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Mother Teresa, 87, Dies; Devoted Her Life to Poor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mother Teresa, the frail Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun who ministered to the poor, sick and dying and came to embody charity and goodness for countless millions, died Friday evening at her convent here.

She was 87 and had been in poor health for years.

Bowed almost double by age and afflictions, her labors reflected in the wrinkles on her beatific face, Mother Teresa died when her heart simply stopped, Dr. Vincenzo Bilotta said from Rome. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

A close friend, Naresh Kumar, said “the Mother"--as she was known to millions--said only “I can’t breathe,” then died.

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Pope John Paul II was told immediately of her death and announced a celebratory Mass for today at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence outside Rome.

President Clinton remembered her as “an incredible person,” while the U.S. House of Representatives observed a moment of silence in her honor. Three months ago, she had visited Washington to accept the Congressional Gold Medal.

Although her death was announced at a relatively late hour, thousands poured out of their dwellings to stand outside the convent she founded. Hundreds wept openly.

Both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church, the tiny octogenarian was a larger-than-life symbol of faith, kindness and hope in a confusing, materialistic and violence-marred age.

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“My life is dedicated to God, and I have never interfered in politics, of which I know nothing,” she said in 1995. “I see human beings as God’s children, with the right to live in love, peace and harmony.”

Mother Teresa, with her winning smile, became one of the best-known and most admired women on Earth. She traveled widely, raising money for her humanitarian activities and receiving the homage of presidents, prime ministers and princes. She had become a friend of Princess Diana and sent swift condolences after the noblewoman’s death last weekend in a Paris auto accident.

Of Mother Teresa, former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar once said: “She is the United Nations. She is peace in the world.”

She founded and led the nuns of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity--clad in their distinctive white cowls trimmed with blue bands--until March, when her health forced the appointment of a successor. Her followers fanned out to comfort and assist the victims and survivors of innumerable disasters, from a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia to Somalia’s clan warfare.

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In 1982, Mother Teresa went to Beirut to help victims of Lebanon’s civil war. When Ethiopia plunged into a deadly famine, she placed a telephone call to the Reagan administration, which soon afterward dispatched $64 million in urgently needed food aid.

When AIDS surfaced as a global menace, the Missionaries of Charity opened hospices to allow patients to die with dignity.

“I once asked Mother Teresa if there was any place she had not reached,” recalled Navin Chawla, her friend and biographer. “She replied with a laugh, ‘If there are poor on the moon, we shall go there too.’ ”

Birthplace in the Balkans

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The woman born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on Aug. 27, 1910, to Albanian parents in Skopje, now the capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her charitable work with beggars, orphans, lepers and other afflicted people.

“The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual’s worth and dignity,” John Sannes, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said at the Dec. 10, 1979, ceremony in Oslo. “The loneliest and the most wretched, the dying destitute, the abandoned lepers have been received by her and her sisters with warm compassion devoid of condescension, based on this reverence for Christ in man.”

Attired in the $1 white habit she wore throughout her ministerings, Mother Teresa appeared before the white-tie gathering to accept the prize “in the name of the poor.” She persuaded the Nobel committee to cancel the customary banquet and instead use the money to help those who really needed a meal.

Yet the nun who was widely considered a living saint also had her critics. They objected to her staunch opposition to abortion and contraception, in keeping with Vatican doctrine, and to some of the company she kept.

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“Mother Teresa is a religious imperialist who believes that Hinduism and Islam are wrong and Catholicism is right,” charged Australian-born feminist Germaine Greer, who met Mother Teresa in the first-class cabin of an airliner in 1972. “She is not ministering to the poor of Calcutta for their sake, but for the sake of her Catholic God.”

Three years ago, an admittedly one-sided BBC television documentary savaged Mother Teresa as a religious conservative who ran an order weak on healing skills and who preached surrender and prostration to the poor.

“She is a leading member of the pope’s fundamental crusade,” said Christopher Hitchens, a Washington-based writer. In the documentary, Hitchens and Tarik Ali, a radical atheist born a Muslim, blasted Mother Teresa as a “demagogue and obscurantist, and a servant of earthly powers,” who lent spiritual solace to “dictators and wealthy exploiters.”

Catholics and admirers from other faiths were outraged by such talk, but the target, characteristically, was unruffled.

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“All I can do is pray for them,” was Mother Teresa’s customary reply to her critics. Her only goal in life, she liked to say, was simply to do “something beautiful for God.”

Her father, building contractor Nicholas Bojaxhiu, died when she was 7. Five years later, the young Agnes first felt the desire to be a nun. At 18, she decided to leave her home in the Balkans to enter a holy order. She applied to an Irish order, the Congregation of the Sisters of Loretto, in the Indian state of Bengal.

After a two-month stint in Ireland, where she learned English as a postulant in the order, she set sail for India. She arrived in Calcutta after seven weeks at sea in early 1929.

The young novitiate completed her training at the hill station of Darjeeling in the Himalayas about 300 miles north of Calcutta and on March 24, 1931, took her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a sister of Loretto.

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For her religious name, she chose Teresa--inspired, she later explained, by the example of St. Theresa of Lisieux, who prayed for missionaries and the success of their work and who died of tuberculosis at age 24 in 1897.

Sister Teresa was sent to St. Mary’s School at the Loretto Convent in the Calcutta suburb of Entally, where she spent the next 17 years, first as a teacher of geography, history and catechism and then, from 1937 on, as principal.

Railway Journey a Turning Point

On Sept. 10, 1946, when she was on a train journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa later recalled, she heard a “call” from God. “The message,” she said, “was quite clear: I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them.”

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Pope Pius XII granted her request to leave the Loretto order two years later, and Teresa walked out of her Calcutta convent with just 5 rupees--now about 15 cents--to launch her mission of mercy. With the blessing of the church’s Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome, she founded a new order, the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950.

To her original religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Teresa added a fourth: “wholehearted and free service to the poor,” a vow that is unique to the Missionaries of Charity.

In 1952, the fledgling order opened the Nirmal Hriday Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. Those first years were hard, and Mother Teresa had no shortage of opponents and detractors.

Some Hindus demanded that authorities stop her activities because they suspected that she was forcing large numbers of destitute Indians--Hindus, in the main--to convert to Christianity in exchange for food and shelter.

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Others wondered what one woman with a small band of helpers--the order numbered just 27 sisters in 1953--could do to alleviate the the suffering of the hungry, homeless and dying in the poverty-ravaged metropolis that Rudyard Kipling vividly dubbed “the city of dreadful night.”

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,” Mother Teresa acknowledged. “But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean will be less because of that missing drop.”

When word spread that she had picked up with her own hands a Hindu dying of cholera and had taken him to Nirmal Hriday so that the nuns could care for him in his final hours, the opposition in Calcutta to Mother Teresa stopped almost immediately. The dying man was the son of the high priest of the city’s Kalighat Temple.

Inspiration to Adopted Country

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Mother Teresa took Indian citizenship in 1948, the year after the nation won its independence, and at the moment of her death was arguably the most famous Indian citizen in the world. Some Hindu hard-liners remained suspicious of her work and intentions until the end, and as recently as 1995 she was embroiled in a controversy over whether so-called Hindu untouchables who convert to Christianity should still benefit from the job quotas granted low-caste Hindus.

But the vast majority of Indians considered her an inspiration and a national treasure.

“To meet her is to feel utterly humble, to sense the power of tenderness, the strength of love,” the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wrote.

In 1980, Gandhi awarded Mother Teresa the country’s highest decoration, the Bharat Ratna (“Jewel of India”). She was the first foreign-born citizen thus honored.

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For her inspiring self-abnegation and work with the poor, Mother Teresa received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian decoration, which President Reagan presented to her in 1985; Britain’s Order of Merit; and numerous other awards and decorations.

Like Albert Schweitzer earlier in the 20th century, Mother Teresa became a media superstar and celebrity, although she customarily told reporters that she would rather talk about her work than about herself. For two consecutive years, the gnarled nun was voted the “most admired woman” by readers of Good Housekeeping magazine, and in 1992 she received the top number of votes from contestants in the Miss Universe pageant as “the world’s greatest person.”

Marvel Comics issued a 48-page comic book about her life and work, and in her adopted India her reputation was so great that, she ruefully noted, even abortion clinics were named in her honor.

“I have said often, and I am sure of it, that the greatest destroyer of peace in the world today is abortion,” Mother Teresa said in a message to the U.N. conference on population held in Cairo in 1994, renewing controversial remarks she had made in her Nobel acceptance speech. “If a mother can kill her own child, what is there to stop you and me from killing each other? The only one who has the right to take life is the one who has created it.”

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Such unflinching orthodoxy won Mother Teresa a considerable number of critics, as did some of her contacts with the rich and powerful of the world. In 1980, she accepted Haiti’s Legion of Honor from dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Nine years later, she laid flowers on the grave of Albanian Communist strongman Enver Hoxha.

Charles Keating, who figured in one of California’s messiest savings and loan scandals, reportedly gave her a $1.25-million donation and granted her the use of his private jet. He received a personalized crucifix in return, and Mother Teresa wrote to Judge Lance Ito, who presided over Keating’s savings and loan trial, to laud his kindness and generosity.

A Los Angeles deputy district attorney wrote back to Mother Teresa, describing Keating’s conduct and asking that she return the donated money so restitution could be made to some of the fraud victims. Three years later, he had not received a reply.

“I do not read any newspapers, not even the headlines. I am only interested in service to mankind,” Mother Teresa once said.

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She lived on a rupee and a half’s worth--about 4 cents--of food a day, and when she traveled, she took a wardrobe of only two saris.

Good Works Thrive and Grow

Under Mother Teresa’s shrewd and firm leadership, the Missionaries of Charity grew to encompass 4,000 sisters working in 570 missions in 120 countries. The order now operates homes and hospices for AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis patients; soup kitchens; children’s and family counseling programs; orphanages; and schools for the destitute.

In 1963, she and Brother Andrew Travers-Ball co-founded the Missionary Brothers of Charity, a religious order for men.

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In 1995, Mother Teresa refused to say whether she had a preference about who should succeed her as superior general of the order.

“God sent Teresa. He will send somebody else to carry on the work,” she once said.

Dahlburg, Paris Bureau chief for The Times, was the New Delhi Bureau chief from 1993 to 1996.


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