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"A heartfelt, personal story of the gradual awakening of a woman who comes to see that preferring the 'human to the perfect' does not alienate her from authentic spirituality but allows her to live more fully."

Kathleen Norris,
author of The Cloister Walk

Photos by keepwaddling1, theboywiththethorninhisside, martingarri, and Wonderlane via flickr.More About The MCs

Readers won't need a dictionary to make sense of my story, but this Appendix and Glossary will help you understand more about Catholic religious life, and in particular about the Missionaries of Charity. Each community of nuns is unique; what I say about MC life does not apply to every community of nuns. Some details have changed since I was a nun; the explanations below were true of MC life as I experienced it from 1977 to 1997.

Note: Though technically the Missionaries of Charity are not nuns in the canonical sense of the term (technically the MCs are active religious sisters), I’ve chosen to use nun to describe the Missionaries of Charity because of the term’s familiarity.


How the Missionaries of Charity began

On September 10, 1946, a day known to Missionaries of Charity as Inspiration Day, Mother Teresa boarded a train to Darjeeling for her annual retreat. At the time, this thirty-eight year old Loreto nun of Albanian descent was headmistress of a girls’ school in Calcutta. On the train, Mother Teresa experienced a “call within a call.” She understood that Jesus was asking her to satiate His thirst by serving Him in the poorest of the poor. During the following weeks, Mother Teresa had what she described as an ongoing conversation with Jesus in which she heard Him ask her to begin a religious community dedicated to the service of the poorest of the poor.

After nearly two years, Mother Teresa received permission to leave the Loreto convent. On August 17, 1948, she dressed for the first time in a white sari with a blue border to begin her work in the slums. The first women to join her had been her former students. On October 7, 1950, the Missionaries of Charity were officially established in the Archdiocese of Calcutta. On April 12, 1952, twelve sisters took first vows as Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa took final vows as a Missionary of Charity.

Over the years, the Missionaries of Charity grew into a large religious family, with several branches.

The Family of the Missionaries of Charity

By the time of Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Missionaries of Charity sisters numbered nearly four thousand, in 610 foundations in 123 countries. Brothers, priests, and lay people also affiliated themselves with the Missionaries of Charity in several ways.

Mother referred to the expanding family of the Missionaries of Charity as five branches growing from the one vine Jesus:

  • 1950: Active Sisters, known as Missionaries of Charity
  • 1963: Active Brothers, known as Missionaries of Charity Brothers
  • 1976: Contemplative Sisters, known as Missionaries of Charity, Contemplative branch
  • 1979: Contemplative Brothers, known as Missionaries of Charity-Contemplative Brothers
  • 1984: Priests, known as the Missionaries of Charity Fathers

All five different branches form the family of the Missionaries of Charity. All MCs are Roman Catholics who vow themselves to chastity, poverty, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. The active and contemplative sisters share one Superior General. The other three MC branches are governed separately, each with their own Superior General and hierarchy.

Throughout the world, people of many faiths and situations in life were also inspired by Mother Teresa. Some of these people chose to affiliate themselves with the Missionaries of Charity in various ways, often working alongside the sisters or brothers. Groups affiliated with the MCs include:

  • The Co-Workers of Mother Teresa
  • The Sick and Suffering Co-Workers
  • The Lay Missionaries of Charity
  • The Corpus Christi Movement for Priests

The Authority Structure of the Missionaries of Charity

Authority over the entire community of MC sisters is invested in the Superior General. From the beginning of the community until the last few months of her life, Mother Teresa held the position of Superior General. She also held the title foundress, since she received the initial inspiration for the community, wrote the Constitutions, and gathered the first sisters. Since 1961, the Superior General has been elected by the Chapter General.

The Chapter General (also known as the General Chapter) gathers every six years, and is made up of both appointed and elected members. The Chapter General discusses the life and work of the community and elects the Superior General and the Councilors General. Members of the Chapter General include:

Appointed Members:
Superior General
Ex-Superiors General
Councilors General
Regional Superiors
Elected Members: Elected representatives from each region
Elected representatives of sisters in charge of formation


Councilors General advise the superior general. They vote on the erection of new missions and on the admission of sisters to first and final vows. They hold no direct authority over sisters unless given that authority in specific instances by the superior general, who may employ the councilors as she sees fit.

Regional Superiors have authority over MC communities in specific geographic locations. They report directly to the superior general. Until 1986, a regional superior could simultaneously hold the office of local superior.

Local Superiors hold authority over individual MC communities. Local superiors report to regional superiors. A local superior is responsible for the community’s life and apostolate, assigns each sister’s work, and makes daily decisions.

Assistant Superiors make necessary decisions in the absence of the local superior.

The way the hierarchy works: Each superior is obliged to seek the will of God in prayer when she makes decisions. Sisters are obliged to hear the “voice of God” in their superiors’ commands, and to obey them as they would obey God. Obedience is to be “cheerful, prompt, simple and constant.”

Missionary of Charity Formation

It took nine years from the time Mary Johnson joined the community until she took final vows as Sister Donata, a fully-fledged Missionary of Charity. Details of formation have changed since then—now postulancy lasts a year, postulants no longer wear street clothes, and novices don’t cut their hair until immediately before first profession—but the basic structure remains.

In Sister Donata's days, MC formation included:

  • Six months of aspirancy: Dressed in clothes from home, aspirants worked in the mornings and studied in the afternoons.
  • Six months of postulancy: Still dressed in clothes from home, postulants also worked in the mornings and studied in the afternoons.
  • Two years of novitiate: When a postulant became a novice, she cut her hair and wore an all-white sari.
    • First-year novices spent all day in prayer and study.
    • Second-year novices worked in the mornings and studied in the afternoons.
  • Six more years: When a novice took temporary vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor, she became a professed sister and wore a sari with a blue border. For the next five years, she was called a junior sister. She worked in the missions and renewed her vows each year.
  • The sixth year, she rejoined the group of sisters with whom she had been a novice. Together, they prepared for final vows during tertianship, similar to a third year of novitiate. When a tertian took final vows she became a finally professed sister, a Missionary of Charity for life.Missionary of Charity NovicesOn the day of her profession, Sister Donata wears a blue par sari for the first time. Prior to that, she wore a white sari, similar to that worn by the two novices in this photo. The sisters refer to the long tunic underneath the sari as a habit, though technically a religious habit includes all official exterior clothing. Note the difference in shade between the habits and saris of the novices and that of a newly professed sister. Saris and habits for profession were boiled and left to dry in the sun multiple times until they sparkled. photo by John Johnson.

An MC Convent

Convents of the Missionaries of Charity, which the sisters usually refer to as houses rather than convents, are normally very simple structures. Most houses are small, with just enough (or not quite enough) space for the sisters. Usually, MC convents contain:

  • a chapel
  • a sacristy, which may double as a parlor
  • a refectory
  • one or more dormitories
  • a kitchen
  • a go-down




absolution - formal release from the guilt of sin, granted by the Church through a priest, during the sacrament of reconciliation. The words of absolution are: "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Act of Contrition - a prayer expressing contrition for sins committed, recited during the sacrament of reconciliation and by Missionaries of Charity before retiring at night.

adoration - Missionaries of Charity pray before the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a monstrance, for an hour each day.AdorationEucharistic adoration in the MC Primavalle chapel in Rome.

After Dinner Prayer - a short prayer recited in the chapel after washing the dinner dishes.

Angelus - a traditional prayer recited three times a day, accompanied to the ringing of a bell. The Angelus recalls the exchange between the Blessed Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel in which Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favor with God and will bear a son through the power of the Holy Spirit. The angelus is usually recited in a call and response form.

aspirancy - the initial stage of training for a Missionary of Charity, normally lasting six months, in which candidates are exposed to the life and work of an MC and in which those who do not yet know English begin to learn the community language. The aspirancy is typically housed within the same convent that shelters a professed community, but in separate quarters.

aspirant - A young woman in the first stages of formation as a Missionary of Charity is an aspirant. During Sister Donata’s time of formation, aspirants wore street clothes they brought from home. In some parts of the world, MC aspirants wear white saris; in other parts they wear navy skirts and white blouses. Aspirants typically spend half the day at work and the other half in classes.

Assistant General - The first Councilor General is also known as the Assistant General, and acts in the place of the Superior General when the Superior General is impeded by absence or ill health.


Blessed Sacrament - a term of reverence for the Eucharistic presence of Jesus in consecrated bread and wine. The term Blessed Sacrament is often employed when speaking of the Eucharist reserved within a tabernacle after Mass.

blessing - Each morning before breakfast and each evening before Night Prayer, the superior blesses the sisters by placing one or both hands on the head of each sister and saying, “God bless you.”

blue par sari - Blue Par Sari Sister Jelka and Sister Donata adjust the new blue par sari of one of their companions, the day after their first profession. photo by John Johnson.the distinctive white sari with a blue border worn by professed sisters of the Missionaries of Charity. Novices wear a white habit without a colored border.

Bursar General - The Bursar General is appointed by the Superior General to administer the property of the Missionaries of Charity. She is to keep accurate accounts and see to it that these accounts are audited. Regions and houses also have bursars.


catechism - A compendium of the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

Cause of our Joy - The Immaculate Heart of Mary, Cause of our Joy and Queen of the World, is the official title given to Mary as the patroness of the Missionaries of Charity.

celibacy - The refraining from sexual relationships which, for Catholics, is mandated of anyone who is not married. Priests who are not religious often take vows of celibacy; religious take vows of chastity. Both vows carry obligations of sexual continence.

chains - The Missionaries of Charity wear spiked chains around their waist and biceps for at least an hour each day as a form of corporal penance. In some religious groups, these chains are called cilice.

chalice - a cup of precious metal used to hold the wine which is changed into the Blood of Christ by the priest during Mass.

Chapter General (aka General Chapter) - The Chapter General is a group of Missionaries of Charity who gather to protect the Society’s patrimony and to foster renewal in accord with the patrimony. The Chapter General also elects the Superior General and the Councilors General, discusses matters pertinent to the life and work of the community, accepts or rejects suggestions made to it, and makes changes to the Constitutions and Directory. The Chapter General gathers every six years, and its composition changes each time it meets. The Chapter includes both appointed and elected members: Superior General, Councilors General, the sister responsible for the contemplative branch, ex-Superiors General, Regional Superiors, Secretary General and Busar General, elected representatives from each region, and elected representatives of sisters in charge of formation.

chapter of faults - Once a month the community gathers to ask forgiveness for any faults an individual has committed in public during that month. Examples of faults include tardiness, breaking silence, lack of generosity, complaints. One by one, each sister kneels, kisses the floor, speaks her faults while kneeling, and kisses the floor again.

chastity, virtue of - According to Catholic thought, chastity is the virtue that moderates the desire for sexual pleasure according to faith and reason. Married people observe chastity by limiting sexual expression to relations with their spouse, relations that must remain open to procreation. Unmarried people observe chastity by refraining from sexual intercourse until (or unless) they marry.

chastity, vow of - Religious take vows of chastity in imitation of Jesus and His mother Mary. A vow of chastity obliges one to perfect continence observed in celibacy and involves the obligation never to marry. A vow of chastity increases a person’s obligation to abstain from all voluntary indulgence of sexual pleasure.

ciborium - a covered container of precious metal made to hold the Eucharist.

community, local community - All the sisters who live within one MC house form a community. Sisters do not choose which community they will belong to. Community life, in close quarters, with sisters of varying backgrounds and temperaments, is often one of the most challenging aspects of life as a Missionary of Charity.

community gathering - Each week during the day in, the local community holds a community gathering, usually for less than an hour. During a month, the following topics are covered: the superior’s instruction, a mutual sharing of spiritual reflection, the chapter of faults, and mutual sharing of the apostolic work.

community language - All Missionaries of Charity speak English among themselves, no matter what part of the world they come from or where they are sent to work. The community prays in English, all conversations are held in English, all written communication among sisters is in English. Sisters who do not know English when they enter the Society are taught the language.

confession - the informal name for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, during which a priest receives an account of a penitent’s sins (the penitent’s confession) and sorrow for those sins, then grants the penitent absolution. MCs were expected to make their confession weekly..

confessional - This confessional is in the Primavalle parlor in RomeA portable confessional in the Primavalle parlor in Rome. The penitent kneels on this side of the confessional; the priest sits on the other side, wearing a purple stole around his neck. photo by Mary Johnson.the place in which a penitent confesses sins.  The Missionaries of Charity often set up portable confessionals in their parlors or sacristies.

consecrated life - A life of consecration to God by profession of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience. Canon law recognizes two basic forms of organized consecrated life: religious institutes and secular institutes.

consecration - Broadly, to make or declare something sacred. Specifically, a nun consecrates herself to God by taking her vows. A priest consecrates bread and wine by changing them into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Constitutions - Mother Teresa note inside Sister Donata ConstitutionMother Teresa inscribed this note on the inside cover of the Constitutions that Sister Donata used as a novice.The fundamental governing document of a religious institute in the Catholic Church. The full name of the MC Constitutions is The Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity.

contemplative branch - In the South Bronx, in 1976, Mother Teresa began a contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity sisters under the direction of Sr. M. Nirmala, MC, who later succeeded Mother Teresa as Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity. The Contemplative MCs serve the poorest of the poor through prayer and the spiritual works of mercy.

corporal penance - Missionaries of Charity use corporal penance as a means of expiating sin and conquering sinful tendencies, and of uniting themselves to Jesus in His suffering and to the suffering poor. The Missionaries of charity wear spiked chains and use the discipline. Most religious communities in the Catholic Church today no longer perfrom corporal penance.

Councilors General - The Councilors General advise the superior general. The Councilors are elected by the Chapter General for six-year terms. Councilors General vote on the erection of new missions and on the admission of sisters to first and final vows. They also nominate regional and local superiors and mistresses of formation at all levels. Councilors hold no direct authority over sisters unless given that authority in specific instances by the Superior General, who may employ the councilors as she sees fit. The number of Councilors General has varied throughout the history of the Missionaries of Charity; currently there are four Councilors General. In the case of a tie during discussion of matters for which the Council General must give its consent, the Superior General casts the deciding vote.

crucifix - Sister Donata profession crucifixSister Donata's profession crucifix. photo by Elliot Gould.a physical representation, often carved or sculpted, of Jesus' death on the cross.  Professed Missionaries of Charity wore two crucifixes: one at the shoulder, the other at the waist, tucked between the habit and the rope cincture.

custody of the senses - When Missionaries of Charity are out of the convent, they are to keep custody of the senses in order to avoid worldly temptations. Sisters are to abstain from looking at, hearing, or touching anything not strictly necessary.

Missionaries of Charity in San Francisco wait for a bus. The sisters are praying the rosary and most of them are keeping custody of the eyes. photo by Jack Dorsey, via flickr.


day in - Each week the local community sets aside one day for rest and renewal. On this day the sisters refrain from apostolic work, hold a community gathering, go to confession, and have half an hour extra rest during the afternoon.

day of recollection - Once a month, on the day in, the community holds a silent day of recollection, with extra time for prayer and rest.

discipline - a form of corporal penance consisting of a homemade rope whip with which a person beats him or herself.

dispensation - Document granting Mary Johnson dispensation from her vows as a Missionary of CharityA copy of the document granting Mary Johnson dispensation from her vows as a Missionary of Charity.Only the Holy See can grant a religious dispensation from final vows. A sister seeking dispensation writes a letter to the Pope; the Superior General also files a report. The Holy See normally grants requests for dispensation from religious vows. Once a sister has received dispensation, she is no longer bound by any of her vows and she ceases to be a member of the Missionaries of Charity. As a result of her dispensation from the vow of chastity, she is free to marry.

Divine Office - a term for the Liturgy of the Hours, a collection of Psalms and prayers recited at set times throughout the day, part of the official liturgy of the Catholic Church.

dormitory - The Missionaries of Charity sleep in common dormitories, which usually contain only simple cots with homemade mattresses and pillows. There are no partitions of any sort between the beds, no nightstands or any other furniture.


Eucharist - The Eucharist refers to the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of Bread. The Eucharist is often used as another name for Holy Communion. The term has Greek and Latin origins, and it means "thanksgiving." The term can be used to refer to the Real Presence of Christ and to the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which takes place in the context of the Mass.

Eucharistic adoration - the practice of exposing the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance for veneration and prayer. Each Missionary of Charity spends at least one hour each day in Eucharistic adoration.

evangelical counsels - The practice of chastity, poverty, and obedience by all religious is referred to as the practice of the evangelical counsels. Evangelical refers to Jesus’ practice of these counsels as recorded in the gospels. Missionaries of Charity take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, as well as an additional fourth vow of wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. This fourth vow is unique to the Missionaries of Charity.

Evening Prayer (aka Vespers) - An official prayer of the Church, part of the Liturgy of the Hours. Evening Prayer includes psalms, prayers, and the Magnificat, and is usually recited in common.

examination of conscience (aka the examen) - Missionaries of Charity formally examine their consciences twice a day, at noon and before Night Prayer. The examen, a tradition borrowed from St. Ignatius and the Jesuits, is done in silence, in the chapel. The examen has two parts: the general examen and the particular examen. The general examen is a review of the period of time since the previous examen; the particular examen dwells on the practice of a particular virtue or the avoidance of a particular vice chosen by the sister. Normally, the virtue or vice chosen for the particular examen remains a subject of that examen for at least several months, often for years.

exclaustration - Document granting Sister Donata a year of exclaustrationA copy of the document granting Sister Donata a year of exclaustration. The document is signed by Mother Teresa and by Sister M. Nirmala, MC, who was Superior General at the time.When a finally professed sister wishes to separate from the community, the Superior General, with the consent of her Council, may first grant an indult of exclaustration, which includes permission to live outside the community and dispenses a sister from obligations incompatible with her new way of life, though she remains a member of the community and still retains her vows. An indult of exclaustration is normally granted for a year and is not typically extended beyond three years. For exceptional, grave reasons, a sister may be granted exclaustration for motives having nothing to do with a desire to leave the community: for example, to care for sick parents. Mother Teresa was granted an indult of exclaustration from the Loreto sisters when she began the Missionaries of Charity. At the conclusion of the exclaustration period, a sister must either return to the community or seek dispensation from her vows.


final profession - After tertianship and after having received permission, an MC sister professes final vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. These vows last for life. A sister who wishes to be released from final vows must petition the Vatican for dispensation. Also known as perpetual profession.

first profession - After a period of formation and after having received permission, an MC novice professes her first vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. These first vows last a year, but Mother Teresa always insisted, “On paper it is for a year, but in our hearts it is for life.” A Missionary of Charity renews vows annually for at least six years before taking final vows.

formation - Formation refers to the training of a Missionary of Charity. According to the Constitutions, formation has a three-fold purpose: “to prove one’s vocation; to educate and to form a person in the spiritual and religious life; to prepare for profession of vows and for the works of the Society.”

foundation - A new house of the Missionaries of Charity is called a foundation. A new foundation requires the consent of the Council General and the written permission of the bishop of the diocese in which the foundation is to be established. Mother Teresa often refered to new foundations as "new tabernacles," because she considered the tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament was reserved as the central element of any MC community. Foundation can also refer to the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity, as in the foundation of the Society.

foundress - Mother Teresa is the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity. She received the original inspiration for the group, sought permission to form the community, gathered members around her, and directed the early growth of the community and the formation of its first members.

fourth vow - Most religious take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Missionaries of Charity profess an additional fourth vow of wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. This fourth vow is unique to the Missionaries of Charity.


general confession - Normally a person approaching the sacrament of reconciliation confesses the sins he or she has committed since the previous confession. Sometimes, a person may choose to confess sins that have already been absolved during previous confessions, as a means of renewing sorrow for these sins. A general confession involves confessing the sins of a certain period, often the previous year.

genuflect - GenuflectSister Donata and Sister Jelka genuflect as they enter the Church of Santo Stefano for their first profession. Sister Guadalupe and Sister Maria Lina follow behind.Catholics traditionally bend one knee before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a tabernacle.

Glory Be - short prayer of praise to the Holy Trinity. The Glory Be is also recited at the end of each decade of the rosary.

go-down - a common term in India for a storage room of any sort, even if located in the attic!

Gospel - The first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. These books are referred to as the Gospels, a term which has its roots in the expression good news. Gospel can also be used as an adjective, qualifying something as relating to the life or teaching of Jesus, as in gospel poverty.

grace before/after meals - GraceSister Fran leads grace before snack at summer camp in Washington, DC.the short prayers said before and after meals. Grace is recited together by the community.

Grand Silence - MCs observe the period following Night Prayer until after Mass the next morning as a period of particular silence during which conversation is permitted only for true emergencies.


habit - The religious habit is the distinctive garb of a man or woman religious. Technically, the Missionary of Charity habit includes every officially designated exterior article of clothing worn by a Missionary of Charity. In common parlance, MC sisters call the long, white cotton tunic they wear a habit, and refer to the long white cloth with the blue border which they drape and layer over the habit as a sari.

Hail Mary - a short prayer addressed to Mary the Mother of Jesus, normally said in a call and response form, based on the angel Gabriel’s salutation as recorded in Luke 1. The Hail Mary is often referred to by its Latin name, the Ave Maria.

Holy Communion - Mother Teresa receives Holy CommunionMother Teresa makes her way back to her place in the Tor Fiscale chapel after receiving Holy Communion during Mass. Sister Maria Lina follows. Sister Stella and Sister Donata, as a novice, are visible in the background.the reception of the Eucharist, normally at Mass, and the resulting spiritual union with Jesus.

Holy Father - Many Catholics, including the Missionaries of Charity, often refer to the Pope as the Holy Father.

Holy See - The term Holy See refers to the authority, jurisdiction, and governmental functions associated with the papacy. In common usage, the Holy See and the Vatican are synonymous terms. The Holy See includes all the branches of the Roman Cuia, through which the Pope governs the Catholic Church. Some of the offices connected with the Holy See include the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Bishops, and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is the branch of the Holy See that deals with religious life.

home visit - Sister Donata visits her family in Texas December 1989Sister Donata visits her family in Texas in December 1989. Like many other events during the twenty years in which Sister Donata was in the convent, this home visit didn't make it into the book. Note the big glasses!Missionaries of Charity are allowed infrequent visits home. The frequency and duration of these visits is determined by the General Chapter and has varied over the years. When Sister Donata was an MC, home visits were granted once every ten years for two weeks at a time.

home - Missionaries of Charity refer to the buildings in which they house abandoned children, the physically and mentally disabled, sick and dying destitutes, leprosy patients, the homeless, and unwed mothers as homes, in contrast to houses, which is the term reserved for the convents in which the sisters live.

Host - The wafer of unleavened bread consecrated by a priest during Mass. Catholics believe that after consecration, the Host is no longer bread but the Body of Christ; the bread is merely a “host” to Jesus’ Real Presence. A consecrated Host is also referred to as the Eucharist.

house - Missionaries of Charity refer to the convents in which the sisters live as houses, in contrast to homes, which is the term designated for a dwelling in which the sisters shelter the sick and dying, orphaned and homeless.


Immaculate Heart - Immaculate HeartThe Missionaries of Charity venerate the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Cause of our Joy and Queen of the World, as their patroness, celebrating her feast on August 22 each year.A way of referring to Mary the Mother of Jesus. The Immaculate Heart is considered the patroness of the Missionaries of Charity. All formal prayers of the Missionaries of Charity conclude with the phrase, “Immaculate Heart of Mary, Cause of Our Joy, pray for us,” and the sign of the cross. The Immaculate Heart of Mary is often pictured encircled with white roses, aflame, with light radiating from the heart.

Inspiration Day - September 10 is celebrated each year by the Missionaries of Charity as Inspiration Day, in commemoration of Mother Teresa’s experience on a train on September 10, 1946, while on her way to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, during which she understood that Jesus was asking her to serve Him in the poor.


junior sisters, juniorate - Missionaries of Charity who have taken first vows but who have not yet taken final vows are often referred to as junior sisters. The time (normally six years) in which a sister is bound by temporary vows is referred to as the juniorate.



lay people, the laity - Members of the Catholic Church who are not deacons, priests, and bishops and who do not belong to a religious state approved by the Church are referred to as the laity.

Little Office of the Immaculate Conception - a hymn of praise to Mary, written in rhyming couplets, and recited at various times of the day. The Missionaries of Charity recite parts of the Little Office at morning, noon, and evening. The evening prayer of the Little Office begins, Hail mistress of earth, Hail heavenly queen, Hail Virgin of virgins, all chaste and serene.

Liturgy of the Hours - a collection of Psalms and prayers recited at set times throughout the day, part of the official liturgy of the Catholic Church, sometimes referred to as the Divine Office.

local superiors - Local superiors hold authority over individual MC communities. Local superiors report to regional superiors. A local superior is responsible for the community’s life and apostolate, assigns each sister’s work, and makes daily decisions.

Loreto - Agnes Bojaxhiu left her home in Skopje in 1928 to enter the postulancy of the Loreto sisters in Dublin. The Loreto sisters are known more formally as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or IBVM, and were founded by Mary Ward in the 17th century. Agnes left Ireland for Calcutta, where, after her noviciate there, she took vows as Sister Teresa in 1931. In 1937 she took final vows and became Mother Teresa, the name she would keep even after she left the Loreto convent to found the Missionaries of Charity.


Mass, Holy Mass - The Mass is a term for the collective of prayers and ceremonies that make up the service of the Eucharist. From the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist was celebrated according to the command of Jesus at the Last Supper, that the ritual by which bread and wine were transfigured into His Body and Blood be repeated in His memory. Mother Teresa often said that the Mass was the center of a Missionary of Charity’s life.

MC - an abbreviation of Missionaries of Charity. Each professed MC sister, brother, and father signs his or her name with MC at the end, as in Sister M. Donata, MC. Often MC appears as M.C.

meditation - Missionaries of Charity are instructed in the Ignatian method of meditation, which involves visualizing a scene from the Gospel and placing oneself within that scene. MCs meditate for thirty minutes each morning, usually using the Gospel passage that will be proclaimed at Mass that day.

Midday Prayer - The Missionaries of Charity pray together in the chapel each day for about twenty minutes of vocal prayer, either before or after lunch. Over the years, this prayer has varied, sometimes including part of the Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes a call and response litany of intercession, always including a silent examination of conscience and part of the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception.

Miraculous Medal - Mother Teresa kissed these Miraculous MedalsMother Teresa kissed these Miraculous Medals and gave them to Sister Donata. photo by Elliot Gould.Also known as the Medal of the Immaculate Conception, Miraculous Medals are cast according to a design described by Saint Catherine Labouré after she received a vision from the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mother Teresa distributed Miraculous Medals widely during her lifetime, always kissing each medal before offering it to someone. Miraculous Medals are believed to offer graces to those who wear them.

Missionaries of Charity - The Missionaries of Charity is a Roman Catholic religious congregation founded in 1950 by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which now includes over 4,500 sisters in more than 130 countries. The Missionaries of Charity include both active and contemplative branches of sisters. Missionary of Charity active and contemplative brothers and priests belong to the wider religious family, but have separate governing documents and hierarchies. All Missionaries of Charity profess vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and a fourth vow unique to the Missionaries of Charity, to give wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.

missionary - A Christian missionary is one who is sent to proclaim the Gospel by words and/or deeds, often in foreign lands.

monstrance - Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a monstrance, at the MC chapel in San Gregorio, 1980, shortly after Sister Donata's first profession. Photo by John Johnson.a case of glass and precious metal in which the Blessed Sacrament is displayed for Eucharistic adoration.

Morning Prayer - Missionaries of Charity pray together for an hour each morning, immediately after rising. The entire hour is often designated Morning Prayer, as is the first segment of the hour. The entire hour includes five minutes of vocal prayers recited in unison from a prayer book unique to the Missionaries of Charity; this is the segment often referred to as Morning Prayer

Mother House - referring to the main house in Calcutta, the house in which Mother Teresa usually resided. Generically, the term is often used by nuns of various congregations to signify the convent in which the Superior General resides or the first convent to have been founded for that particular congregation, and as such the term is usually not capitalized; these congregations will normally have a unique proper name by which they refer to this important convent. The Missionaries of Charity employ the generic term Mother House as a proper name referring to the convent on Lower Circular Road in Calcutta.

Mother Teresa house in KolkataThe entrance to the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. During her lifetime, the sign with Mother Teresa's name would be changed to indicate whether Mother was "in" or "out." Now the board reads permanently "in." Photo by jeeheon, via flickr.


Night Prayer - Before retiring, Missionaries of Charity gather in the chapel for a silent examination of conscience, followed by a series of vocal prayers commending the day that has passed to God.

novice - Missionaries of Charity novicesMissionary of Charity novices, dressed all in white, together with Sister Julia and Sister Alphonse Liguori, in Tor Fiscale, Rome.a sister in the noviciate, the third stage of MC formation.

noviciate - The third stage of MC formation, lasting two years. The first year of noviciate is also called the canonical year and is spent in prayer and study, with minimal outside work. During the second year of the noviciate, novices typically spend half the day in work and the other half in prayer and study. Toward the end of the two-year noviciate, novices petition the Superior General for permission to take vows as Missionaries of Charity. The novices are always housed in a separate community, distinct from any professed community; the buildings and the community in which novices live are also referred to as the noviciate. While MCs prefer the spelling noviciate, an alternate spelling novitiate is often employed in Church documents.


obedience, virtue of - Missionaries of Charity are expected to obey cheerfully, promptly, simply, and constantly. Sisters are taught to obey “the known wish of…Superiors as well as their commands.” As with all evangelical counsels, obedience is practiced in imitation of Jesus and Mary. Living under obedience is considered a privilege because of the opportunity it offers to unite oneself with Christ, who was obedient unto death.

obedience, vow of - The vow of obedience obliges a sister to submit her will to lawful superiors, who act in the place of God when they give commands in accord with the Constitutions. The precise matter of the vow of obedience includes only an explicit command using the formula “In the name of Holy Obedience,” or “We order by a formal precept.” All other commands involve the virtue of obedience, not the vow.

Our Father - a prayer common to all Christians, based on prayers recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, often called The Lord’s Prayer or the Pater Noster.

Our Lady - a term of respect used to refer to Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

 Our Lord - a term of respect used to refer to Jesus.


parlor - The room in which Missionaries of Charity receive guests. Typically, the parlor includes a table and four chairs. Sometimes the parlor also doubles as a sacristy.

paten - a plate of precious metal used to hold hosts during Mass.

Paters, the - Each night before retiring, privately at the side of her bed, each Missionary of Charity kneels to pray the Paters: an Act of Contrition, five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, followed by one Glory be. When praying the Paters, a sister extends her arms in the form of a cross and begs grace for perseverance in her vocation. The Paters are also prayed together in the refectory each Friday and on the eve of specified feasts of the Church.

patrimony - According to Canon Law, a religious institute’s patrimony “is comprised of the intentions of the founders, of all that the competent ecclesiastical authority has approved concerning the nature, purpose, spirit and character of the institute, and of its sound traditions.” The patrimony of a religious community is to be upheld and developed, and forms the guiding principles for decisions that must be made long after the original members of the community are gone.

patroness - Mary the Mother of Jesus is considered the patroness of the Missionaries of Charity, under her titles, “Immaculate Heart of Mary, Cause of Our Joy and Queen of the World.” The Missionaries of Charity have received permission from the Vatican to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Heart each year on August 22, instead of the standard celebration on the Saturday following the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

permission - The request and granting of permission is essential to the MC practice of poverty and obedience. Work with the poor must also always be done with permission. Each month, sisters must request renewal of permission for the habitual use of material objects. Special permission must be requested for any extraordinary use. Permission must also be sought for many other activities, for example, to speak on the phone or with personal visitors, to distribute goods to the poor, to alter the community schedule in any way, to rest or take medicine when ill.

poorest of the poor - Mother Teresa popularized this term, using it to describe those whom she felt called to serve.

postpone - A sister who is not given permission to advance with the rest of her group to the next stage of formation or vows is said to have been postponed. A certain amount of stigma is often attached to having been postponed.

postulancy - The second stage of MC formation, lasting in Sister Donata’s era six months, now a year. Postulancy is very similar to aspirancy. Sometimes candidates who wore skirts as aspirants are given white saris as postulants; customs of dressing vary slightly from place to place. The postulancy is typically housed within the same convent that shelters a professed community, but in separate quarters.

postulant - a sister in postulancy, the second stage of MC formation.

poverty, virtue of - Most people wouldn’t consider poverty a virtue, but for Missionaries of Charity who seek to share the poverty of Christ and of the poor, any practice which reinforces a poor life is considered virtuous: mending and re-mending clothes and household items, hard work, inconvenience, dependence on Divine Providence so that the individuals and community resist spending money and instead make do with what is given or beg necessary supplies. Spiritual poverty is also much stressed among the MCs: the humble acceptance of weakness and limitations, the exercise of gratitude, a refusal to worry.

poverty, vow of - By the vow of poverty, a person freely gives up the ownership, or at least the independent use and administration, of temporal goods. Missionaries of Charity renounce the right to accept and freely dispose of anything with monetary value.

prayer after meditation - Each morning after meditation, Missionaries of Charity recite a short vocal prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, followed by St. Ignatius’ prayer of self-offering, the Suscipe.

prayer before meditation - Each morning before meditation, Missionaries of Charity recite a short vocal prayer, asking for the grace to attend to God’s “holy inspirations.”

prayers after Holy Communion - After Mass, Missionaries of Charity recite several vocal prayers together, including prayers attributed ot Cardnial Newman, St. Francis, and Pope Paul, and the Anima Christi.

profession - Sister Donata professes her first vowsSister Donata professes her first vows as a Missionary of Charity on June 10, 1980, Santo Stefano Church, Rome.A Missionary of Charity professes vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor during Mass. The act of speaking those vows is known as profession.

prostrate - Missionaries of Charity prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament by bowing from a kneeling position, pressing their foreheads to the floor at the beginning and towards the end of their hour of daily adoration, and during the consecration at Mass.

public penance - Each month, Missionaries of Charity perform public penance in one of several forms: touching the feet of each sister with the forehead, kissing the sisters’ footsteps, begging a meal and eating it kneeling, or reciting the Paters.



Real Presence - a reference to Jesus’ real, as opposed to merely spiritual, presence in the Eucharist, under the form of bread and wine.

refectory - a dining room. For Missionaries of Charity, the refectory contained a table with benches, and was the room in which the sisters ate, recreated, read, studied. Generally, Missionaries of Charity convents include a chapel and sacristy/parlor, a refectory, however many dormitories are necessary, a kitchen, and exceptionally an office.

region - The society of the Missionaries of Charity is divided into regions. Each region is a collection of houses under the authority of a Regional Superior.

relic - Mother Teresa hair relicWhen Mother Teresa was beatified, Mary Johnson received a relic of Mother Teresa's hair, a special privilege. Photo by Elliot Gould.Catholics honor holy people by venerating their relics, which may be of three kinds: A first class relic consists of the physical remains of a holy person; a second class relic may be that person's clothing or an item used frequently by that person; and a third class relic is an object that is touched to a first or second class relic. Relics are often kept in reliquaries.Mother Teresa's desk and stool in San GregoroThe desk and stool used by Mother Teresa in her office in the San Gregorio convent in Rome. The reliquary on the desk contains a slice of the heart muscle of Mother Teresa. photo by Mary Johnson.

religious name - Missionaries of Charity take a new religious name. Usually, each sister chooses her own religious name; occasionally the name is assigned. The name must be adopted by the time of first profession; it is often adopted during postulancy or noviciate.

religious - Both a noun and an adjective, religious refers to those members of the Catholic Church who live in community under church law and whose members profess either perpetual or temporary vows. Most Catholic monks and nuns, sisters and brothers, are religious.

renewal of permission - a monthly ritual in which a sister kneels before her superior in private, kisses the floor, speaks her faults, and requests permission for the use of material objects.

retreat - Once a year, sisters gather for an eight-day silent retreat. This time of renewal involves extra prayer and rest. Usually a priest preaches the retreat, giving the sisters at least two talks each day. The priest is also available for confession. During the retreat sisters customarily make a general confession of the year’s sins.

rosary - The rosary is a prayer involving the repeated repetition of Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes, during which the person praying is to meditate on specific events, called mysteries, in the life of Jesus and Mary. The entire rosary consists of fifteen decades (groups of one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and one Glory Be), but the rosary is often subdivided into three groups of five decades. The Missionaries of Charity always prayed at least this five-decade rosary daily. MCs pray the rosary during adoration, when walking the street, and often during tasks like chopping vegetables or sorting donated clothes. The rosary also refers to the string of beads on which the prayers are counted as they are recited the Missionaries of Charity make their own rosaries from seeds and wire.

Rule - a common way of referring to the body of regulations and traditions which govern the life of a Missionary of Charity. The expression the Rule appears capitalized or not, plural or singular, without any change in meaning. In the singular it can refer to either an individual precept or the entire body of precepts. Rules were to be obeyed without question. Mother Teresa sometimes said, “Keep the Rule and the Rule will keep you.”.


sacristy - the room, normally attached to the chapel, in which a priest vests for Mass. Often priests also hear the confessions of the Missionaries of Charity in the sacristy. Sometimes the sacristy doubles as a parlor for receiving guests.

Saint, saint - In upper case, a person officially recognized as a holy person by the process of canonization in the Catholic Church; in lower case simply a holy person. In the refectory of every Missionary of Charity convent, a plaque reads, “I will give Saints to Mother Church.” --Mother.

Salve Regina - a prayer in honor of Mary, Queen of heaven and earth, recited at the conclusion of the rosary.

Secretary General - Appointed by the Superior General with the consent of her Council, the Secretary General writes the acts of the Council General and keeps under lock and key specified documents of the Society.

Sacred Heart - Sacred HeartIn order to celebrate the love of Jesus for each individual, sisters sometimes pasted photos of other sisters onto images of the Sacred Heart, then offered those images as gifts on feast days. This image was presented to Sister Donata in 1985.The Missionaries of Charity held the Sacred Heart of Jesus in special reverence, observing the First Friday of each month in His honor. A picture of the Sacred Heart hung in each MC refectory, and during the month of June, sisters consecrated the homes of the poor they visited to the Sacred Heart.

senior sisters - Missionaries of Charity who have taken final vows are often called senior sisters as opposed to junior sisters. Sometimes the term senior sister is used as a term of respect to indicate a sister who has been in the community for many years.

separation of members - Finally professed sisters cease to be members of the Missionaries of Charity by transfer to another religious or secular institute; by departure, which normally begins with an indult of exclaustration and concludes with dispensation of vows granted by the Holy See; or by dismissal. Sisters with temporary vows are free to leave when their vows expire if they choose to do so.

sign of the cross - Most formal community prayers begin and end by tracing the cross over one’s body while reciting, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

silence - Silence is meant to enable a sister to commune more readily with God in her heart. Except during lunch, tea, dinner, and a brief period of recreation, MC sisters are to refrain from talking to each other. During periods of work, speech is permitted as necessary. The period after Night Prayer until the conclusion of morning Mass is known as Grand Silence, when talking is more strictly forbidden.

Society Feast - The Missionaries of Charity celebrate the Feast of their patroness, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, on August 22 each year. This feast is preceded by three days of silent preparation, known as the triduum for the Society Feast. The Vatican has granted the Missionaries of Charity special permission to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Heart each year on August 22, rather than on the Saturday following the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Society - The sisters often refer to the entire institute of the Missionaries of Charity as “the Society.”

spiritual reading - Missionaries of Charity read from an approved spiritual reading book for thirty minutes every day. During periods of formation, the formation mistress often assigns books. Usually the choice of books alternates, following a book about the life of a saint with a book that deals with another spiritual subject. Each day a short passage from the Bible and from the Constitutions is also read. Spiritual reading may be individual, in which case each sister reads silently from her own book, or common, in which case one sister reads aloud while the others engage in work such as mending or chopping vegetables.

spouse of Christ, bride of Christ - Missionaries of Charity holy cardThe Missionaries of Charity often made their own holy cards to commemorate special events.Following an ancient tradition, consecrated virgins and women religious are often referred to as the spouse of Christ. Mother Teresa preferred the phrase, Spouse of Jesus Crucified.

Superior General - The Superior General exercises authority over the entire congregation of the Missionaries of Charity. She is elected by the Chapter General for a term of six years and may be re-elected for a second but not for a third consecutive term without Vatican approval. The Superior General is the official representative, both ecclesiastic and civil, of the Missionaries of Charity. The Superior General normally resides at Mother House, in Calcutta. Every three years the Superior General or her representative visits each Missionary of Charity convent.


tabernacle - Missionaries of Charity TabernacleThis tabernacle stands in the MC chapel in Tor Fiscale, Rome, where Sister Donata was a novice. The MC Fathers who now live there hung the distinctive crucifix and replaced the traditional "I Thirst" with its Italian equivalent, "Ho Sete."the box, normally made of precious metal, in which the Eucharist is reserved after Mass under lock and key. A candle burns next to the tabernacle to indicate the presence of the Eucharist. The tabernacle in an MC chapel is always covered with a white transparent veil, as a reminder that each MC remain pure so that Jesus may shine through her.  A red vigil light always burns before a tabernacle, as a reminder of Jesus' Eucharistic presence. 

tertian - a sister in the tertianship, the stage of formation immediately preceding final vows.

tertianship - After five years of temporary vows, a professed sister joins the tertianship for a final year of formation. Often, she rejoins the group of sisters with whom she had been a novice; tertianship is similar to a third year of novitiate. Toward the end of tertianship, a sister petitions the Superior General for permission to take vows for life.

thirst of Jesus - The aim of the Missionaries of Charity is “to quench the thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross for love of souls by the profession of the evangelical counsels and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor according to the Constitutions.” The Gospel of John records that while on the cross, Jesus said, “I thirst.” There are indications in Mother Teresa’s writings that during the days of her initial inspirations, she “heard” Jesus say “I thirst.” The Missionary of Charity Fathers, and in particular Father Joseph Langford, MC, studied the theme of thirst in the Bible, using the lens of God’s thirsting love for souls to develop an MC spirituality.



vocation - A call from God to a distinct state of life.

vow - Technically, a vow in the Catholic church is a free, deliberate promise made to God to do something that is good and that is more pleasing to God that its omission would be. To violate a vow incurs a sin, even if the act would not be sinful if one had not taken the vow. Each Missionary of Charity takes four vows: chastity, poverty, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.


wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor, vow of - This vow is unique to the Missionaries of Charity, and is known as the fourth vow. The vow of wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor obliges one to serve the poor wholeheartedly according to obedience. It binds in service both to the sisters and to the poorest of the poor outside the convent. The following acts would be considered sins against the fourth vow: deliberate negligence and laziness in service to the poor, deliberate seeking of money-making service or voluntary consent to such transactions, deliberately neglecting the poorest to serve those less in need.