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Mother Teresa, 1910 - 1997

Nobel-Winner Aided the Poorest

Mother Teresa blesses Sister Nirmala (Reuters)
Mother Teresa (Right) blesses Sister Nirmala after she handed over leadership of her Roman Catholic order to Nirmala in Calcutta March 14.
(File photo Reuters)
By Colman McCarthy
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, Sept. 6, 1997; Page A17

Mother Teresa, 87, who died yesterday at her religious order's headquarters in Calcutta after a heart attack, was a Roman Catholic nun who appeared to the world as physically diminutive as she was spiritually enormous.

She was acclaimed worldwide for her works of mercy and succor among the destitute and forgotten. The founder of the Missionaries of Charity, she became known as the Saint of the Gutters and received the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for her care of the sick and dying in Calcutta.

Upon learning of her death, President Clinton, vacationing yesterday on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, called the nun "an incredible person." The U.S. House of Representatives observed a moment of silence in her honor.

Mother Teresa, who believed that "the more we empty ourselves, the more room we give God to fill us," came to be a living symbol of selfless compassion to the world's invisible outcasts and no-caste poor. After the Peace Prize brought her fame, honors rolled in, from the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom the highest American civilian award to an honorary doctorate in divinity from Cambridge University, conferred by Britain's Prince Philip.

Throughout the hoopla, Mother Teresa, wearing a coarse white sari and stooping more as she aged, remained a model of humility who constantly edified the world with an innate cheerfulness. "Happiness," she said, "is the sign of a generous person. It is often the mantle of self-sacrifice. Joy is the surest way to announce Christianity to the world."

By the time of her death in Calcutta, a city of 3,000 slums and an estimated 200,000 people living on pavements, Mother Teresa's religious order had grown from a single convent in 1950 to a global congregation with hundreds of houses on six continents. She also founded an organization of laypeople who contributed to her work through prayer.

An indefatigable traveler, Mother Teresa visited the former Soviet Union after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and received the Soviet Peace Committee Gold Medal. She later opened a shelter in Moscow.

She made Washington a regular stopover on her frequent trips to the United States. In 1971, she ladled the first bowl of soup on opening day at the kitchen of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, founded by Edward Guinan, then a Paulist priest. In 1982, she gave the commencement address at Georgetown University.

In 1986, she went to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan, who pledged his assistance in finding a site in New York for AIDS patients.

"I will do the praying," she quipped, "and he will do the work."

In 1994, she addressed a National Prayer Day breakfast in Washington attended by President Clinton and Vice President Gore and took the occasion to denounce abortion as "the greatest destroyer of peace." Every abortion, she said, was "the denial of receiving Jesus."

(She once met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to oppose a sterilization program to stem India's huge population increases. Gandhi said: "To meet her is to feel utterly humble.")

An impassioned and vocal foe of capital punishment, Mother Teresa regularly pleaded with U.S. governors to spare the lives of death row inmates whose legal appeals had run out.

For Mother Teresa, capital punishment violated the sacredness of life, an ethic that must consistently be applied whether that life involved the pre-born or those on death row.

In 1995, Mother Teresa returned to Washington to open the Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Cardinal James A. Hickey, the archbishop of Washington, attended the ceremony.

An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa about the immense growth of her religious order. She replied by saying that if people are asked to "do something hard for Jesus . . . they will come forward."

After receiving her Nobel Prize in Oslo, Mother Teresa left Norway determined not to let herself be inundated, much less seduced, by media attention. "It must end," she said a few months after receiving the award, when requests for interviews kept pouring in. "I must go back to my work, see my sisters, visit houses, plan new foundations."

The media demands remained a burden for the rest of her life. The nun's way of dealing with interviews was that of the adroit politician: She controlled them herself.

"You must tell people what brings us here," she directed one of about 40 biographers who approached her on a book proposal. "Tell them that we are not here for the work; we are here for Jesus. All we do is for Him. We are first of all religious. We are not social workers, not teachers, not nurses or doctors; we are religious sisters. We serve Jesus in the poor. Our life has no other reason or motivation. This is a point many people do not understand."

In October 1996, President Clinton conferred honorary American citizenship on Mother Teresa, saying that she had demonstrated "how we can make real our dreams for a just and good society."

Bringing 'Hope and Love'

Clinton said that since founding the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, "she has brought hope and love into the lives of millions of orphaned and abandoned children the world over."

Honorary U.S. citizenship had been conferred on only three previous occasions: to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Pennsylvania founder William Penn and his wife, Hannah.

For a time, it seemed that no matter where people suffered, the tiny nun from Calcutta was lending a hand. She helped feed the starving masses of Ethiopia, comforted the radiation victims of Chernobyl and worked for the relief of earthquake-stricken Armenia. In 1982, during the bloodiest siege of Beirut, she persuaded Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting so 37 children trapped in a front-line hospital could be rescued.

Despite her reputation, Mother Teresa had her critics, including some members of the Catholic Church. In 1981, Sister Camille D'Arienzo wrote in the Tablet, the Brooklyn, N.Y., diocesan paper, that Mother Teresa is "an enormously holy and compassionate woman" who was "being inadvertently used by the men in the church" to project a passive image.

D'Arienzo said that church leaders wanted all sisters to get the message, "Be docile, do your womanly caring thing, but don't get out and criticize anything else."

In 1994, a British television documentary attacked the quality of medical care Mother Teresa gave. It went on to say that she gave "spiritual solace to dictators and wealthy exploiters, which is scarcely the essence of simplicity, and . . . preached surrender and prostration to the poor, which a truly humble person would barely have the nerve to do."

The script was written by Christopher Hitchens, who made the same points in a widely noted book called "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice."

Admirers flocked to her defense, including Cardinal Basil Hume, the leader of Britain's Catholics, who described the television program as a grotesque caricature.

Asked for comment, Mother Teresa said of the filmmakers, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

A Religious Upbringing

She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. The future nun was raised by Albanian parents her father was a grocer in a religious household. She was the soprano soloist in the parish choir and a member of the Sodality of Our Lady, a Catholic youth organization.

When some Yugoslav Jesuit missionaries passed word in Skopje about their work in Bengal, young Agnes told her parents that she wanted a life of serving Christ by working among the poor in India. At 18, she left home to join the Irish Sisters of Loreto, who were running schools in Bengal.

Her training as a postulant was in Rathfarnham, Ireland. In January 1929, she arrived in Calcutta to begin her novitiate, the customary period of spiritual development to determine suitability for a ruled life of obedience, fidelity and faith. Sister Teresa took her final vows in the late 1930s and was assigned to teach at St. Mary's High School in Entally, Calcutta.

She became the principal in time but gradually saw that however much she might be needed to teach the upper-class young women at St. Mary's, the urchins, lepers and those dying in the streets and befouled alleys outside the cloister walls needed her more. On a train for an annual spiritual retreat in Darjeeling, India, Mother Teresa decided to heed "a call within a call" and leave the Loreto convent to serve the poor.

With the approval of the Vatican, she spent three months taking medical training under the American Medical Missionary Sisters in Patna, India, and headed back to Calcutta for what would be her life's work. In 1965, the Vatican recognized the Missionaries of Charity as a pontifical congregation.

That was a year after Mother Teresa had met Pope Paul VI. After his visit to Bombay for the Eucharistic Congress in 1964, the pope gave the white Lincoln limousine in which he was chauffeured to Mother Teresa. She staged a raffle and spent the returns on the poor.

Mother Teresa had done the same with other gifts and awards. The $25,000 she won for the 1971 Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in Rome also went to establishing a home for lepers. A $15,000 award from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation in 1971 went to a medical center for the handicapped in Dum Dum, India.

Her generosity reflected a spiritual conviction: "Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness."

She worked closely with Pope John Paul II. Kindred spirits, tireless travelers and practitioners of piety often dismissed as dated, the pope and the nun maintained close contact. When Mother Teresa told him of her plans to include priests as co-workers, he replied, "May I be the first to give my name?"

The Pure Heart Center

In Calcutta, Mother Teresa's base was the Home of the Pure Heart of Mary, the first center to be established. "The thousands of our poor who have died in our home have died with God," she said.

A reporter for Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic weekly, described Pure Heart in a 1973 article: "Today some homeless poor, many of them critically ill, are washed, fed, and sheltered there and treated by sisters and doctors. . . . Some 27,000 persons, unacceptable anywhere else, have been brought here. This is no sunlit, gleaming convalescent home, flowers at every bedside.

"There is a heavy odor of disinfectant, and blue steel cots in long rows sit close to the stone floor, lest the weak fall out and hurt themselves. But Nirmal Hriday [Pure Heart] is clean and orderly, and those for whom no one cares find care and human warmth here."

With the advance in years, Mother Teresa suffered increasing infirmities. In 1983, she had a heart attack, and in 1989, she received a pacemaker. In 1991, she was treated in California for heart ailments and pneumonia. In 1993 in Rome, she broke three ribs. In the same year, she developed malaria, which was complicated by heart and lung problems. Last April, she broke her collarbone. She also suffered from arthritis and failing eyesight.

In 1990, some in the church called upon her to step down as her order's superior general. Later that year, a convocation of nuns met in Calcutta for the election of the superior general. Mother Teresa received every vote of convocation except one her own.

But in March 1997, Mother Teresa was succeeded as head of her order by Sister Nirmala. Mother Teresa had announced that she was too ill to continue to lead the order.

She always insisted on the primacy of God-centered faith as the explanation of her work. In Oslo, at the Nobel award ceremony, she led the audience in prayer, and every speech she gave mentioned prayer: "Love to pray. . . . Take the trouble to pray. . . . Prayer opens your heart until it is big enough to hold and keep God. . . . We must know Jesus in prayer before we can see him in the broken bodies of the poor. . . . Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God's gift to Himself."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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