By Stan Becker
Photography by Mary Ellen Mark


It was on a day late in August in Skopje, Yugoslavia, nearly 80 years ago, that a tiny Albanian girl named Agnes was born to grocer parents. The odds against this child willingly choos­ing a life of the strictest austerity and growing into a woman capable of inspiring the entire world are so astronomical s to be incalculable. In 1979, when she was already nearly 70 years of age, she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her overwhelming humanitarian achievements. If anything, her pace has quickened in these last ten years.

Armed with a powerfully dedicated prowess (if not genius) for envisioning and directing a world‑wide chain of non‑profit missions, she has served countless numbers of the most miserably sick, starving and demoralized beings on the planet. She sits placidly amidst the most repugnant stench and horror imaginable, smiling easily, holding hands with the certainly doomed. She treats their wounds and wipes their brows. "Beautiful, beautiful," she says again and again. The world knows her as Mother Teresa.

In 1931, while at the tender age of 21, Agnes took her first vows and became Sister Teresa, naming herself after a simple French Carmelite nun who exemplified the "little way"‑striving for holiness by performing the most humble of tasks. In the modern day religious climate, where common sense and honest frugality are all but extinct, Mother Teresa is a tireless exponent of honest service and direct practical action. "I'm a little pencil in God's hands. We can do no great things‑only small ones with great love.”

In 1950, Mother Teresa drew up the constitution for the new Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, an organization pledged to offer "wholehearted free service to the poorest of poor.” Those committed to this work are vowed to love unconditionally without seeking return or results. They must live and work in the same poverty conditions as their charges. Mother Teresa's entire worldly possessions are a bed roll, sandals and a simple sari. Aspiring Missionaries of Charity are also asked to be in the possession of a "good sense of humor.” The spirit of the Society is not only one of total service but also, despite the apparent incongruity, one of cheerfulness, even delight.

It is indeed against all odds that this diminutive woman could be at the helm of a 70 chapter international service organization that is sheltering, educating, feeding and clothing hundreds of thousands every year. There are leprosy and malnutrition centers, mobile clinics, homes for alcoholics and addicts and homes for dying and sick destitutes. It is entirely characteristic of her to look upon her work as a joyful blessing and not as a hardship. "The poor do us the honor of allowing us to serve them.”