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A Mission Ends

By Rohit Brijnath with Udayan Namboodiri and Ruben Bannerjee

"The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven. And St Peter said, 'Go back to Earth, there are no slums up here'."

-- Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa with small childThe slums remain but the Saint of the Gutters has gone. She was not ready. Eighty-seven years old and 50 years of washing the brows of the dying, cradling women eaten by maggots, loving legless children abandoned by their parents was not enough for her. But her heart -- regulated by a pacemaker since 1989 and failing fast in the past few years after a series of heart attacks -- had to give way some day.

On the morning of September 5, Mother Teresa complained of chest pain and was examined by her personal physician Dr Ashim Bardhan. But the pain persisted and, after a typically frugal dinner of bread and soup, an urgent summons was carried to Dr Alfred Woodward, an American doctor attached to the Missionaries of Charity, who rushed to her bedside. "I cannot breathe," is all she said. At about 9.30 p.m., she died -- like she lived -- quietly. "We are drowned in despair," said Michael Gomes, at 92 the Mother's oldest friend, in whose modest house on 14 Creek Lane she had found the first shelter for her fledgling congregation in 1948. Cried Anukul Das, an old inmate of Nirmal Hriday, her home for the dying: "What will happen to us now?" Like him, the world was in shock.

Frail, tiny, soft-spoken, always draped in the white sari with blue border, the uniform of her Missionaries of Charity, she was the world's most recognisable symbol of compassion. "I am here to convert hearts," she often said. She walked the South African townships, stood among earthquake victims in Armenia and comforted starving children in Colombia. But if she was Mother to the world's poor, it was India, especially Calcutta, that gave her work definition.

For Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, born on August 26, 1910, the daughter of an Albanian builder, there was never any doubt where her life would go. At 12 she decided to become a nun. At 18 she joined the congregation of Loreto nuns in Ireland. There, in that distant land, she would get the call to go to India. "It's a mission country," she explained later. And it was in Calcutta, where she arrived in 1929 to become a teacher at Loreto Entally school, that she had her first brush with poverty. Outside the high school walls were the Motijheel slums, and as she began to visit there, she said of those walls: "They seemed to me at that moment like a prison wall."

She broke through those walls eventually. On September 10, 1946, on a train journey to Darjeeling, she heard a "call within a call". As she explained then, "The message was clear. I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order." Later, when the late journalist Desmond Doig, who wrote a book called Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work, asked her if she was ever in doubt, she replied, "The conviction comes the moment you surrender yourself. Then there is no doubt."

But she was tested. She would have to battle to be released from the Loreto Order and start on her own. Not everyone accepted her conviction. Then Archbishop Ferdinand Periers was quoted as saying, "I knew this woman as a novice. She could not light a candle in the chapel properly and you expect her to start a congregation?" But not for the first time was her steely will underestimated: her persistence paid off, and by 1950 she had set up the Missionaries of Charity.

Having taken the name Teresa from a 16th century nun called St Teresa, the patron of missionaries, she set for herself and her Order a punishing life. The sisters own two sarees, a jhola, a pair of slippers; in the early days they kept only Rs 1.50 with them as they roamed the city searching for the dying. She lived first in Creek Lane and moved eventually to a building on Lower Circular Road, which came to be known worldwide as Mother House. Here too, life was spartan: despite the enormous donations that pour in, it has no washing machine, just one fan in the parlour (for visitors) and a phone simply because she was told it was truly a useful instrument. Her conviction was matched only by her organisational skills, her quizzical face masking a practical mind. In 1952, she opened her first home, Nirmal Hriday (literally "Pure Heart"); today her Order works in 120 countries where it runs 169 educational establishments, 1,369 clinics and about 755 homes.

Critics said she was obsessed with poverty, that she lived off it, but made no move to remove it. Unshaken, Mother said, "You take care of their tomorrows, I take care of their todays." Feminist Germaine Greer once called her "the glamour-girl of poverty" and head of "an order of clones". The Mother said, "I will pray for her."

But not all the criticism could be swept away. She seemed outdated, her rigid anti-contraception stand perhaps naive, when she said, "I am fighting abortion with adoption." A 1994 British documentary Hell's Angel and a subsequent book accused Mother Teresa of denying painkillers to her dying patients due to her personal belief that physical suffering was good for spiritual well being. The editor of the medical journal, The Lancet, said her staff made little effort to distinguish between the critically ill and those who could be cured.

Such criticism hurt. But no one could question her startling, almost abnormal, compassion. Not many cradle the diseased and dying. "The poor," she said, "do not want your bread, they want your love; the naked do not want your clothes, they want human dignity."

Everywhere she went, stories would emerge, legends would grow. How as a young sister she offered to work her own passage abroad as an air hostess; how she would tell air hostesses to pack up left-over food in a bag for children; how she asked the Nobel prize organisers to cancel the traditional banquet and use the money to feed children. Perhaps because she was in a way the conscience of an apathetic world, because she made up for everyone else's inaction, no one dared shut the door in her face. The prime minister of Yemen, for instance, impressed by her work, lifted a 600-year-old ban on Christian missionaries in the 1960s and invited her into his country. Though barely 5 ft at tiptoe, the rich, the famous, the powerful were dwarfed by her. Edward Kennedy wept in public; Indira Gandhi, out of power in 1978, found time in her hectic schedule to meet her; no one dared argue when she walked through the still-smouldering streets of West Beirut leading a group of orphaned children to their new home. The respect she earned was paid back through a heap of awards. The Nobel Peace Prize, the Leo Tolstoy International Award, the Bharat Ratna ... the list is endless. To put it briefly, since the Nobel Prize in 1979, she received over 50 national and international awards. What did these awards mean to her? Consider this: when the Pope awarded her a limousine she auctioned it for charity.

So was Mother Teresa a saint? The world has already begun to talk of her canonisation. But according to the rules of the Catholic Church, decades may pass before she can be elevated to sainthood. It is a complicated process that requires at least two miracles after her death. That isn't a problem. Go to Nirmal Hriday and take a look at the faces of the once-despairing destitute. In their dignity lie all miracles.

"Touch the Poor..."
Death of an Icon,
Birth of a Legend


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