Angel Of Calcutta Dies She Found God In Poor She Served
Mother Teresa died Friday.
The little Albanian nun and Nobel laureate who followed a call to serve the dying in the squalor of Calcutta almost 50 years ago, and eventually became an inspiration for people of all faiths throughout the world, died of cardiac arrest at 9:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. PDT) in the heart of the order she founded there. She was 87.
Her health had long been fragile. She suffered a heart attack in 1983 during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome, and in 1989, she had a second, stronger, heart attack, and received a pacemaker. In 1993, she was afflicted with malaria.
Friday, Mother Teresa collapsed on her bed at her home, Nirmal Hrday, after saying, “I cannot breathe,” according to Naresh Kumar, a close friend.
When word of her death spread, thousands of mourners gathered outside the building. Hundreds of police were called to hold back crowds that continued to grow despite the lateness of the hour.
Pope John Paul II was “deeply moved and pained” by her death, and planned to offer a Mass for her soul Saturday at his private residence near Rome, said the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman.
“The pope believes she is a woman who has left her mark on the history of this century,” Father Benedettini said. “She was a glowing example of how the love of God can be transformed into love of one’s neighbor.”
In Oslo, Norway, the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize awards, Francis Sejersted, described Mother Teresa as “a symbol to the world.”
Indeed, the slums of India are not the only places that are poorer for her passing.
She visited many of the most desperate tenements and wretched alleys on the planet. She looked into the eyes of the loneliest, sickest, most forgotten men and women on earth, and saw their humanity - and the divinity in their souls.
“It is Jesus that I met in the black holes of the slums,” she once told a Cleveland newspaper reporter. “Jesus, the naked man on the cross.”
More than once, she was called a “living saint.”
And while the possibility of her official canonization by the Roman Catholic Church must be left to the Vatican in a process that normally takes decades, certainly she was always what Catholic clergy call “a true daughter of the Church.”
She was criticized by those who didn’t understand how, given her work with the unwanted hordes in the teeming slums of Calcutta, she could maintain her opposition to birth control and abortion.
Her unswerving attitude remained in keeping with official Vatican policy, despite the belief among many secular humanists, as well as some deeply religious believers, that those practices are not only within an individual’s rights but could lessen the misery of an overpopulated world.
Others complained that she should have made better use of her immense popularity and stature - that she failed to work for major, systemic changes in society that would benefit the poor and oppressed in the long run.
But that was never how Mother Teresa saw her mission. In a remark that has been widely quoted, she said: “Some people have told me that I should provide our poor with a fishing rod rather than give them fish. But in most cases those destitute don’t even have the strength to hold the fishing rod.”
She focused instead on helping the poor as individuals. Working on their behalf, she met with kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, dictators and financiers - and with schoolchildren and shift workers. The most famous nun on earth, she was described by the archbishop of Boston as a “signpost on our way to heaven.”
Mother Teresa’s work seemed to flourish with such little miracles everywhere she went - and the tiny, fragile nun, not quite 5 feet tall, went nearly everywhere.
In a lifetime of tireless service, she founded more than 550 convents, hospices, shelters and orphanages in more than 120 countries. Today, her order includes more than 4,500 nuns, 500 brothers, and a handful of priests, as well as tens of thousands of lay volunteers.
As her fame spread, adoring publicity followed her like a searchlight. But she maintained both humility and a sense of humor. Often asked how she felt about being called a living saint, she was wont to reply: “Please let me “die” first.”
She was born to Albanian parents on Aug. 26, 1910, in Skopje, then still part of the fast-dissolving Ottoman Empire and now part of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Christened Agnes Gonxha Bojaxiu, she was the third child of a building contractor named Nicholas Bojaxhiu and his wife, Dranafile Bernai.
At the age of 18, she left home to enter the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish order of nuns with a mission in India, . Although she eventually traveled around the world, she never saw her mother again.
She spent two months in Ireland before moving to the Loreto sisters’ convent near Mount Kanchenjunga in Darjeeling, India, to complete her training. There she asked permission to take Teresa as her religious name after St. Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun who had prayed particularly for missionaries, and who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.
She took her final vows on May 24, 1939, and set to work as a teacher at St. Mary’s High School in the teeming Indian city of Calcutta. It was when she became principal of that school that she first became known as “Mother” Teresa.
The young nun was drawn more and more to alleviate the suffering she saw on the other side of the convent-school walls. On Sept. 10, 1946, while taking a train to a retreat in Darjeeling, she received an inspiration that would change her life - what she described as “a call within a call” to go live among the poor.
“The message was quite clear,” she told Chawla. “It was an order. I was to leave the convent. I felt God wanted something more from me. He wanted me to be poor and to love him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.”
Two years later, she did.
She began by opening a school and visiting the sick, and founded her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950. In addition to taking the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, its members were and are required to take a fourth, which issues from Mother Teresa’s initial inspiration: They promise to give “whole-hearted free service to the poorest of the poor - to Christ in his distressing disguise.”
She began with a dozen sisters. The owner of the house where she stayed for free, Michael Gomes, recalled that he would find scribbled notes saying, “Mr. Gomes, I have nothing to eat. Please give me something to eat.”
But others began hearing of her work and offering donations. They also volunteered their help.
Soon she was using donated money to rent two rooms in a building near the Gomes home - one for a school and the other for a hospice. By 1954, Mother Teresa had amassed enough support to open the House of the Pure Heart - a final home for those abandoned to die on the streets of Calcutta.
Within a few years she was famous within India, and her international influence was growing. In 1963, she cofounded the Brothers of Charity with Brother Andrew Travers-Ball, a 38-year-old Australian; he had been studying to become a Jesuit and left to help start the new order.
In 1964, in recognition of her achievements and needs, Pope Paul VI gave her a limousine; instead of using it she raffled it off, and got $13,000 for her work. That same year, she established a leper colony in West Bengal.
Her mission was expanding.
In 1975 she published a book of her own writings, “Gift From God.”
She had become the world’s best-known symbol of selfless charity, and in 1979, she received its most prestigious accolade: the Nobel Prize for Peace. “I am unworthy of this honor,” she said at the time. “But I have accepted the prize - as, through it, the world has acknowledged the need to work for the poor, the sick and the homeless.”
She also received the Nehru Award, the Pere Marquette Discovery Award, the Templeton Prize for religion, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize and UNESCO’s $60,000 Peace Education Prize. In 1985, Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Awards came and went. But the work continued steadily, both for the order and for Mother Teresa personally.
In 1982, during the siege of Beirut, she walked between the guns of the Israeli army and the Palestine Liberation Organization to rescue children trapped in a front-line hospital. The gunfire stopped until she accomplished her task. In 1985, she opened the first church-sponsored hospice for AIDS patients in New York City. In the spring of 1991, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, she went to Baghdad looking for ways to help poor and homeless Iraqi children.
In 1990, a year after her second heart attack, she tried to retire, and submitted her resignation to Pope John Paul II.
But after the sisters in her order cast their votes for what she expected would be the congregation’s new superior, Mother Teresa discovered she had been re-elected. She chose to continue to lead the order, deeming their vote God’s will.
But her health continued to decline. When the next regular election for superior of the order was scheduled in 1996, it had to be delayed until Mother Teresa was well enough to participate. She continued to express a desire to retire, and on March 13, 1997, her sisters acquiesced.