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Mother Teresa, 1910 - 1997

Mother Teresa Dies at 87

Mother Teresa embraces a child/AP photo
Mother Teresa embraces a child in 1979.
(AP file photo)

By Kenneth J. Cooper
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 6, 1997;
Page A01

NEW DELHI, Sept. 6 (Saturday)—Mother Teresa, the Nobel Prize-winning Catholic nun, died Friday night after suffering cardiac arrest in the Calcutta headquarters of her Missionaries of Charity, whose worldwide assistance to the poorest of the poor made her known as "the saint of the gutters." She was 87.

Mother Teresa died at about 9:30 p.m. after a day that saw her health worsen progressively. Nuns clad in her order's trademark white and blue saris surrounded her bed. "I cannot breathe" were her last words, according to Sunita Kumar, a close friend.

Sister Nirmala, who succeeded Mother Teresa in March as head of the Missionaries of Charity, faxed a message to news organizations saying its founder "had suddenly gone to Jesus."

Nuns attended a late-night Mass for her inside the order's headquarters, known as Mother House. Her funeral was scheduled for Wednesday.

Early this morning, a crowd of mourners gradually swelled outside the mission's headquarters, which is situated down a narrow, swept lane from a main avenue. Hundreds of police kept grieving Indians back from the door where, for decades, many have sought comfort.

"There have been so many occasions in the last few years when she was critically ill and pulled back from the precipice, so we've always hoped for a miracle," said Navin Chawla, a senior bureaucrat and one of her biographers. "In a sense, her life's mission was complete. She brought about a smooth succession in her order. It was her time to go."

Tributes to Mother Teresa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, came from Pope John Paul II, President Clinton and many other world leaders.

"Her death touched his heart very deeply," a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said on behalf of the pope.

"The pope believes she is a woman who has left her mark on the history of this century. She was a glowing example of how the love of God can be transformed into love of one's neighbor."

"She was an incredible person," Clinton said at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing.

"The home for the dying she opened in Calcutta almost 50 years ago is called Nirmal Hriday -- pure heart," Clinton said. "If ever there was a pure heart, it was hers."

"Hers was a ministry of action -- of passion and compassion," Clinton said. "She led by serving, and showed us the stunning power of simple humility. Her unconquerable faith touched the lives of millions of people in India, here in the United States and all around the world."

Despite her order's global reach, it is India where Mother Teresa launched her mission, spent most of her life and came to be seen as a selfless servant of desperately poor people who know no other safety net.

As word spread late Friday night that Mother Teresa had gone to her final sleep, much of India, which rises early, was asleep as well. It was almost as if the Catholic nun who devoted most of her life in humble service to the poorest of Calcutta, India's second-largest city, did not want her passing to disturb her adopted country from its rest.

But many Indians who were still awake, or were awakened to hear the news of Mother Teresa's death, began mourning a Christian missionary whose good works had won acceptance in a predominantly Hindu nation of 950 million. At other times in recent years when she was seriously ill, India had time to pray for her recovery and send its leaders to her hospital bed, but not this time.

"An apostle of peace and love, Bharat Ratna Mother Teresa is no more with us," Prime Minister I.K. Gujral said, referring to her with the honorific denoting a recipient of the Jewel of India award, the nation's highest civilian honor, which she received in 1980. "The world, especially India, is poorer by her passing away. Hers was a life devoted to bring love, peace and joy to people whom the world generally shunned."

"It's a great loss for all humanity, particularly for India and Calcutta," the city's mayor, Prasanta Chatterjee, said upon hearing the news this morning. "She cannot be replaced -- her work, her compassion. It will take some time."

Pramod Mahajan, a leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which often has railed against the conversion of low-caste Hindus to Christianity, sent his condolences to the Missionaries of Charity and "all those who worked with her and who believed in her ideals."

Mother Teresa's sudden death left questions about how well the Catholic order, which she founded in 1948 in Calcutta's slums, can sustain its charitable operations in more than 100 countries without her firm, compassionate guidance. That challenge has fallen to Sister Nirmala, a convert from Hinduism who was chosen six months ago to succeed Mother Teresa.

Questions were raised even before the change in leadership whether donations and public support would continue afterward. Friends of the order wondered whether Sister Nirmala -- or anyone, for that matter -- could provide the same degree of inspiration that built an order that now has 4,500 sisters and brothers working with the poor and sick at nearly 600 homes around the world.

"We may see a slight slowing down of activities," Chawla said earlier this year. "But the sisters are led by their religion and vows to serve the poorest of the poor. . . . There may be some downsizing in terms of the funding that will initially come."

The news of Mother Teresa's death came to some Indians as they watched late-night broadcasts from London about the late Princess Diana. Diana and Mother Teresa met for the first time in 1992 at the order's convent in Rome, and again in New York two months ago. Mother Teresa had planned for the order's nuns to say special prayers for Diana Saturday morning.

L.M. Singhvi, India's ambassador in London, recalled in a BBC interview how Diana had gone to Calcutta this summer to see Mother Teresa but had missed her because the nun was in Rome, gravely ill. Diana still paid a visit to her Calcutta operations.

"I said to [Diana], `It is good you have seen her work before you've seen her,' " Singhvi said.

"I think India has lost one of the greatest jewels in her crown. . . . She was the greatest jewel in that crown," he said.

Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi and staff writer John F. Harris in Martha's Vineyard contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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