India Unites To Honor Nun's Deeds
Many faiths extol Mother Teresa's good works; state funeral on Saturday in Calcutta.
CALCUTTA, INDIA — Among the throngs paying tribute to Mother Teresa in Calcutta this week are many street urchins, for whom religion is little more than begging for alms from pious pilgrims.
It was more by her works than her words that the Christian nun from a foreign land reached millions of Indians, including Hindu ascetics, Muslim clerics, Sikh shopkeepers, and especially those living on the street.
In Kalighat, the district where Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying rubs shoulders with a temple dedicated to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, shops downed their shutters in deference to her passing last week.
"Her loss affects us deeply," said Madhu Mukherjee, whose family takes care of the temple. "She was much more than a Hindu holy person because she transcended religion."
The tributes were simple and poignant as India, a country often torn by sectarian strife, mourned a crusader against poverty. Hundreds of little shrines went up all over the city. One captured the mood of how her adopted country viewed her. Two words - "Mother India" - were written on cardboard above a photograph of her.
It said more about the life of one of the century's most charismatic religious leaders than a week of eulogies and obituaries.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, the founder of modern India who 50 years ago embarked on a fast to the death to stop the communal carnage that ripped through the city after partition from Pakistan, Mother Teresa triumphed through her work when words were not enough.
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral announced a state funeral and two days of national mourning for Mother Teresa, an unprecedented honor for a Roman Catholic missionary in this Hindu-majority nation.
Nowhere will her loss be felt more acutely than in Calcutta, a sprawling city of 10 million people, one-third of whom live in appalling slums.
In 1946, after receiving a "calling," she decided to dedicate her life to "the poorest of the poor."
Going not always easy
When she opened the Home for the Dying in 1952, the Hindus of Kalighat were hostile toward this foreign-born nun who refused to allow the barriers of caste and religion to prevent her from helping the needy.
Born in Albania, Mother Teresa had come to Darjeeling in the eastern state of West Bengal before moving to Calcutta, where she taught geography, history, and religion in a school before beginning her life's work.
"The Hindu priests suspected her motives," recalls Binoy Samaddar, a Hindu shopkeeper who has run a small stall selling clothing outside the home ever since it opened.
"They saw her as a threat, as someone who challenged the belief that the only way of cleansing one's sins was to pray before the goddess Kali," he says.
The rest of the story has now become part of Kalighat's folklore. One day Mother Teresa picked up a dying Hindu priest off the road outside the home and nursed him back to health.
"Ever since then she has been accepted as one of us. There has been no tension, no communal violence here like in other parts of India," Mr. Samaddar adds.
In a country where Christians make up only 2 percent of a population of 950 million, and missionaries have often been viewed with suspicion, Mother Teresa came to be accepted as an Indian, rather than a Catholic nun.
The country's 13 million Catholics have had a high profile because of the elite schools and clinics run by their missionaries.
Catholic education is so prized that the term "convent-educated" is often among the virtues families list when seeking husbands for their daughters in weekly newspaper marriage ads.
Hindu and Muslim parents are willing to overlook the fact that their children are learning the Lord's Prayer as long as they're getting a good educational grounding, especially in English, the language of government, business, and success in India.
City's 'guardian angel'
"Whether someone was a Hindu, Muslim, or Christian never mattered to her. And they in turn loved her, she was their guardian angel," says Michael Gomes, one of her oldest surviving friends.
It was in Mr. Gomes's rambling old mansion that Mother Teresa lived for four years while searching for recruits to join the Missionaries of Charity, the Roman Catholic Order she founded in 1950.
Establishing a global reach
From its modest beginnings at Creek Lane in central Calcutta, the order has grown in size and now runs homes for orphans, lepers, destitute women, AIDS patients, and the mentally and physically handicapped in more than 130 countries.
Mother Teresa's charisma gave her extraordinary access to heads of state and church leaders around the world and an apparently endless source of donations. For her charity work, she received the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.
With her passing, the Missionaries of Charity have lost a leader whose spiritual aura helped to deflect the inevitable criticism of her crusades against abortion, her willingness to court both corrupt tycoons and dictators, and her preference for piety rather than preventive medical treatment for the city's dying and destitute.
It will now be up to Sister Nirmala, who took over as superior general of the order last March, to rekindle Mother Teresa's magic and maintain the work of the mission.
A Nepali by birth, Sister Nirmala, who converted to Christianity at the age of 24, comes from a family of high caste Hindus.
Since 1979 she has led the "contemplative wing" of the Missionaries of Charity, in which nuns devote their lives to meditation and working out the spiritual program of the order.
"God's work will go on in the same way," says sister Nirmala. "Mother's spirit will always guide me."
According to Father Edward le Joly, a Jesuit priest who was the order's first spiritual adviser, Sister Nirmala will bring a more focused and spiritual approach to the order. But the publicity shy nun will find it hard to replicate Mother Teresa's reputation among her many admirers for being a modern day miracle- maker.
"We must pray for her. She has a very difficult task ahead, but I believe she is capable of doing it," Father Joly says.