July 1980
Harriet Heyman
Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. Managing Editor


Last December, when Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, she canceled the scheduled celebratory banquet for 135 and had the $7,000 it would have cost sent to her mission in Calcutta, where it would feed 400 people for a full year. That act impressed me, and I was moved, too, when she accepted the prize "in the name of the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society." Soon afterward we asked Mary Ellen Mark, a sensitive and distinguished photographer who works with Magnum, to document the real world of this truly remarkable "living saint." The assignment reminded me of another story, which LIFE published 25 years ago, and I wondered whether Mark would run into some of the same myth-shattering surprises W. Eugene Smith had when he photographed Albert Schweitzer in 1954 at his remote missionary hospital in French Equatorial Africa. Schweitzer had just won the Nobel Peace Prize, too. Smith was expecting to find the precise embodiment of the man he had read about, the man "convinced that truth, love, peaceableness, meekness and kindness are the violence that can master all other violence." instead Smith found a driven Scottish collie of a man (the dog analogy was Schweitzer’s own), a man who wielded steely authority among his helpers and patients alike in his lonely battle against pain and suffering, a man rough on his house servants and, incidentally, uncompromising in his lack of cooperation on a story for LIFE. Balking at being photographed at work, the great philosopher-musician-theologian turned doctor told Smith: "People will think Schweitzer has picked up a shovel to show the world he works."

Instead of a crotchety, easily exasperated, self-conscious subject, Mary Ellen Mark found profound tenderness in Mother Teresa. But she did encounter a similar brand of blunt stubbornness. "No, I wouldn't touch a leper for a thousand pounds," Mother Teresa announced. "Yet I willingly care for him for the love of God." And, like Schweitzer, Mother Teresa would have little truck with pictures at first; time was too precious. But when Mark and our New Delhi bureau persisted, the doors to the Missionaries of Charity finally opened wide. Inside Mark found unspeakable sights and sounds and smells alongside unbelievable acts of gentleness and patience, as Teresa and her followers cared for India's diseased and blind and mad and, especially, its dying. "I can confront almost anything that I think is important in telling a story," says Mark, whose essay begins on page 54. "And the camera gives me protection, a certain distance. A photographer is looking at a story through a window," Of this assignment specifically, she says, "For some reason the whole thing wasn't a devastating, hopeless experience. Nothing was horrifying or depressing. When I did a book on a U.S. mental hospital, or when I did a story on junkies, there was such hopelessness. A story on a big-city intensive care unit was terrifying because it all seemed so matter-of-fact, everything seemed so dependent on technology. But at Mother Teresa's, where the care is so rudimentary, there is such kindness and hope that these people are somehow encouraged to be alive up until the very last moment. What really impressed me was that humans could be so good and so brave." At a time when the focus of the news seems so often on despair or greed or violence, a story about the indomitable courage of a good woman gives a powerful lift to these pages.

Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. Managing Editor

Mary Ellen Mark with one of the sick in Mother Teresa's mission.

A Saintly Nun Embraces India's Poor


Photography: Mary Ellen Mark

On the streets of Calcutta, Kipling's City of Dreadful Night, hundreds of thousands of people are born, live and die in destitution scarcely imaginable to the western mind. They, the dispossessed, coexist with the prouder parts of Calcutta- elegant homes and modern office buildings- in the squalid interstices of a society that is otherwise lively in culture, politics and commerce.

In 1948 a tiny nun left the landscaped confines of Calcutta's Loreto convent for the teeming streets to devote herself to caring for the poorest of the poor. For this zealous commitment, Mother Teresa, nearing 70, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last fall. Today Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity number 158 houses all over the world, comprising 2,000 nuns as well as a brotherhood of 250 members and some 10,000 lay volunteers.

Mother Teresa helps those most desperately in need--lepers, unwed mothers, discarded infants, the ill, the insane, the retarded, the dying. Photographer Mary Ellen Mark spent nearly a month with Mother Teresa, documenting her work. "In this extreme of suffering," Mark wrote in her travel diary, "pus, blood, vomit, urine, screams, sad and vacant faces--the sisters never stop working; they are gentle and kind. Each time I ask something, the sister tells me, 'It is God's work, don't you see? You should put down your camera and do some work.' Quite honestly, I don't think I could."

That Mother Teresa's effort is but a drop of mercy in an ocean of despair is acceptable to her. In a letter she describes how once, delirious with fever, she dreamed she went to Saint Peter. "But he would not let me in, saying 'There are no slums in heaven.' In anger I said, 'Very well, I will fill heaven with slum people, then you will be forced to let me in.' Poor Saint Peter! Since then the Sisters and Brothers don't give him rest--because our people have reserved their places in heaven long ago by their suffering."

A beggar sleeps at the mission door in Calcutta.

At right, in the white sari that denotes her allegiance to India's poor, Mother Teresa feeds a sick man.

The men die much faster than the women.

Throngs of beggars, students, tourists and passersby crowd the ancient streets of the Kalighat section of Calcutta. It is here that the destitute of India come to die, for devout Hindus wish to be cremated on the ghats (steps) of the sacred Hooghly River. Howrah, the old railroad station, is littered with the bodies of those who spent their last strength to get here. Nearby is Nirmal Hriday, the hospice for the dying that Mother Teresa created on the grounds of a temple to the goddess Kali, the Hindu "dark mother" of death and destruction. When the poor arrive at the hospice, filthy and eaten by vermin and disease, they are washed, their hair is cut and their wounds dressed. As sunlight streams down the whitewashed walls of Nirmal Hriday, the sisters and brothers help them get better, or at least try to give them a measure of peace before death. And almost half of the people do die; their bodies are taken to the hospital morgue and separated according to religion. "Most people's gentle acceptance of death is amazing," notes Mark. "'They are all people completely alone,' a nun told me. 'Very sick, poor and with no one. The men die much faster than the women. The women take along time to die."

A woman is picked up at the railroad station to be taken to Nirmal Hriday.

In the men's ward at the hospice, the brothers bathe a dying man.

In the women's section, nuns change the sheets and attend the sick.

"I watch this man die," reports Mark, "struggling for breath, sunken cheeks, huge terrified eyes, restless, in pain. He dies. His eyes do not shut."

Once a month the patients are moved and the furniture aired so that the ward, cleaned daily, can be scrubbed down floor to ceiling. Here the women wait for the nuns to finish the all day task and replace them in their beds.

Scrubbing the ward, tending the dying.

Work at Nirmal Hriday is arduous and as unending as the vicissitudes of suffering there. Mark describes her visit: "At 8:30 a.m. the sisters arrive in the ambulance. The women are still asleep. Woman with gangrene arm is dead. Sisters close her eyes, wash her, put her in a cloth shroud and arrange her on a shelf in the morgue. They move the Hindu man to the other side, with the baby from the orphanage who died."

"In the women's room nuns mop and bathe the women--excrement everywhere. The little blind girl looks like a concentration camp victim. Her arms are like broomsticks, her chest skeletal. There are several new patients, their legs drawn up like fetuses. Some can't control their bodily functions. That's often the most sad, because they realize their loss of control and are ashamed."

"The women are fed lots of food, the sisters mop up again, then medicine, injections, clean beds, then lunch of fish, vegetables and rice."

"At 3:30 there is cleanup again. The nuns work so hard, oblivious to the most terrible sights and smells."

"At the dinner, blind girl gets a second helping; there is no more rice, so they give her bones. She doesn't know what they are, so she cries and throws them on the floor. Some of the women have an automatic begging gesture. They are old, senile; so many years they have raised their hands to beg, they cannot stop. At 6:30 the nuns go home, and the patients settle down for the night."

In the schedule that defines their life, the nuns eat dinner, have a bit of free time before night prayers, then retire at 10. They rise at 4:30 every morning to pray, do housework, wash out one of their two saris, attend mass and eat a breakfast of bread and tea--and begin work again.

Although this grueling regimen is seen as the fulfillment of their vow to serve and bind themselves to the poor, it is not an end in itself. "Our work is only the expression of the love we have for God," explains Mother Teresa "To us what matters is an individual. Every person is Christ for me. And since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment."

Death, even in the laundry

An ordinary day at Nirmal Hriday: In the washing room nuns gather up rags and sheets to boil in vats in the rear. The white door leads to the morgue, where the body of the man at right will be delivered.

An exuberant 16-year-old who lost a leg to leprosy is an outcast because of the disease, but she lives and is cared for in one of the leprosy hospitals.

A Gift of Love, care for the insane

In Mother Teresa's empire are several institutions for the physically and mentally ill, rehabilitation centers where people can work, leper colonies for those ostracized because of disease, mobile clinics and food programs, one of which provides 5,000 meals a day. At Prem Dan (Gift of Love), another part of the Calcutta mission, Mary Ellen Mark witnessed the treatment of the insane: "In the early morning, sisters get patients up. Some are miserable, others happy, manic. Girl in the enclosure recognizes us. 'Hello, Auntie. Hello, Sister.' The girl who used to be catatonic says 'Ma, Ma.' She sits under Mother Teresa's robes and makes a nun's habit from the skirt of her sari. Another girl dances for Mother.

"No locked doors, except for those who are kept apart because they are totally helpless. Once a week a doctor comes to give electroshock to the very ill patients.

"One evening Sister Mary Anne picks up one of the sickest women to put her in bed. 'She is weak.' 'She is gone,' says another nun. The nun ties a band around the dead woman's head to shut her mouth. She powders her face, puts a white sheet and flowers around her. They carry the body into the dark, peaceful corridor.

"At 6 p.m. the patients are tucked in bed for the night. But in the closed-off room, the nuns spread a mat on the floor and cover the people with a big sheet. The naked women huddle cozily like sweet children. 'They are innocents,' says the novice. 'These people are much closer to God than we are."

The Missionaries of Charity also run leprosariums all over India. One of the newest, in Raigarh, some 300 miles west of Calcutta, was dedicated during Mark's visit. Mother Teresa gave a speech, and a free eye clinic was held. In her diary Mark wrote: "There is fanfare and a parade as Mother rides through town in a jeep. During the speech at the town hall she tells a story of a beggar who approached her recently. "'Everyone comes to ask something of you," he said. "Some people have something to give; I have nothing. But today I earned tenpence. Here, take it." So I took it. And that to me was much more valuable than the Nobel Prize."

Mother Teresa travels, always with another nun, on a tourist-class pass donated by the Indian government.

In Prem Dan "nuns play games with patients," notes the photographer. "Laugh, never punish them."

Orphans are given a traditional wedding

Two brides from Shishu Bhavan, the children's home, with a flower girl, get dressed up for their wedding day.

Not far from the hospital for the dying is a far more hopeful place. More than an orphanage, Shishu Bhavan is also an adoption center where abandoned children and infants find homes. Some of the hard-to-place children-the crippled, blind and retarded--may live their lives among the Missionaries of Charity.

While she was in Calcutta, Mark watched the nuns prepare a double wedding for two girls from the home (left). "The sisters dress the girls: polish is put on fingernails, powder and Indian makeup on their faces, henna on their feet. They wear red and white wedding saris and gold Jewelry--the nuns spent 5,000 rupees on each girl. The ceremony is a blend of Bengali and Catholic. Afterward Mother Teresa blesses them. People bring many gifts."

Giving in the most selfless way is the thing Mother Teresa knows most about. When asked about her life, she points to her work. She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, Yugoslavia, the daughter of a grocer. By the age of 12 she realized she wanted to serve the poor and at 18 began her novitiate in Darjeeling, India. She chose the name Mary Teresa after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th century Carmelite, who wrote on doing God's work through the humblest tasks.

Though in the early days of the Missionaries of Charity the sisters begged--as much a symbol of humility and alliance with the poor as a mode of getting aid-Mother Teresa no longer solicits funds. "Money is no problem," she insists. "The Lord sends it. We do His work; He provides the means." And donations, from buildings to blankets to helping hands, always appear--though a bit of holy finagling helps.

Mother Teresa today is, as ever, dynamic, full of humor and utterly dedicated to helping the poor. Although she believes in praying, she says that prayer without action is no prayer at all. "You have to do your work as if everything depends on you." she says. "then leave the rest to God."

-Harriet Heyman