Saint of the streets
September 22, 1997
By Emily Mitchell, JAN MCGIRK in New Delhi and NINA RIDDLE in London

“I see God in every human being,” said Mother Teresa (visiting a Calcutta rehabilitation center in 1980).

A steel will drove her mission of mercy

MONSOON RAINS COULD NOT KEEP them away. Neither could their differences. Thousands of Calcuttans rich and poor, Hindu, Muslim and Christian lined up outside St. Thomas Church to pay their respects to Mother Teresa, 87, who died of cardiac arrest on Sept. 5 at the Missionaries of Charity home. Some wept; others silently mouthed prayers as they filed past the frail body that lay in a coffin on a glass enclosed bier. The day after her death Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral announced that the country she had come to call home would honor Mother Teresa with a state funeral on Sept. 13; all government offices would close and flags would fly at half staff.

For the woman whom Indians called the "saint of the gutter" it was a remarkable if not unexpected end. "The world has lost one of the giants of our time," said President Clinton, echoing sentiments that poured in from around the world. "She led by serving and showed us the stunning power of simple humility." (Hillary Rodham Clinton will head the U.S. delegation to the funeral.)

Clad in the white and blue cotton sari of the Missionaries of Charity, the Roman Catholic order she founded in 1950, Mother Teresa was physically slight she stood less than 5 feet tall- but tough as oak. Large, strong hands spoke of hard labor, and her stamina rarely flagged. She suffered heart attacks in 1983 and 1989, and both times was back at work within weeks. Confined largely to a wheelchair since last December, she nonetheless journeyed to Washington in June to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.

Feisty at times, she could also be insistent on her own kind of protocol. When journalist Daphne Barak arrived in Calcutta in December 1995 to conduct an interview for Ladies' Home Journal, Mother Teresa insisted that the writer contribute a day's labor in the Calcutta hospice before she would grant her an audience. That shouldn't have been a surprise. Wrote Barak after¬ward: "I learned that even Princess Diana [whom Mother Teresa later said she regarded "like a daughter"] had to wait when she wanted an audience with Mother Teresa."

Exercising such power probably would have been unimaginable to young Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, one of three children born to an Albanian couple in Skopje, Macedonia. Her building contractor father died when she was around 7, and her devout family, previously prosperous, was reduced to genteel poverty. At 12 Agnes felt a calling to help the poor; at 18, in 1928, she joined the Sisters of Loreto, a community of Irish nuns known for their missionary work. After taking the name of the 19th century French nun St. Thérèse of Lisieux and training in Dublin and Darjeeling, India, the new Sister Teresa taught upper class Bengali girls at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta, and eventually became the school's principal. In 1946, while on a train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she received what she took to be a divine message. "I was to give up all," she later wrote in her 1995 book A Simple Path, "and follow Jesus into the slums." It took two years before she persuaded the Vatican to let her leave the cloister, live among the poor and begin her work in Calcutta's streets. Her first Home for the Destitute and Dying, dedicated to providing compassionate care for the abandoned, was in the city's teeming Kalighat district. During the next 47 years, her order grew to include 5,000 nuns and brothers operating more than 2,500 orphanages, schools, clinics and hospices in over 120 countries, including the U.S.

The reach of her influence seemed never to change her. Until illness forced her in 1996 to alter her daily routine, she rose at 4:30 each morning and kept to a frugal diet of rice and vegetables.

All the donations and monetary awards that came to her including the more than $190,000 that accompanied her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize went to fund new orphanages, hospices and homes for those suffering from leprosy.

Other sacrifices were more personal. When her mother lay dying in Albania in the 1970s, Mother Teresa decided, for the sake of her work, not to return home after Communist dictator Enver Hoxha refused to guarantee her subsequent safe passage out of the country. Not until 1989 did she return to Albania. Says biographer Kathryn Spink: "The first thing she did was to lay flowers on her mother's grave. She then laid flowers on Enver Hoxha's as a gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation."

Mother Teresa forgave her harshest critic too. British journalist Christopher Hitchens, in his 1994 TV documentary Hell's Angel and his 1995 book Missionary Position, savaged her for, among other things, appealing for clemency on behalf of Charles Keating the infamous central figure in the U.S. savings and loan scandal after accepting $1.25 million in donations from him. "What one has to understand about Mother Teresa is that she sees Christ in every person she encounters," says Spink. "I have heard her say that every human being must be given the opportunity to do good." Certainly when her own opportunity came, she made the most of it.