NEWS OBIT: Mother Teresa, Calcutta’s `saint of the gutters,’ dead at 87

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Mother Teresa, the tiny nun with a large heart whose compassion for the poorest of the poor won the world’s admiration as well as a Nobel Peace Prize, died Friday (Sept. 5) at her convent in Calcutta, India. She was 87.

Her death was announced in Rome by Mother Teresa’s personal doctor, Vincenzo Bilotta, who said her heart _ weakened by heart attacks, malaria and pnuemonia over the years _ simply gave out.

After saying”I cannot breathe,”she reportedly collapsed on her bed at 9:30 p.m., Calcutta time.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

Pope John Paul II was”deeply moved and pained”by her death, a Vatican spokesman said.”The pope was deeply hurt because he was very close to this sister who dedicated her life to helping people in the world who were the poorest, the most neglected and the abandoned,”said the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, deputy Vatican spokesman.

In a world already engulfed in grief over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of Mother Teresa’s last public comments was a reaction to Diana’s death.”She helped me to help the poor and that’s the most beautiful thing,”the founder of the Missionaries of Charity religious order said. The two shared a commitment to helping those suffering with AIDS, and Diana had made contributions to Mother Teresa’s religious order.

The frail nun’s last months were marked by a number of medical difficulties, including a broken collarbone in April 1996, followed by malarial fever and heart problems in August, and an operation for a chest infection and recurring heart problems in November.

Reaction to the death of Mother Teresa, called by some”the saint of the gutters”for her work among those on the edges of society _ the lepers, homeless, AIDS victims and discarded dying of Calcutta _ was swift.

President Clinton, in a statement issued by the White House, called Mother Teresa an”incredible person.””There’s a special place in heaven for Mother Teresa tonight,”said U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn.

Sister Dominga, mother superior of the Missionaries of Charity operations in New York, said it”came as a great shock that we’ve lost our mother. The best thing we can do is to continue our work for Jesus as taught us by her example.” In Calcutta in 1947, a middle-aged, nun named Sister Teresa ventured forth alone into the city’s slums to minister to the poor, whom she liked to describe as”God, in his most distressing disguise.” Exchanging the black-and-white nun’s habit she had worn for 17 years for the blue-banded white sari favored by the poorest Bengali women, Mother Teresa began by teaching slum children in an open-air school, etching the Bengali alphabet in the dust with a stick. Later, she established a home for the dying in donated quarters adjacent to a temple dedicated to Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

Working alone at first but later joined by others, Mother Teresa expanded her efforts to embrace abandoned infants and children, AIDS sufferers, the elderly, the ill and the destitute. Today, Missionaries of Charity operates 517 centers in 100 nations, from New York to Beirut, from Belfast to Rwanda and the Gaza Strip.

In March, the order chose a Hindu convert to Catholicism, Sister Nirmala, to succeed Mother Teresa. Sister Nirmala, 63, had headed the order’s contemplative wing, a position she held since 1979.

In addition to more than 3,000 sisters, the Missionaries of Charity operates a separate religious order for priests and brothers, and tens of thousands of ancillary helpers.”If the rich people can have the full service and devotion of so many nuns and priests, surely the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low can have the love and devotion of us few,”Mother Teresa wrote in her diary in 1948.”`The Slum Sister’ they call me, and I am glad to be just that for His love and glory.” Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa traveled the world, preaching a straightforward gospel of love, service and respect for life. A staunch traditionalist and supporter of Pope John Paul II, she also has been outspoken in her opposition to abortion and the death penalty, often writing letters of intercession for inmates on death row.

Among her many other honors, in November 1996, she was given honorary U.S. citizenship.

Born Agnes Bojaxhiu on Aug. 26, 1910, to an Albanian family in Skopje, in what is now the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia, but at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire. Young Agnes, nicknamed”flower bud”as a child because, her brother Lazar once recalled, she was pink and plump, lived a comfortable existence until 1917, when the death of her father, a building contractor, left the family impoverished.

Drawn to the religious life from an early age, she left home in 1928 to join the Sisters of Loreto, an order of Irish missionary sisters who operated schools in India. After spending a few months at the order’s motherhouse in Ireland to learn English, she arrived in Calcutta at the age of 19.

Six years later, when taking her final vows, she took the name Teresa. She did so in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun known as the”Little Flower,”who spent her life praying for missionaries in the confines of a cloister. Sister Teresa, as she was then known, spent the next 17 years as a teacher and school principal.

In 1946, on the eve of the conflict that engulfed India’s gaining independence, communal battles between Hindus and Muslims had sent millions of refugees fleeing in all directions. And in the midst of it, Sister Teresa, herself a citizen of India, heard a call to a new kind of service.”I felt God wanted something more from me,”she told Indian writer Navin Chawla, author of her 1993 authorized biography,”Mother Teresa.””He wanted me to be poor and to love Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.” By 1948, the Vatican granted her request to leave the Loreto sisters and establish the Missionaries of Charity, whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, plus a fourth vow of wholehearted service to the poor.

With little medical training and no medicine, Mother Teresa often begged for money to care for the dying she rescued from the streets of the area of south Calcutta known as Kalighat. For centuries there, devout Hindus have brought their dead to be cremated on the banks of the River Hooghly, which flows into the sacred river Ganges.

Local hospitals often refused to accept the destitute who had been abandoned or had come there to die and in 1952, a Hindu benefactor donated a building adjacent to the Kali Temple to Mother Teresa. She named the site Nirmal Hriday, or Place of the Immaculate Heart, in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, patroness of the Missionaries of Charity.

The idea of Catholic sisters ministering to dying Hindus and Muslims raised questions among some Indian critics that the nuns were seeking deathbed conversions. But Chawla, Mother Teresa’s biographer, tells the story of a police official, who had come to the hospice shortly after it opened to investigate complaints. The official saw Mother Teresa hunched over a dying man, picking the maggots from his wounds with a tweezer. “You say a prayer in your religion,”the official heard her tell the patient,”And I will say a prayer as I know it. Together we will say this prayer and it will be something beautiful for God.” The official, Chawla writes, then confronted the people outside the hospice and said,”Yes, I will turn this woman away, but only after you have persuaded your mothers and sisters to come here and do the work she is doing. This woman is a saint.” But as widely as her work has been praised over the past 50 years, Mother Teresa was not immune from criticism, from inside as well as outside of the church.

A 1994 British television documentary,”Hell’s Angel,”challenged her saintly image, criticizing her staunch opposition to birth control and abortion as a factor contributing to overpopulation and misery.

She came under more attacks for her reported friendship with deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude”Baby Doc”Duvalier and his wife, Michelle. British author Christopher Hitchens joined the fray with his 1995 book,”Missionary Position,”attacking Mother Teresa for receiving contributions from former savings and loan czar Charles Keating and writing a personal letter on Keating’s behalf in 1992 to Judge Lance Ito, on the eve of Keating’s sentencing for misusing funds of investors in Lincoln Savings and Loan.

Keating’s conviction has since been overturned.”Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Jesus said the same thing,”Mother Teresa told Religion News Service last year in Calcutta.”I don’t know what these journalists in London were thinking when they made their program attacking me. My own life isn’t important. It’s the work that matters. Let them come and work in one of my homes for the dying and let them see the saris that our sisters wear that are sewn by lepers at our homes.” Mother Teresa said she was too busy to worry about such things,”as long as somebody is dying of hunger, or a child is crying through lack of attention.”As the Father has loved me, we will love one another,”she said.”If I stop to think about what is happening in the world, that is time taken away from my work. A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, must empty ourselves,”she said.

Though she was honored by world leaders throughout her life, Mother Teresa remained pragmatic and unimpressed with the trappings of power. When awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she declined the honor of the traditional banquet after the award ceremony.”Instead they gave me the money for it,”she told Chawla.”So we had a big dinner on Christmas Day with that money. That was much better. In Delhi, they gave me a reception and they prepared dinner. I made them all go to Nirmal Hriday, and they fed the people. All the ministers and the big people went there and fed the people.” MJP END RNS

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