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November 9, 2019

A Dangerous Request: Mother Teresa’s Call to Calcutta

On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa felt her second vocational calling. She had been doing missionary work with the Loreto Sisters for eighteen years. But on this day, she felt what she called “a call within a call.” It was the moment when she received a request from God to do more for people in need. She wanted to start her own congregation for the people living in the slums, who often had a spirit of poverty and happiness. Although Mother Teresa wanted to start her own congregation and leave the Loreto school in Darjeeling, India to go to Calcutta, she wanted to keep her vows. Father Van Exem would call this day “Inspiration Day,” or more accurately, “Inspirations Days.”1 Father Van Exem was the person Mother Teresa trusted to help her satisfy her vision, and he later became the most important person when communicating information about Mother Teresa’s request to Archbishop Perier. So what led Mother Teresa to this point of decision in her life?

Mother Teresa, born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, was a devoted woman who spent her life helping others. At the age of twelve, she received her first “call” from God and found herself drawn to the religious life.2 At the age of eighteen, she decided to join the convent, and it was then that she became Sister Teresa. Mother Teresa was raised in a Catholic family and both of her parents were people of faith, which brought her closer to her faith and to her desire to help others. Skopje, the birthplace of Mother Teresa, was not a place where young women often entered the convent. When she made the decision to do so, it was a surprise to all of her family, especially because she would move to a distant place where she could focus on her service.3 Moving to Darjeeling was the beginning of Mother Teresa’s legacy.

Mother Teresa’s second call, to go to Calcutta, was a message that she felt was unambiguous. She stated, “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”4 After September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa experienced a retreat, during which she grew deeply engrossed in her prayers. While she was away for this time of silence, prayer, and reflection, she often wrote her thoughts on paper, which was later received by Father Van Exem. Mother Teresa’s vision was not going to be easy to accomplish. She wanted to leave the Loreto Order while keeping her vows, which was a decision that had to be approved of by the Archbishop. As weeks went by, Mother Teresa continued to pray and her vision remained the same. She wanted to live in the slums and help the less fortunate. The only person who knew about Mother Teresa’s call at the time was Father Van Exem, and his response was that she should continue to pray until January 1947. He then directed her to write a letter to the archbishop, and Father Van Exem offered to talk to him directly to get a response to the request.5

Picture of the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa, which was named in her honor in 2017 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The archbishop’s first response was not favorable. He did not understand how a priest could encourage a nun to leave the convent, but he did not claim to know what God’s will was. Besides, Calcutta already had a charity order dedicated to the poor. If the archbishop was to approve her decision, it would seem like an irresponsible decision to let a nun live by herself in the slums of India.6 There were several risks involved in Mother Teresa’s request. During that time, India was suffering from religious violence. Indians believed that all European people, including priests and nuns, were bad influences on the people.7 Although Mother Teresa’s intentions were pure, the archbishop still denied her permission, and he did not authorize sending her application to Rome for a year.

Mother Teresa’s response to this was expected. She did not accept the decision and sent Father Van Exem to talk to the archbishop again, but the archbishop gave the same response. Deciding to accept his decision, Mother Teresa focused on prayer and did not tell anybody about her plans. Only Father Van Exem knew, not her Loreto superiors, nor the Calcutta priests who were close friends with Mother Teresa.8 As time went by, they both knew that it was not going to be long before someone noticed Mother Teresa’s plan to leave Darjeeling. Due to Mother Teresa’s talks with the spiritual director, her superiors became suspicious, but they did not catch on. Soon, it became known that Mother Teresa was transferring to Asansol, which was about three hours away from Calcutta. Father Van Exem believed he was not going to be involved in Mother Teresa’s mission after her transfer, but he received a big surprise when the archbishop sent him a letter ordering him to continue being her spiritual guide. While Mother Teresa was in Asansol, she continued teaching children geography and preparing them for their first communion. Mother Teresa was happy and she continued writing letters to Father Van Exem, but it still wasn’t her end goal.

After six months, Mother Teresa was taken to Calcutta at the request of Archbishop Perier. His explanation for this change was that he had “serious reasons.” When this decision was made, the archbishop fell ill and continued to insist that Mother Teresa wait a whole year before making a permanent decision. Due to his illness, Mother Teresa prayed for him to get better. If it did happen, she would use that as her motivation to complete her missionary work. Archbishop Perier recovered from his illness and Father Van Exem claimed that it was a sign for Mother Teresa to start her work in Calcutta.9 The archbishop’s illness can be considered an important moment in Mother Teresa’s journey. At first, he was persistent in his belief that allowing Mother Teresa to start her own congregation would be an act of rebellion. After he recovered, he had a change of heart about Mother Teresa’s request.

Without revealing Mother Teresa’s name, the archbishop consulted Father Henry, a priest in the Loreto Order, about the possibility of a Mother working in the slums of Calcutta. Father Henry believed it was a good idea. After this consultation, the archbishop also went to the General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and to a specialist on Canon Law in Rome. In January 1948, Mother Teresa wrote a letter to the archbishop, once again requesting permission to leave the Loreto Order. In the letter’s response, she received permission and was advised to talk to her superiors in the Loreto Order instead of writing directly to Rome. Father Van Exem then suggested that she request an indult of exclaustration, which would allow her to leave the convent and keep her religious vows, but she would still have to answer to the archbishop.10

The archbishop had a different idea. He wanted her to request an indult of secularization, which would mean that when she left the convent of Loreto, she could never return. After Father Van Exem explained the differences between the two options of indult, Mother Teresa’s first choice was the indult of exclaustrationThis was the obvious choice, because it allowed her to do what she had wanted since the beginning: keep her vows, but do her work in Calcutta. When the archbishop read her letter, he crossed out the word “exclaustration” and told Mother Teresa to trust the Mother general. Mother Teresa, trusting what the archbishop had told her, then requested an indult of secularization instead.11 With the help of the archbishop, this final letter was sent to the head of the Loreto Order.  

Mother Teresa accompanied by Pope John Paul II during one of their encounters in 1986 | Courtesy of The Independent

About a month later, in February 1948, Father Van Exem was told to go the archbishop, and that is when he received what would become the second most important notice that Mother Teresa would receive. The content of the letter included permission to write a letter to Rome and apply for the indultThe letter also told her that she should not tell any of her superiors in the convent and that the archbishop’s permission was enough. Mother Gertrude, the Mother General of the Calcutta Order, specified that she should not request the indult of secularization, but instead, the indult of exclaustration.12

Archbishop Perier insisted that the application to Rome should go through him since he was well known in Rome. When Mother Teresa was informed that she was going to write the letter to Rome, her first response was that she did not know how to put it into words. As directed by the Mother General, Mother Teresa applied to Rome with the help of the archbishop, but he insisted that she applied for the secularization and corrected the letter Mother Teresa had written. In mid-February the letter was sent, accompanied by other documents in which the archbishop supported Mother Teresa’s mission and explained some of the work that she had already done.13 

Picture of stained glass in the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa in Prishtinë, Kosovo, made to represent Mother Teresa’s important moments in her life | Courtesy of Wikipedia

On April 12, 1948, Mother Teresa was granted permission to leave the Loreto Order for one year. She was not granted the indult of secularization, but she had permission to leave with the indult of exclaustration.14 Father Van Exem was the person to notify her, and before receiving the news, she went to pray at the convent chapel. When she received the news, her first reaction was to ask if she could leave to the slums in that very moment. Nevertheless, Mother Teresa had to sign some paperwork to confirm her transfer. She would now no longer be a Loreto nun.15

On August 16, Mother Teresa changed her habit to what would later became the official habit for her congregation, leaving behind what she had worn for over twenty years.16  After leaving Darjeeling, she went to Patna, where she would train and learn about medicine with the Medical Mission Sisters. During her time learning about medicine and different diseases, she would encounter the people who would later work with her in the slums. When the archbishop and Father Van Exem were sure that Mother Teresa was ready after her training, they started looking for a place for her to live in Calcutta. The most suitable place for Mother Teresa was with the Little Sisters of the Poor.17

As she took her place in Calcutta, Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa. It would not be until December 1948, after an exchange of letters between Archbishop Perier, Father Van Exem, and Mother Teresa, that Mother Teresa would be able to open a school with no money or supplies, but with a few children willing to learn. Due to the work of Mother Teresa, the people gave the school the nickname of “The Missionaries of Charity,” which became the official name of her congregation.18

  1. Robert Serrou, Teresa of Calcutta: A Pictorial Biography (Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill, 1980), 38.
  2. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 23-43.
  3. Gëzim I. Alpion, Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? (London: Routledge, 2007), 165.
  4. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 22.
  5. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 25.
  6. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 26.
  7. Gëzim I. Alpion, Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? (London: Routledge, 2007), 200-201.
  8. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 27.
  9. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 28.
  10. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 28.
  11. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 29.
  12. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 29.
  13. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 29-30.
  14. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 30.
  15. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 31.
  16. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 31.
  17. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 34.
  18. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 35.

Tags from the story


Father Van Exem

Loreto Order

Mother Teresa

Recent Comments

Carlos Cortes

As someone who grew up in a cradle catholic home, Mother Teresa was someone that I grew up looking up to. And as catholics this is someone in our modern times that showed us how we must live our lives in the most humblest way. This was an amazing article that talked about how the our girl went into the convent, and ultimately went from Sister Teresa to Mother Teresa.



4:05 am

Haik Tatevosyan

Ive heard about Mother Teresa before but was never really informed on her purpose or what she does, this article really educated me on her and shared a really cool story. I loved how she kept pushing through everything, persevering through it all. It really inspires others to do the same, Another thing I liked about this article is how much information it gave to the reader.



4:05 am

Haik Tatevosyan

Firstly I want to say that I love how informative and detailed this article is. It really helps the reader grasp the story mentally and help them understand what is going on. Mother Teresa is known for her hard work and kindness and its amazing seeing another story about her doing what she does best.



4:05 am

Shanita Frazier

I really enjoyed this article. I didn’t know much about Mother Teresa until after reading this. She continued to pray and stay on track with God. I really felt connected to her because I usually try to stay on track with God and believe everything he says. She showed that she was dedicated and did good things in Calcutta even though it took a little while to get to that point. I really like that the article stayed on track and let us know the process of Mother Teresa’s story. Very Good!



4:05 am

James Corley

I had a great time reading this article. As someone who grew up in a catholic home, one of the people we looked up to in our household would have to be Mother Teresa. What she did should be looked up by many Catholics in the world, as she would be so humble to put others before her. This was a fascinating and captivating article to read.



4:05 am

Karla Fabian

I really enjoyed this article, as I learned new things. Mother Teresa for me has always been a role model, and this article enabled me to know more about her, her hard work, and her strong devotion to God. It is very interesting to read how Mother Teresa was able to open a school with no money or supplies, but with children and their devotion to learning. This article reflects Mother Teresa’s devotion to God. She continued to pray and work, even though she was told no. This article is a reflection of how inspiring, empowering, and hardworking women she was, portraying her as a role model.



4:05 am

Serenity Kamenski

Mother Teresa has always been someone I’ve greatly admired and someone who has always inspired me to give a little more to those around me. Her fight to leave her convent seemed very tedious and long, but in the end, she was able to able to achieve her goal and help a lot of people in the process. Her generous spirit and never-give-up attitude essentially are what make Mother Teresa a role model for the ages. Great article by the way.



4:05 am

Nicholas Quintero

this was a very interesting and informative article on a topic that I knew little about. her cause was very noble and despite any setbacks she may have faced she did what she believed was right and the author does a great job of portraying this progression throughout the article.



4:05 am

Karlo Collazo

I thought the article was a rather interesting depiction of who Mother Teresa was. I knew some information about her back in high school as I had to do some research on certain catholic figures for my Theology class, yet I still learned a lot from the article.



4:05 am

Sudura Zakir

Mother Teresa dedicated herself to serving people and the destitute. She is an iconic role model to many people. She always seemed to know what to say to help encourage others to see the good in the world. She left a testament of unshakable faith, invincible hope, and extraordinary charity. This article was amazing and well-written. Explains everything in short about this great woman and how she contributed. Overall the article depicts most part of the story about this woman.



4:05 am

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