Powerful and Poor Laud ‘Saint of the Gutters’
From Pope John Paul II to humble parishioners, the world mourned the death Friday of Mother Teresa, the diminutive nun who awed the mighty and served the poorest of the poor.
Her death in Calcutta at the headquarters of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded in 1950, drew expressions of sorrow and thanks for her life from Roman Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Protestants called her a saint, Jews said they were moved by her selflessness and good works, Hindus called her a mother of humanity, and Mormons said she was an inspiration to the world.
From the seats of temporal authority around the world, presidents and prime ministers, monarchs and governors paid tribute to the small, frail woman whose constituency was the downtrodden and whose only power was the power of moral persuasion rooted in what she unfailingly called the love of God.
But it was in Rome and the teeming streets of Calcutta where her death reverberated most.
Pope John Paul II, immediately informed of her death, was “deeply moved and pained” at the news, said a Vatican spokesman, Father Ciro Benedettini. “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.”
The pope will say a Mass today for the repose of her soul at his private residence in Castelgandolfo, a hillside town close to Rome.
In India, where Mother Teresa was known as the “saint of the gutters” because of her lifelong work with the desperately impoverished and disease-ridden, officials in the predominantly Hindu country called her a mother of humanity.
“The humanity of the world has lost its mother,” Congress Party President Sitaram Kesri said. Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral called her “an apostle of peace and love.”
The New Delhi newspaper Indian Express gave news of the death an eight-column banner: “Mother dies, poorest of the poor orphaned.” In another of the city’s principal dailies, the Pioneer, an editorial said: “Mother Teresa belonged to humanity; she was the embodiment of the ultimate human quality, compassion; she was a global citizen in the finest sense of the term.”
The Pioneer also devoted a page to photographs of Mother Teresa and quotations attributed to her under the headline “Thus spake Calcutta’s Jesus.”
As news of her death spread across Calcutta, stunned residents gathered outside Mother Teresa’s headquarters. “It is a personal and irreparable loss,” one distraught mourner wailed.
President Clinton, who was informed of her death as he arrived for a golf game at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., spoke of her “unconquerable faith” and the “stunning power of simple humility.”
In Washington, the House of Representatives paused for a moment of silence, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that “the constellation of angels just gained its brightest star.”
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, in a statement just hours after she paid tribute to the late Princess Diana, said Mother Teresa “will continue to live in the hearts of all those who have been touched by her selfless work.” Prime Minister Tony Blair paid homage to her “compassionate spirit.”
“In a week already filled with tragedy, the world will be saddened that one of its most compassionate servants has died,” Blair said in a statement. “Mother Teresa devoted her life to the poor, and her spirit will live on as an inspiration to all of us.”
In Iceland, a visiting Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, composed a statement recalling a private meeting with Mother Teresa on June 14 at the Missionaries of Charity residence in New York. He said that “despite her frailty, her devotion to the welfare and well-being of the disadvantaged members of society was as strong as ever.”
“She leaves behind a shining example of charity, service and spiritual fortitude,” Annan added.
In Oslo, the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize panel, Francis Sejersted, said Mother Teresa stood out “as an example of true self-sacrifice in humanitarian work.” She was awarded the prize in 1979.
In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony added that Mother Teresa “never ceased to remind us that the greatest poverty of all is to live and to die unloved and unwanted.” Mahony said she demonstrated that love “one person at a time.”
Mother Teresa’s followers established two homes serving the poor in Southern California, in Lynwood and the Pico-Union district, as well as a contemplative house in Alhambra.
“She was our founder,” said Brother Bob Theis of the Pico-Union house, which serves homeless immigrants. “Every time she came here, people wanted to see her. Now it’s her legacy we’re dealing with.”
Others who met her during her visit to Los Angeles in 1982 said she left an indelible impression. “She had one of the kindest faces of anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Mary Ann Murphy, principal of Immaculate Conception School. “It just seemed to radiate what she was all about--her love for the poor.”
Coach Richard Chica, who said he was a 14-year-old student at the time, said he spotted Mother Teresa on the way to basketball practice. He said when he told his parents that night of his encounter, they asked what she was doing. He remembered telling them simply, “She came to speak the word of God.”
Chica said he learned one thing from Mother Teresa: “There are people suffering everywhere--not just here.”
Bishop Anthony Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops-U.S. Catholic Conference, called her life “a lesson in love,” while Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino said the world marveled “at the commitment of this extraordinary woman.”
In Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson said the “entire world was Mother Teresa’s family, and the entire world prays today and mourns her passing.”
While tributes poured in from the world capitals and red-robed cardinals, there were equally poignant expressions of grief from the unknown many who said they considered Mother Teresa a saint.
Julia Perez, a Salvadoran immigrant attending the afternoon Mass at historic La Placita Church in Los Angeles, wept when asked about her. “She helped the poor. She was a saint,” Perez said as she held her 2-year-old grandson outside the centuries-old chapel. “God has her in Heaven now.”
Margarita Villanueva raised her hand to her chest in a gesture of sadness when she heard the news at La Placita Church. Villanueva, an 82-year-old Guatemalan immigrant and resident of Huntington Park, drew comparisons to the death of Princess Diana.
“First the princess left us, and now the queen,” Villanueva said in Spanish, referring to Mother Teresa. “For us, she was a very good lady. Very giving, just like the princess. I feel their loss.” Of Mother Teresa, Villanueva said: “She believed in charity. She helped the poor and the sick. The two of them [Diana and Mother Teresa] were great people. . . . We have to pray for both of them.”
The conjunction of the deaths of Diana and Mother Teresa also drew comment from Catholic Alliance President Keith Fournier. “A world still grieving from the death of a princess of an earthly kingdom now must grieve the death of a princess of a heavenly kingdom,” he said.
Evangelist Billy Graham, who in many ways personifies Protestantism, recalled one of his meetings with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
“I had a wonderful hour of fellowship in the Lord with her just at sunset, and I will never forget the sounds, the smells and the strange beauty of that place,” Graham recalled. “When she walked into the room to greet me, I felt that I was indeed meeting a saint.”
The American Jewish Congress said in a statement that “it is not for us to call her a saint. We can, however, call her a model for all humanity to follow. . . . We as Jews, recognizing the Torah commandments to perform acts of charity, righteousness and lovingkindness, have the greatest respect for what Mother Teresa and her order have accomplished in India and worldwide.”
If she was saintly, some of those who knew her said Friday that she didn’t pull punches when it came to the imperative of serving the poor.
Graham recalled a 1994 meeting at a national prayer breakfast in Washington with President Clinton sitting nearby. “She took a strong moral stand on a divisive issue,” Graham said, adding that “later the president said to a few of us: ‘She’s really something! I wish I had a faith like that.’ ” A Graham spokesman said the issue was abortion rights.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan issued a statement on behalf of herself and former President Reagan, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. They said Mother Teresa personified “a boldness of spirit and purity of soul. . . . Mother Teresa embraced all those ignored and rejected by society, living the Gospel with true genuineness. What she spoke with her lips she lived with her life, a truly rare commodity in today’s world.”
That example influenced the wealthy as well as touched the poor. Noel Irwin-Hentschel of Los Angeles, who runs a multimillion-dollar tour company, said she met Mother Teresa during a New Delhi business conference in 1988 and that the event changed her life.
“She said we have to use the same drive that we use to build our businesses to help others,” Irwin-Hentschel recalled Friday. At the end of Mother Teresa’s speech, she greeted Irwin-Hentschel with a hug, and the businesswoman said she started to cry.
Irwin-Hentschel returned to Los Angeles and started a foundation dedicated to helping women and children in the poorest regions of the world. The group has since raised more than $1 million for charity.
Times staff writer Tina Daunt and Amitabh Sharma of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this story.