In 1948 a simple nun dressed in a plain white sari with three blue borders ventured into the streets of Calcutta with a noble mission - to serve Christ in the poorest of the poor. Six decades hence Mother Teresa's mission continues to be fulfilled by her apostles of peace - the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity, the Order Mother founded in 1950 - working tirelessly to help the needy and the distressed, wearing a religious dress exactly similar to the one that Mother began her journey in as a Missionary of Charity: a simple white sari with three blue borders that has over the years come to be recognised as a symbol of peace and charity the world over. Interestingly, this sari of the Missionaries of Charity has a unique history behind it.
In September 1946 Mother Teresa was sent for her annual retreat to the Loreto Convent in Darjeeling. During this train journey, on September 10, 1946, she had a mystical encounter with Christ. In this encounter, which Mother later referred to as the 'call within a call', Christ urged her to give up all and follow Him into the slums to serve Him in the poorest of the poor. "Come be my light," He commanded, "I cannot go alone - they don't know me, so they don't want me. Go amongst them, carry me with you into them..."
Mother then began receiving a series of interior locutions, in which she was really hearing the voice of Jesus and intimately conversing with Him, that continued until the middle of the following year. In one of these visions she had in 1947 Jesus said to her, "I want Indian nuns, victims of My love, who would be Mary and Martha, who would be so very united to Me as to radiate My love on souls. I want free nuns covered with My poverty of the Cross. ... You will dress in simple Indian clothes or rather like My Mother dressed - simple and poor. ... Your sari will become holy because it will be My symbol."
Mother was already a professed Loreto nun and therefore, had to get permission from the Bishop and her superiors to carry out what Christ demanded of her. On April 12, 1948, the Vatican finally permitted her to work outside the convent. Mother was to remain outside cloister for one year after which Archbishop Périer, the Archbishop of Calcutta, would decide whether she should continue with her work or return to Loreto.
On August 8, 1948, Father van Exem, Mother Teresa's spiritual director, broke the news to her and on that very evening, accompanied by Maggie, a junior teacher at St. Mary’s, Mother bought a pair of white saris with three blue stripes on each, for herself. In the evening of the following day, she came to the sacristy of the Convent Chapel and asked Father van Exem to bless the dress she would wear from then on.
In the evening of 17 August, 1948, Mother wore one of the saris for the first time and moved out of the Loreto Convent at Entally. Her pupils at St. Mary’s were curious to see her but it was already quite dark and their attempts proved to be unsuccessful. Mother Teresa, now a nun of the world, had started on her way.
However, when her pupils finally saw Mother in her sari after she had returned from her medical training in Patna, their initial reaction was that of shock. Magdalena Polton, who later became Sr. Gertrude, the second nun to join the Missionaries of Charity, recollects her first meeting with Mother in her new religious dress, “It was the 26th of April, 1949, the day I had myself come to join Mother. When I arrived, Mother was not at home. She came after midday and it was then that for the very first time in my life I saw her in her white sari with three blue borders. And what a shock it was for me - Mother Teresa, a Loreto nun, my Headmistress was now dressed like a poor Bengali woman in a simple white cotton sari with three blue borders!"
In the early days the saris used to be bought from Harrison Road near Howrah. In fact, the first two saris of Mother that Father van Exem blessed were also bought from there. Sr. Gertrude, who accompanied Mother to purchase 11 pairs of three-striped handloom saris from Harrison Road before the day Mother was to make her Final Profession and the first group of 10 sisters their First Profession, remembers the rows of shops lining the pavements on both sides selling these saris. "The saris that used to be sold there usually had borders of red, green and blue," she recollects, "Mother selected the blue border, for we associate the colour blue with Mother Mary. It stands for purity. Also in those days women who swept the streets used to wear a similar kind of a sari. So Mother adopted a religious dress that was both symbolic and practical - it not only helped to identify ourselves with the poor but was also suitable to Calcutta's searing climate. The saris, I think, cost about Rs. 2.50 each and we used to buy a pair for each one of us." Five [three] nuns are still living from the first batch of Sisters who made their profession in 1953 – [Sr. Gertrude died on 6.12.2015, Sr. Dorothy died on 21.12.2014 ] , Sr. Clare, Sr. Leatitia and Sr. Francisca – and they still wear the same three-striped saris with which they began their religious life.
Gradually, as the Society grew, it became very difficult to get these saris in large numbers. So in 1958 when the Missionaries of Charity began the Gandhiji Prem Niwas at Titagarh for leprosy patients and found that many of them were out of work, they bought them looms and asked them to weave saris for the nuns. The leprosy bacillus does not survive outside human flesh, thereby eliminating any danger of the disease spreading. Since then the saris are being woven at Titagarh and sent to Sisters the world over. The inmates there work with human dignity under medical supervision and the Missionaries of Charity pay them for this work besides providing them with food, clothing and medical care.
The religious dress of the Missionaries of Charity bears special significance. The colour of their sari - white - stands for truth and purity while the three blue borders each signify the vows that the nuns of the Order take: the first band represents Poverty, the second Obedience and the third broad band represents the vows of Chastity and of Wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor. The Cross worn on the left shoulder symbolises that for the Missionaries of Charity Jesus on the Cross is the key to the heart.
Novices wear white saris without the three blue stripes. When they are ready to take vows after four years of formation, they receive the blue-striped sari of the Congregation. Each sister possesses only three saris.
Mother Teresa's inspiration to adopt the white sari with three blue borders as the religious dress of the Missionaries of Charity and wear it in the true Bengali style was thus inspired by Jesus' Words. It was a choice led by God.
Heartfelt gratitude to Sr. Gertrude, M.C. ( who was the 2nd to join Mother Teresa and who went home to Jesus in 2015.12.05.) for her help with writing this feature.