With a will of iron and a heart of love, Mother Teresa served the dying and desperate in India and around the world
September 15, 1997
KENNETH L. WOODWARD
She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, daughter of an Albanian building contractor in what is now Macedonia, but when she died last week in Calcutta-just days after her 87th birthday-she was known the world over simply as Mother Teresa. Frail and bent, she had been hospitalized for numerous ailments over the last two years and outfitted with a pacemaker. After finishing dinner and her prayers, Mother Teresa complained of a pain in her back. "I cannot breathe," she told a doctor summoned to her side. Moments later, she died. Shortly after, her nuns tolled a huge metal bell and some 4,000 people gathered in the rain outside, many of them the street people she had served. Inside Mother Teresa's body was dressed and laid on a bed of ice. One by one the nuns filed past, touching her bare feet in the traditional Indian gesture of respect. "Her heart, which held up for all those years, suddenly gave out," said her personal physician in Rome, Dr. Vincenzo Bilotta.
Widely regarded as a "living saint," Mother Teresa was perhaps the most admired woman in the world. When she appeared, as she often did, at the side of John Paul II, it was the pope who stood in the diminutive nun's shadow. Although she was a Roman Catholic, her simplicity and manifest concern for the dying, the abandoned and the outcast transcended boundaries of religion and nationality. "By blood and origin I am Albanian," she once said of herself. "My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus."
When she was just a schoolgirl, Agnes knew she "had a vocation to help the poor." She also knew exactly where she wanted to serve. Inspired by the reports of Yugoslav Jesuits working among the needy in Bengal, she determined to make India her mission field. At the age of 18, she joined the Sisters of Loretto, a community of Irish nuns who ran schools in India, and took the name Teresa. A year later, after lessons in English at an abbey in Dublin, she was teaching geography in a convent school in Calcutta. Eventually she was appointed principal. But she had the sense that her work was too limited, her milieu too comfortable, her routine spiritually too confining. In 1946 she became ill -doctors suspected tuberculosis- and she was sent to recuperate in the mountain town of Darjeeling. "It was in the train that I heard the call to give up all and follow him [Jesus] to the slums," she later recalled. A year later, after repeated requests, Pope Pius XII allowed her to leave her religious order.
At first Sister Teresa taught slum children whose parents were too poor to send their children to school. They called her Mother Teresa, and that is who she became. One day, as she later recalled, she found a woman "half eaten by maggots and rats" lying in the street. She sat with her,
stroking her head, until the woman died. With that experience a new vocation-and a new religious order-was born. Her goal, she decided, would be to minister to the "unwanted, unloved and uncared for" strewn throughout the teeming streets and sprawling slums of her adopted city. And to that end she gathered a small group of women around her, forming the Missionary Sisters of Charity.
Mother Teresa's love of India was transforming: she learned Hindi and Bengali, became an Indian citizen, took over a hostel that had once served pilgrims to the temple of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, and adopted the simple sari as her order's official habit. As the nuns scooped up the dying from the city's gutters and took them to their clinic to die in peace, local citizens complained to the civil authorities. But when a police commissioner inspected the makeshift clinic, he was so stunned by the stench and misery that he said he would evict the nuns only when the complainants persuaded their mothers and sisters to take over the work the nuns had started. None came forward.
Building shelters for the dying was Mother Teresa's signature service. Poverty was her chosen way of life. When Pope Paul VI gave her the white Lincoln Continental limousine he had used during a visit in 1964, she sold it-without ever stepping inside-and used the proceeds to start a leper colony in West Bengal. In 1965 Pope Paul made the Missionaries a pontifical order, thus opening the way to growth outside India. That same year Mother Teresa established a center in Venezuela. Another followed in Rome, then in Australia-always, as in the South Bronx of New York City, where people were most in despair. To the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience she added a fourth: a promise of "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor," whom she regarded as "Christ in his distressing disguise."
Inspired by her vision, groups of Catholic brothers, priests and laypeople affiliated with the Missionaries of Charity. At a time when most religious orders of Catholic women were struggling to survive, Mother Teresa attracted novices from throughout the world. Today, the sari-clad sisters number more than 4,500, with 550 centers in 126 countries. Their range of concerns has also expanded to include victims of AIDS, battered women and drug addicts. Led by Mother Teresa, the sisters have ventured to feed the hungry in Ethiopia, treat radiation victims at Chernobyl and succor families made homeless by an earthquake in Armenia.
None of this was achieved by prayer alone. Despite her small, almost wispy bearing-she was less than five feet tall-Mother Teresa possessed iron resolve. Bishops buckled in her presence, and chiefs of state begged her to establish missions in their countries. She accepted celebrity as the price for expanding her missionary outreach. She also welcomed other celebrities, like the late Princess Diana, who wanted to identify with her work. In "Something Beautiful for God," a 1971 book and BBC film that brought Mother Teresa popular attention, the late British author Malcolm Muggeridge concluded that "without the special grace vouchsafed her, she might have been a hard, even grasping person. God turned these qualities to his own ends."
As her fame grew, so did her honors. Among the most significant were the Bharat Ratna (or jewel of India), the country's highest civilian award, and the 1979 Nobel Prize for Peace. (Skip the lavish dinner, she asked the Nobel committee, and give the money to the poor.)
But Mother Teresa also had her critics. In Latin America Roman Catholic exponents of liberation theology found her wanting in political involvement and revolutionary zeal. Her response was that political revolution was not her calling; she preferred to lead a "revolution of love" by reaching out, like Jesus, to one tormented body at a time. Advocates of abortion rights were outraged by her repeated condemnations of both abortion and contraception. Her message was blunt: "Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching people to love, but to use violence to get what they want," she told a 1994 congressional prayer
breakfast that included President and Mrs. Clinton. "That's why the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion."
On the road: Her calling was for the poor but she accepted celebrity as the price for expanding her missionary work
Among those who supported her work were dubious public figures like Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, the despotic former head of Haiti. But Mother Teresa refused to condemn anyone who helped her help the needy. In 1992 she pleaded on behalf of accused savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating of Cincinnati, who had donated $1.2 million to her mission. Keating, she wrote to the U.S. district judge presiding at his trial, "has always been kind and generous to God's poor."
Mother Teresa controlled what she created. Her sisters seldom spoke to the media -or for themselves- without her permission. Like many other charismatic founders of new movements, she was slow to prepare women to succeed her. In 1990, when Mother Teresa resigned as head of her order because of failing health, the Missionary sisters were unable to choose a replacement, and she resumed her office. Only last March, when she was obviously too weak to lead, did the order elect Sister Nirmala, a Hindu convert, as her successor. But she didn't always get her way. Her frequent pleas on behalf of condemned prisoners worldwide-she opposed capital punishment-were usually ignored. Asked if she herself feared death, Mother Teresa had a ready response: "No I see it all the time."
As word of her death spread, religious and political leaders around the world paused to mark the passing of the woman Indians called the Saint of the Gutters. In Washington, the House of Representatives, which had awarded Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal three months ago, observed a rare moment of silence. President Clinton interrupted a golf game on Martha's Vineyard to say the world had lost "one of the giants of our time." The pope, also vacationing at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, prepared to say a mass in her honor. "Her death touched his heart very deeply," a Vatican spokesman reported. In Oslo, Norway, the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, Francis Sejersted, said, "She became a symbol to the world." But it was Coretta Scott King who spoke for millions when she said, in Atlanta, "Our world has lost the most celebrated saint of our times."
Mother Teresa's greatest burden, perhaps, was her own reputation for sanctity. In the Roman Catholic church, a "living saint" is a contradiction in terms. Sainthood can be conferred only posthumously, long after the death of the candidate for canonization. But there is sentiment among some Vatican officials for waiving the canonization process in her case, and John Paul II is the kind of pope who relishes just such a flamboyant gesture. It would be, for him, the lifting up of a woman who in singular fashion countered the century's enveloping "culture of death." No matter: to the millions of Indians who called her Mother, and to the millions more who revered her for her countless acts of mercy, Mother Teresa lit a path to holiness and invited others to follow. Shanti, Mother Teresa.
A Missionary for Charity
The youngest child of a building contractor, Mother Teresa grew up to be revered by the forgotten and the famous alike. She was tireless in her efforts to care for the ill and destitute, building shelters around the world. She was small but strong, saintly but shrewd. A look back at her life:
1910 Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu is born to Albanian parents in Skopje, then part of the Ottoman Empire
1928 Leaves home to join the Sisters of Loretto, a community of Irish nuns, and begins her novitiate in the mountain resort of Darjeeling, India
1939 Takes her final vows as a nun
1946 While on a train to Darjeeling to recuperate from a suspected case of tuberculosis, she receives a calling from God 'to serve him among the poorest of the poor.'
1947 The Vatican grants her permission to leave Loretto and move to the slums of Calcutta, where she opens her first school
1950 Mother Teresa founds the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity
1952 Opens the Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) Home for Dying Destitutes, followed the next year by her first orphanage
1957 Begins working with lepers
1984 Pope Paul VI gives her a white Lincoln Continental, which she auctions off to build a leper colony in West Bengal
1979 Wins the Nobel Peace Prize
1982 At the height of the Beirut siege, she persuades both sides to stop fighting so she can rescue children from a hospital
1985 Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
1990 After suffering two heart attacks, she announces her intention to resign but is reelected by her sisters
1994 A British documentary, 'Hell's Angel,' attacks her antiabortion stand
1997 Steps down as the head of her order; dies of a massive heart attack in her religious order's headquarters in Calcutta