Mother Teresa dies at 87

Mother Teresa dies at 87

ROME - Mother Teresa, the tiny, familiar figure in the blue and white sari who was hailed as a living saint, died Friday of cardiac arrest in her religious order's headquarters in eastern India. She turned 87 in August.

The 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner jetted around the world with the frequency of a diplomatic crisis-solver. Admirers mobbed her with the kind of fervor usually reserved for rock stars or royalty.

But even as she hobnobbed with the world's most powerful and wealthy people, Mother Teresa's priorities remained with the "the poorest of the poor." She chose to serve God by showering attention on the most destitute, most outcast, most ill members of society. And to her, serving the poor meant living like the poor, without possessions and modern comforts.

"People, particularly the poor, responded to her kindness, her compassion and the fact that this single woman would reach out to them when no one else would," Navin Chawla, her official biographer, said Friday. "She reached out to destitution everywhere, no matter where they were, from AIDS patients in Los Angeles to the poor who lived under the London Bridge."

Chawla said in his last conversation with Mother Teresa she repeated her mantra again and again. "You must do to him," he quoted her as saying. "If there is any purprose in your life, it is to reach out to the poor."

Mother Teresa died of a massive heart attack in her order's simple headquarters in Calcutta, India, at 9:30 p.m. (noon EDT) Friday, according to United News of India. She had been fighting heart problems, pneumonia and other diseases for the past several years. She suffered her first heart attack in September 1989 and was hospitalized several times over the past six years, including in January 1992 in La Jolla, Calif., where she was in serious condition in intensive care recovering from pneumonia and congestive heart failure.

While recovering from her first heart attack in 1989, doctors told Mother Teresa to give up her hectic work schedule. She never did.

"The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven. And St. Peter said, 'Go back to Earth, there are no slums up here." Mother Teresa was quoted as telling Prince Michael of Greece in 1996.

To millions of people of all faiths and stations in life, Mother Teresa radiated pure, selfless goodness. In a world too often darkened by genocide, war and cruel indifference, she was a beacon of light and hope.

When told, in 1979, she had won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing hope and dignity to millions of unwanted people, she said: "I am unworthy."

"The poor must know that we love them"

Mother Teresa leaves behind a phenomenally successful Roman Catholic order. But perhaps more importantly she leaves behind a vision. She believed no one is too wretched to deserve dignity, especially in dying.

Mother Teresa went where others feared to go. She never hesitated to kiss the hands of India's lepers or pick maggots from the wounds of people found lying in the streets. She helped change attitudes about AIDS by hugging patients dying of the disease.

She tackled this suffering with joy and an endearing wit, often poking fun at her own image and fame.

"She was totally immersed in the experience of seeing Jesus Christ in the poorest of the poor and worshipping God through her love of them - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, athiest, all childen of God," says Michael Mannion, a priest at Catholic University who has known Mother Teresa since 1969.

"She didn't look at masses of people," Mannion says. "She looked at the person in front of her. One face, one smile, one heart, one person at a time."

This laser-like focus was inspiring. But it dismayed more than a few people that she never challenged the sources of poverty and disease, nor questioned the morality of some of her supporters. Content to nurse the afflicted, she rarely wondered what had made patients ill or too poor to seek care.

Mother Teresa simply was not interested in things beyond her calling. She often referred to herself as "nothing" or a "pencil" in the hands of the Lord.

As she told biographer Navin Chawla, "We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful."

The beginnings

No one could have expected such a destiny for Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. The Albanian was born in 1910 in what is now Skopje, Macedonia, just north of Greece. Her father, a building contractor, died when she was 7 years old. Her mother started a business selling embroidered cloth, according to Chawla's book.

At age 18 she decided to serve the poor in India. She joined a Roman Catholic order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto. She never saw her mother or sister again.

Her brother, however, was there in Norway four decades later to see her accept the Nobel Prize.

"Missionaries in those days never ever went home," says Chawla, an Indian civil servant who received Mother Teresa's cooperation in writing the biography. "Both mother and daughter knew they wouldn't see each other again."

But she had a new family with the sisters of Loreto. She spent nearly two decades at St. Mary's school in Calcutta, first as a teacher and later as principal.

Then she said she heard an inner command telling her it was time to leave home again. She left the convent and headed to the slums in 1948.

With no plan and no resources, she started a school by drawing letters in the dirt with a stick. Soon she had a small band of followers, including some of her former students at St. Mary's. By 1950 she won Vatican recognition of her new order, the Missionaries of Charity. They became known in Calcutta for seeking out people abandoned on the streets and physically carrying them to Nirmal Hriday, their home for dying destitutes.

Within 10 years she was known as "the saint of Calcutta." As she walked through the crowded streets, people would bend to touch her feet, a sign of respect in the predominantly Hindu country. It's not something she ever encouraged, Chawla says, and she would try to lift her admirers up.

In 1965, her first house was opened outside of India, in Venezuela. In 1971, her first U.S. house opened in New York City. Today, her order includes nearly 600 clinics, orphanages, soup kitchens, maternity homes, refugee centers, and homes for the poor, sick, and dying in more than 100 countries. They operate in 25 of the USA's 193 Catholic Diocese.

They're staffed by 4,500 nuns, 500 brothers and thousands of volunteers, all of whom take their model from Teresa.

Her nuns did not even allow her to retire as Superior General until it was painfully clear she was too frail to go on. She was re-elected in 1990 despite her wishes to step down because of ill health. Mother Teresa cast the only vote against herself.

She repeatedly rallied back from life-threatening health problems in 1996, with a determination some described as miraculous. But heart, lung, and other ailments caused her much pain, and forced her to stay in a wheelchair or bed most of the time.

In January 1997, delegates from around the world began meeting at the "Mother House" in Calcutta to elect a successor. On March 13, they chose 63-year-old Sister Nirmala, a former Hindu who converted to Roman Catholicsm.

A lifetime of service

Nearly all members of Catholic religious orders take the three required vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Mother Teresa's workers have added a fourth: "whole-hearted free service to the poorest of the poor - to Christ in his distressing disguise."

If luxury creeps in, we lose the spirit of the order," Mother Teresa said. "To be able to love the poor and know the poor we must be poor ourselves."

In 1965, Pope Paul VI gave Mother Teresa the Lincoln Continental limousine he used while visiting India. She raffled it off.

In 1979, she asked the Nobel Committee to forgo the traditional banquet in honor of the peace prize winner. She fed the poor Christmas dinner with the money instead.

Like her nuns, Mother Teresa lived with a simplicity bordering on the absurd. They own only three saris, sleep on thin mattresses, wash their clothes by hand and sit on chapel floors. The rules have not changed much since 1950, although nuns now are allowed to return home once every 10 years or when a parent is seriously ill.

Mother Teresa refused to engage in fundraising or to accept a steady source of money from government, private business or even the Catholic Church. She relied instead on faith that God would provide. Even so, her personal powers of persuasion were legendary. Cardinals and bishops, presidents and mayors were all eager to be seen with her and to do her bidding.

U.S. lawmakers voted to give Mother Teresa a Congressional Gold Medal earlier this year. Top Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, eagerly spoke in her honor and posed for photos at a June ceremony in the Capitol rotunda.

A few weeks later, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani visited Mother Teresa at one of her convents. He promised more street parking permits for her nuns.

"I would give Mother Teresa anything she wanted," Giuliani said. "She wants parking spaces, she gets parking spaces."

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos recalls how stunned and surprised he was when Mother Teresa and two nuns showed up at his home, without an appointement, at about 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening in February 1989. Mother Teresa wanted to convert a particular vacant building into a homeless center.

"I've come to talk to you about the work of God," Mother Teresa told him. Agnos promised to investigate the building first thing in the morning. She said, "The work of God cannot wait until tomorrow morning."

So they traipsed off into the wintry darkness to inspect the building right then and confirm that yes, it was city-owned and available.

"She is the only person that I have ever been around where I have sensed I have been in a holy presence," Agnos said. She also "had a remarkable twinkling gift of humor and political acumen that made her the most formidable advocate for poor people I have ever met."


Outspoken and single-minded, Mother Teresa attracted her share of critics.

The most scathing public appraisal comes from British journalist Christopher Hitchens, who says Mother Teresa took money from unclean sources. He also calls her dogmatic and authoritarian. When his film Hell's Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta was shown in Baltimore in 1996, about two dozen Catholics and other admirers of Mother Teresa staged a protest outside the theater.

Hitchens points out that she accepted $1.25 million from Charles Keating, a central figure in the U.S. savings and loan scandals. During his trial, she wrote to Judge Lance Ito about Keating's generosity to the poor.

Mother Teresa was also photographed holding hands with Michele Duvalier, the wife of former Hatian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. The Duvaliers plundered the impoverished country.

"Some of her is genuine, some of her is crummy," Hitchens said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Even some admirers were unhappy that Mother Teresa objected to artificial birth control despite the serious problems caused in India and elsewhere by overpopulation. She constantly condemned abortion as a "the greatest destroyer of peace." She said it is better for women to be "handmaids of the Lord" than to become priests.

She is credited with helping to break down prejudice against people with AIDS, by opening hospices and fearlessly visiting victims. But some people have mixed feelings about her work in this area.

"What we were arguing... was forget the lifestyle, forget the activity, these are people who are suffering," said Jim Graham, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, primary provider of AIDS services in the washington area. Mother Teresa's actions reinforced this argument.

But she also brought traditional Catholic views intolerant of homosexuality, he says. And the local sisters running the AIDS hospice have never become part of the area AIDS network.

The call for sainthood

It is inevitable, now that Mother Teresa is dead, that many voices will clamor for the living saint to be officially recognized as a saint in heaven. Some speculate that the Vatican will cut corners to canonize her quickly.

But the rules for sainthood are complicated and as hard as tablets. A detailed investigation of her life and writings cannot even begin until five years after her death.

At least two miracles, usually healings, must be documented as unexplainable except by Mother Teresa's intercession with God. This would be proof to the Roman Catholic church and the pope that she is in heaven and worthy of imitation by those on earth.

In any event, the self-deprecating Teresa often squelched the talk of her potential sainthood. She said simply, "Let me die first."

©COPYRIGHT 1997 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.