mother Teresa died 13 years ago. I still miss her smile and the joy of her laughter. I miss the conviction that echoed in her prayers. I miss Mother's ambition, but not her methods, which were so full of paradox: The nun who rescued babies from dustbins echoed Vatican prohibitions of contraception. The woman who comforted the world's distressed called suffering "the kiss of Jesus." While preaching the sacredness of each individual, from her sisters and herself Mother demanded denial of individual needs and desires. She so exhausted herself that she sometimes snored through morning meditation, and taxed her ever-weaker physical heart until it finally gave out.

Though we may argue about her religious convictions and whether to project the colors of her sari onto the Empire State Building, we can agree that Mother Teresa offered all of herself in service. She touched our hearts and taught us to look for the best in each other. Let's honor that.