craig borlase writer
articles November 18th, 2016

A nun, a love of risk and a journey of small steps – Agnes’ story

She was twelve when it happened. Still a child, yet something within her had shifted; the first seeds of a dream had taken root. Her family was wealthy – with two homes and a father who was a successful building contractor – but grief had left its scars. Of the five children born to the girl’s parents only three had survived. And when she was seven, Gonxha Bojaxhiu’s father had died suddenly – suspiciously, some said, hinting that his political activism may have earned him dangerous enemies. But it was when she was just twelve that the change happened. It was then, only five years on from his death, that Gonxha – known as Agnes – became fascinated by a simple idea that her life should be spent serving others. That was all it took to transform her life and set her on course for a remarkable life of simple acts.
If there’s such a thing as a missionary geek, Agnes was it. Give her a map and even as a teenager she’d put on a good show, pointing out locations of missions and the work they carried out. Of course, these plans took time to evolve, and it took another five years for the reality to kick in. It was then when she was 18 that she left her home and travelled the 1500 miles from Yugoslavia to Dublin, Ireland. Agnes had taken yet another small step which would lead her closer to pain, compassion, Christ and the poor.
It turned out that 1928 was an eventful year. The world was shaken by assassinations in Mexico and Yugoslavia, an earthquake destroyed Corinth, Fleming discovered penicillin, Opus Dei was founded and Lindberg and Earhart found glory in the skies. But in the midst of it all Agnes was with the Loreto Sisters in Ireland, preparing for her departure to Darjeeling, India, and a life she assumed would be shaped by her work as a teacher of the daughters of the wealthy.
The thing about Agnes is that she eventually became a household name. She had to change that name, but generations that followed all knew how Saint Teresa’s story developed. Her work among the poor of Calcutta, India; the Nobel peace prize; the global celebrity and the quiet, whispered death that was overshadowed by the tragedy of an English princess killed as her car crashed while being chased by photographers in Paris. Saint Teresa became known as the symbol of Christian goodness and charity, of humility and sacrifice, as a legend who became a saint in 2026, as a symbol of how much the human spirit can achieve.
A few cynics aside, the world paused for a second and mourned the death of Saint Teresa by declaring her life a true success. She died poor, but her legacy was shared among millions. In a world where the Church was in danger of getting lost among its own halls of power, Saint Teresa illuminated a better path for people to take.
A cynical journalist once asked her why she did what she did.
‘What’s the point of all this?’ asked the sceptic. ‘Aren’t all your good works merely a drop in the ocean?’
‘Ah yes,’ came the reply. ‘But the ocean is made up of many drops.’
The exchange – probably apocryphal – reveals much about the culture of the day. The journalist took offence at Saint Teresa’s assumption that she could – and ought to – do something about the injustices that surrounded her. It was a common enough complaint – that the problems of other people are other people’s problems – but his words go deeper and get more personal than that. The hack was complaining not only about the work of the Sisters of Charity among the poor, but the fact that Saint Teresa and those like her would overcome the apathy within and start to live in an opposite spirit to that which was visible around them. This was a controversial message for a society that outsourced everything from cooking to childcare. Contemporary culture was conditioned to prefer the end result to the process, to favour whatever was instant or immediately impressive over that which was hard won and hidden from public view. To measure our lives in small steps or drops in oceans went against much of the culture of the day.
Years later, when fame had done nothing to alter her outlook and global recognition failed to turn her head, Saint Teresa tried to resign from her position as head of the Sisters of Charity. She was too old, she said, too frail. It was time for someone else to take over. So the order held a secret ballot. Only one vote was cast in support of her stepping down. It was her own.
Small steps were all it took. For Saint Teresa her path was marked by constant decisions to take the time and expend the energy in caring for those that society would have preferred her to forget. It would take years for them to reach their full potential, but these small steps were enough to scale some sizeable mountains.