September 13, 1997 in Nation/World

Legions Prepare To Say Goodbye Sky Weeps, Too, As Saintly Nun Of Calcutta Rides To Final Rest

Dexter Filkins Los Angeles Times
 

This city prepared to bid farewell to Mother Teresa today in a frenzy of energy, pouring forth its thanks to a woman whose work inspired the world.

Under a soggy monsoon sky, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to wait for her flag-draped corpse to wend its way through the slums she worked to save.

People stood 10 deep in some places along the route of the funeral procession, many clutching children and all they owned as they awaited a fleeting glimpse of the nun known throughout the city as simply “Mother.” Some, tattered and filthy, rode for days on trains and buses and slept in the streets to claim a place.

Mother Teresa’s body is scheduled to pass through the crowds accompanied by the quiet singing of 400 white-frocked nuns from the Roman Catholic order she founded.

“I will miss Mother so much,” said Arun Nath, leaning on a cane to support his twisted legs. “She always tried to help me.”

A mile up the road, officials from the Indian government and the Vatican prepared to honor the 1979 Nobel laureate with a mass and state funeral. Dignitaries from across the globe, including U.S. first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and large delegation of congressmen, will fill the 12,000-seat Netaji indoor stadium to wait for the cortege to arrive.

The procession is to wind slowly through Calcutta’s uneven streets, with Mother Teresa’s body riding atop the same gun carriage that carried Mahatma Ghandi after his death in 1948. The glass coffin in which she lay in state this week will have been removed.

The funeral procession will symbolize a life’s work that transcended religious lines and brought comfort to forgotten people. Trudging alongside the coffin will be lepers, the physically disabled, orphans and the homeless.

After the ceremony, the cortege is to take Mother Teresa to a private burial in a courtyard at Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity she began 47 years ago.

Sister Nirmala, who took over the order last March, has promised that the work begun by Mother Teresa will continue. The Missionaries of Charity, dedicated to helping the poor and dying, operate some 584 houses with 4,000 sisters around the world.

Since her death last Friday at 87, the woman born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu has been honored in every corner of the world. In Washington, the Senate declared today a day of mourning. In Moscow, hundreds queued up to write in a book of condolences.

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul’s envoy to the funeral, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said he believes Mother Teresa will be declared a saint.

It is here in her city, though, that the reaction to her death has been the most emotional.

Calcutta, a vast, impoverished city where tragedy abounds on every corner, was Mother Teresa’s home for more than 50 years and where she became famous as “The Saint of the Gutters.” The city is home to several of her clinics, including the Nirmal Hriady (Immaculate Heart) Home for the Dying Destitutes.

In the eight days since her death, hundreds of thousands of people have lined up to pay their respects as Mother Teresa lay in state inside St. Thomas Church.

St. Thomas has been deluged with flowers and wreaths, and the scent of white lotus flowers wafted through the church where Mother Teresa lay. Local flower shops said they no longer could satisfy demand.

But the people kept coming. On Friday, the day before the funeral, the line to see her stretched for more than a mile in the rain.

Those who came to see Mother Teresa represented myriad faiths. Hindi priests in saffron robes walked among the crowds, as did Muslims and Hindu priests.

Mohammed Zahid, a Muslim devotee who lives in a squalid apartment next to Mother House, paused to describe how Mother Teresa routinely came to the aid of his family over the years. Twice, Zahid said, she interceded on behalf of family members when hospitals refused to treat them.

“It did not matter to her what religion we are,” Zahid said.

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