This day marks the birth centenary of a simple nun who, through her work among the poorest of the poor, became the conscience-keeper of her century.

Today, August 26, 2010, the birth centenary of Mother Teresa will be marked with celebration and thanksgiving in many parts of the world. This simple nun with her unique brand of faith and compassion was able to alleviate loneliness, hunger and destitution by reaching out through a worldwide mission to millions of abandoned, homeless and dying destitutes, irrespective of their religion, caste, faith or denomination. In the process she became, indisputably, the conscience-keeper of her century.

As one who was associated with her for 23 years and became one of her biographers, it is not easy to encapsulate her remarkable journey. Born in Skopje, a city in the folds of the Balkans, then as now a crucible of many religions and races, she was the youngest of three children of deeply Catholic Albanian parents. Her father died when she was seven; her mother struggled to feed her family and turned increasingly to the local church for spiritual sustenance. Young Agnes (as she was then known) encountered uncertainty and adversity early in life. The lessons of diligence, discipline, frugality and kindness were imbibed in these early years.

Today, when teenagers often have difficulty making up their minds as to which course to study and where, Agnes had decided, at the age of 14, to serve as a missionary, not in her local church, but in faraway India, then a world apart, of which decision the only certainty was that she would never return home.

A new life opened in Calcutta in 1929. She had joined the Loreto Order as a novice aged 19. Here she would take her religious vows and teach for almost 20 years. In 1948, in an even more cataclysmic turn of events, again entirely of her own making, she left the convent doors behind her for a vision of the street. She had realised that this was where her true vocation lay, and she pursued this goal with diligence, even obstinacy. This she did till the Vatican made her its first exception in several hundred years, permitting her to step out of the Loreto Order, but with her vows intact. She would remain a nun but without belonging to an established Order of the Church. These were early signs of spirit and will power, together with prayerfulness and faith, laced with not inconsiderable charm, which would provide the propulsion for the quite incredible journey that lay ahead.

The early milestones lay in recognition within her adopted country – first by the legendary Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. B.C. Roy, to be followed by national recognition when Jawaharlal Nehru was instrumental in India awarding her the Padma Shri in 1962. Later, another redoubtable Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, was to provide her his unstinted support.

By 1965, she had set up a vast network of service across India. The time had come for her to move her mission overseas. She saw need everywhere; there were plenty of the poor and hungry in divisive societies in each continent, in desperately poor and prosperous societies alike. And so she set up feeding centres and leprosy stations in Africa, AIDS hospices in North America, community programmers in the Australian outback, and a host of services that helped lift the most marginalised, hungry and lonely from a desolate life in streets and slums of Africa, Asia and the West.

“God loves a cheerful giver” was a refrain I would often hear as I walked with the smiling Sisters of her Order among sullen faces under London's Waterloo Bridge, serving them their only hot meal on a wintry night; in the process I saw where they spent their nights: coffin-sized cardboard boxes, their only homes. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, I talked to young AIDS sufferers in her hospices, knowing that I would never see them again. In Madrid, I met the aged and the destitute, wracked by a disease called loneliness, which Mother Teresa called the “leprosy of the West”. And then the final triumph, a centre carved in the heart of Catholicism itself, in the shadow of St. Peter's in the Vatican, handed over by a Polish Pope to an obedient but persistent nun. She appeared a frail figure against the rigid hierarchy of the Church, some of whose members frowned in private that the Vatican had hardly any space let alone for a soup kitchen. Yet, in my eyes, Mother Teresa and John Paul II had, at one stroke, demystified a thousand years of sometimes rigid Papal tradition, in an understanding of the deepest Christian ethic that they shared.

Although she herself remained fiercely Catholic, her brand of faith was not exclusive. Convinced that each person she ministered to was Christ in suffering, she reached out to people of all religions. The very faith that sustained her infuriated her detractors, who saw her as a symbol of a right-wing conspiracy and, worse, the principal mouthpiece of the Vatican's well-known views against abortion. Interestingly, such criticism went largely unnoticed in India, where she was widely revered.

She was criticised for conversion. Yet in all the 23 years I knew her she never once whispered a suggestion regarding conversion. However, I asked her if she did convert. Without a moment's hesitation, she said, “I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Protestant, and a better Sikh. Once you have found God, it is up to you to do with him as you wish.” While she never deviated an inch from her path and was a religious, not a social worker, she was quick to realise that in India, Catholicism was practised by a small segment, and the 19th century proselytising approach could not be sustained.

From her humblest beginning in the slums and streets, she reached out to alleviate the problem she encountered by the simplest and most straightforward means available to her. Her thinking was both simple and complex: when asked how she could touch a leprosy sufferer and clean his sores, she said she could do it because for her that man was the suffering Jesus. “I would not clean him for all the money in the world,” said an observer. “Nor would I,” Mother Teresa replied, “but I would do it for love of Him.”

She could multi-task. She had to be a administrator par excellence to set up a multinational organisation that spread to 123 countries by the time she died, with the help of about 5,000 members of her Order, and countless millions volunteers. Her hands were always full, but comforting one individual at a time was more important than “getting lost in numbers”; it had to be that way, because each individual was a divine manifestation, each to be comforted, held, rescued, fed and not allowed to die alone.

I once called her the most powerful woman in the world. Mother Teresa replied: “Where? If I was, I would bring peace in the world.” I asked her why she did not use her undeniable influence to lessen war. She replied: “War is the fruit of politics. If I get stuck in politics, I will stop loving because I will have to stand by one, not by all.”

She had her critics. There was criticism about her taking money from dubious sources. I once asked her about it. She said without a moment's hesitation. “I accept no salary, no government grant, no Church assistance, nothing. But how can I refuse anyone who chooses to give money in an act of charity. How is this different from the thousands of people who each day feed the poor? My task is to give peace to people. I would never refuse.” Yet she never asked for funds or even permitted fund-raising. Mother Teresa depended on providence. She believed if the work was intended, the money would come. If money did not come, the reverse held true.

What would happen to her mission when she passed on, I once asked her. She did not answer but instead only pointed her finger towards heaven. But I persisted. She laughed and said: “Let me go first.”

I asked her the third time and this time she replied: “You have been to so many of our missions in India and abroad. Everywhere our Sisters wear the same saris, eat the same kind of food, do the same kind of work. But Mother Teresa is not everywhere. Yet the work goes on.” Then she added: “As long as we remain committed to the poorest of the poor and do not end up serving the rich, the work will prosper.”

(Navin Chawla is the former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the biographer of Mother Teresa.)

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