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Beatified by Pope John Paul II on 19 October 2003, Mother Teresa, Kolkata’s most famous citizen (1910–97), was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents, and grew up in Skopje in the former Yugoslavia. Joining the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish order, she was sent as a teacher to Darjeeling, where she took her vows in May 1931 and became Teresa. In her work at St Mary’s School in Kolkata, she became aware of the terrible poverty around her; in 1948, with permission from Rome, she changed her nun’s habit for the simple blue-bordered white sari that became the uniform of the Missionaries of Charity.

The best known of their many homes and clinics is Nirmal Hriday at 251 Kalighat Rd, a hospice for destitutes. In the face of local resistance, Mother Teresa chose its site at Kalighat – Kolkata’s most important centre of Hinduism – in the knowledge that many of the poor specifically come here to die, next to a holy tirtha or crossing-place. Mother Teresa’s piety and single-minded devotion to the poor won her international acclaim, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Subsequently she also attracted a fair share of controversy with her fierce anti-abortion stance, giving rise to accusations of fundamentalist Catholicism. She was also accused of disregarding advances in medicine in favour of saving the souls of the dying and destitute. Censure, however, seems iniquitous in the light of her immense contribution to humanity.

If you’re interested in the work of the Missionaries of Charity, they can be contacted at Mother House, near Sealdah Station at 54-A AJC Bose Rd (t033/2249 7115, closed Thurs), where there is a small museum. Although they occasionally turn casual volunteers away, they run orientation workshops (a brief introduction to their work) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 3pm to 5pm. Nearby Shishu Bhavan, 78 AJC Bose Rd, is an orphanage and a dispensary for children.

The appalling poverty highlighted by Mother Teresa has led to a number of NGO charities developing in the city. Established in 1979, Calcutta Rescue is a non-religious organization which, with the help of worldwide support groups, runs clinics, schools and a creche in Kolkata, as well as an outreach programme to help those in need further afield in West Bengal. For more information visit them online at whttp://www.calcuttarescue.org or call t033/2217 5675.

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