India Bids Farewell to ‘Mother’
Mother Teresa offered love to the suffering, balm for the ailing, hope for the hopeless. They gathered along with presidents and prime ministers for her funeral Saturday with only her memory for comfort.
With the sun peeking through the clouds at dawn, the faithful converged along the route for Mother Teresa’s state funeral in Calcutta. Military police in red-plumed turbans lined the streets.
People stood 10 deep in some places, 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.
“I will miss Mother so much,” said Arun Nath, leaning on a cane to support his twisted legs. “She always tried to help me.”
Soldiers and a few nuns laid garlands of jasmine on the gun carriage brought out for her funeral procession.
A cross of white flowers hung from the front of the carriage, used in the funerals of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1964, and now transporting a woman who devoted her life to the sick, dying and powerless.
Dignitaries came to Calcutta for Mother Teresa’s funeral, but the poor whom she loved so much almost never left her side.
Thousands lined up until the last minute Friday, in rain and 95-degree temperatures, for a chance to see and touch her glass coffin. Police turned away hundreds who came too late, but many of Calcutta’s unfortunate and sick were given passes to attend the funeral Saturday morning at the 12,000-seat Netaji indoor sports stadium.
As the procession got underway, many of those who lined the route joined in, accompanying the cortege to the stadium where Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, was to say the funeral Mass. He was sent as the pope’s personal representative.
India’s Foreign Ministry said 23 countries were to be represented at the ceremonies. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton led the U.S. delegation.
Final funeral preparations began Friday night behind the huge wooden doors of the church, where Calcutta’s poorest had been able to view the body. Mother Teresa, known here as the saint of the gutters and considered by many of the poor to be an angel, died Sept. 5 at the age of 87.
From St. Thomas Church, Mother Teresa’s body was carried to her funeral. More than 5,000 policemen, including bomb squad members, were deployed along the three-mile route, which was lengthened at the last minute to allow more of Calcutta’s 12 million people--a third of them slum-dwellers--to watch her body pass by. The burial at the headquarters of her Missionaries of Charity order was to be private.
At the stadium Friday, a chorus of nuns practiced hymns and work crews erected wooden crosses ahead of Saturday’s funeral.
Sitting outside the room converted into Mother Teresa’s final resting place, her successor as head of the order, Sister Nirmala, said Friday that she had no worries about the order’s future.
“The Missionaries of Charity is dependent on divine providence. God will provide whatever we need,” she said in her first news conference.
Mother Teresa’s private burial will be a simple affair, lasting “just a few minutes,” she said. The body will be lowered into its grave after a prayer.
“This is the place she loved to be. This is her home,” Sister Nirmala said.
Slabs of white marble and a rectangular cement box about three feet high could be seen in the former dining room that will hold Mother Teresa’s remains. The room’s walls were being painted beige, and its cement floors covered in brown linoleum.
Mother Teresa’s funeral comes only a week after thousands gathered in London for the funeral of Princess Diana. The princess was buried with a rosary given to her by Mother Teresa.
Like mourners in Britain, Indians have used flowers to pay tribute to the nun, whose work on behalf of the poor, the sick and the dying made her a model of compassion worldwide.
On Friday, nuns of her Missionaries of Charity order and church workers used the flowers to create a portrait of the Nobel laureate nun on the lawn outside St. Thomas Church, where her body lay in state. They also formed a large heart of red and white roses, lilies and lotuses.
Among the hundreds of thousands who came to pay respects to Mother Teresa was India’s “bandit queen.” Phoolan Devi, the former leader of a band of robbers who now sits in India’s Parliament, said she felt as if she had “lost my own mother.”
Devi spent 11 years in jail without trial after she surrendered in 1983 under an amnesty. A biography and a popular 1993 movie portray her as being forced into a life of crime because of discrimination against women and low-caste Hindus.
She has since emerged a spokeswoman for India’s women and oppressed classes.
Mother Teresa was born in what is now Macedonia, but became an Indian citizen in 1948, the year after India won its independence from Britain. In 1946, when she was a young nun teaching in church schools in Calcutta, she said she received a call from God to serve the “poorest of the poor.”
She went on to found hundreds of orphanages, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics run by her 4,000-member Missionaries of Charity order. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
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