This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 15, 1997
She had defied death so often that when it finally came, even some of her closest followers at first hoped it was yet another false alarm. To many, mere mortality seemed out of the question for Mother Teresa, the 87-year-old Albanian nun long hailed as a living saint for her ministry to the impoverished, the leprous and the dying in Calcutta's teeming, fetid streets. Even before her death last week of cardiac arrest at her convent in Calcutta, she seemed destined for official canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, for which she had become a wizened 20th-century icon. "Her importance is that she illuminated the greatest problem we have in the world today - poverty," said Ann Petrie, the Windsor-born director whose acclaimed 1986 film on Mother Teresa has been shown in more than 80 nations. "And she taught us what to do about it: to spiritualize it - to see the God within each person. Rather than regarding the poor as a problem, she saw every human being, no matter how wretched, as an opportunity to do something for Jesus."
Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa was an apparently simple woman who managed to build a complex international order of 4,500 sisters and brothers in more than 100 countries. She did so with a mixture of stubborn entrepreneurial shrewdness - and the fatalism of an unquestioning faith. Last November, 46 years after she had rescued her first dying outcast from an Indian gutter, Mother Teresa declared herself ready to die when she was rushed to a private Calcutta hospital for the third time that year with heart failure. But again she recovered - and was forced to admit that God appeared to have other plans for her. Throughout the year, she continued with her work, which included a two-month world tour during which she met Diana, the Princess of Wales - a great admirer - for the fourth time, in New York City.
But her health remained precarious. For that reason, the day before her death, her order, the Missionaries of Charity, issued a statement that she would not be able to attend the princess's funeral. Early Friday evening, after a dinner of soup and toast, she finished her prayers and then complained of pain in her back. A doctor was summoned - even as a crowd began to swell in front of the order's headquarters. An hour later, nuns rang the huge metal bell outside the main entrance and announced that Mother Teresa was dead.
The accolades that poured in from around the world signalled the great esteem in which she had been held. In Rome, a spokesman for Pope John Paul II said that the pontiff was "deeply moved and pained" by her death. "She is a woman who has left her mark on the history of this century," the Vatican said. Others expressed similar sentiments. U.S. president Bill Clinton, on vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., called her "an incredible person." In a statement, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said she was a "truly exceptional human being," and added, "Her dedication and courage earned her praise from the mighty and the famous, but it was service to the weak and nameless that gave meaning to her life and for which she will always be remembered." And in London, only hours after her televised tribute to Diana, Queen Elizabeth praised Mother Teresa's "untiring devotion to the poor and destitute of all religions." She will, the Queen said, "continue to live in the hearts of all those who have been touched by her selfless work."
While the world lauded her accomplishments, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, the Missionaries of Charity mourned the indefatigable woman they called simply "Mother" - and pondered the uncertain future of their order. Last March, when Mother Teresa voluntarily stepped down as superior general, they elected a successor: Sister Nirmala, a former Hindu who converted to Roman Catholicism. But many observers have questioned whether an order so closely associated with its founder - one who exerted a tight control over her followers that seemed to reflect an earlier era when convent life was more authoritarian and restrictive - can continue to attract new converts and financial support now that she is gone. The missionaries will also debate whether to continue to embrace Mother Teresa's religious and political conservatism, including a fierce opposition to birth control in one of the most populous countries on earth. Some sisters had also criticized her emphasis on administering to the poor on a day-to-day basis rather than working to change society. However, Mother Teresa had always preferred to reach out on a spiritual, not political, level. "I am not trying to change anything," she said. "I am only trying to live my love. Let us do something beautiful for God."
That devotion had informed her decisions ever since she accepted her call to the religious life at 18 in Skopje - now in Macedonia - where she grew up the youngest of three children born to a prosperous contractor and importer. After her father died when she was 9, the family lost its money and her mother, forced to take in sewing, became even more devout in her own Catholic faith. Taking young Agnes on her rounds visiting the sick and needy, she helped inspire her daughter's later vocation. But enraptured by classroom tales of missionaries in India, Agnes set her heart on joining the Irish order of the Sisters of Loreto, known for their work there. At 18, after two months at their Dublin headquarters, she set sail to teach history and geography at St. Mary's, the order's high school for girls in Calcutta, where she later became principal - and ultimately an Indian citizen.
In Petrie's film, the Loreto nuns seem at pains to insist that during her two decades with them, Sister Teresa, as she was known, showed neither exceptional intelligence nor unusual promise. But unlike others in the convent's oasis of manicured gardens, she looked out her bedroom window and could not resign herself to the tableau of human misery unfolding daily in the slums of Calcutta. On September 10, 1946, while travelling by train to a retreat in the mountains of Darjeeling, she received what she termed her "call within a call" - to work with the poorest of the poor. Four years later, after her implacable efforts finally won her an exceptional papal order of "uncloistering" - allowing her to work independently - she set out into the city streets with only three months' medical training, no money or plan - but with the phrase that would become her guiding dogma: "God will provide."
Given the honors since heaped upon her, it seems difficult to grasp her difficult beginnings. Attempting to set up an outdoor school in a vacant lot, writing the letters of the Bengali alphabet in the mud, she found herself taunted and stoned, accused by Hindus of trying to convert the helpless to Christianity. But in 1952, the city donated a former hostel near a temple to Kali - the Hindu goddess of death and destruction - as her first home for the dying, Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart). And after she took in one of the sect's priests, who had been expelled from the temple with leprosy and left in the streets to die, the hostility suddenly evaporated.
That year, as the Vatican officially sanctioned her new order, begun with a handful of former students outfitted in simple saris of white homespun cotton edged in blue, her reputation began to spread. With her order originally restricted to women, she insisted that her sisters take the three traditional vows of all nuns - poverty, chastity and obedience. But she added a rigorous fourth - "to give wholeheartedly, free service to the very poorest" - and demanded that the sisters themselves live in poverty with only a single change of clothes and minimal possessions, including a scrub brush and bucket. In the 1980s, after supporters turned over a lavishly refurbished headquarters in San Francisco to the order, Mother Teresa thanked them politely, then promptly went in and tore up all the expensive carpeting, pews and water heaters that had been newly installed, insisting that her nuns live equally everywhere in the world.
When Malcolm Muggeridge, the cantankerous British pundit, first met her in 1969, he found himself awestruck, reporting "a shining quality." As he later wrote, "I never met anyone more memorable." Petrie concurred: "Her presence is astonishing." But over the years, Mother Teresa consistently countered attempts to sentimentalize her with canny single-mindedness in the pursuit of her work. In 1964, Pope Paul VI bestowed on her a white Lincoln limousine that had been presented to him during a congress in Bombay. She promptly raffled it off - and with the nearly $100,000 in proceeds, opened Shantinagar, her village for lepers. And when the Indian government gave her a free rail pass, she badgered them for the same privileges on its airline, gamely offering to work off her passage as a flight attendant. In Guatemala, the governing junta threatened to expropriate her prime inner-city mission for a shopping mall, but she doggedly declined their offers of other lots. And during filming, Petrie watched bemused as Mother Teresa confounded then U.S. envoy to the Middle East Philip Habib when he told her she could not enter West Beirut because of shelling. She calmly responded that she knew there would be a ceasefire: she had been praying to "Our Lady" for that very thing. The next day, a ceasefire was indeed declared, and she entered the rubble with a convoy of four ambulances to rescue dozens of abandoned and handicapped orphans.
But while some saw her as a saint, others had less flattering descriptions. In a blistering 1994 television documentary for Britain's private Channel 4 called Hell's Angel, and an ensuing 1995 book entitled The Missionary Position, Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens berated Mother Teresa as a demagogue and a propagandist for the Vatican's anti-abortion campaign. In elaborate detail, Hitchens chronicled the fact that she had accepted honors from the likes of Michèle Duvalier, the wife of Haiti's former despot Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), and a $1.75-million donation from Charles Keating Jr., an American savings and loan tycoon convicted in 1993 of fraud and racketeering. But she refused to answer the charges. And nearly a decade earlier, in Petrie's film, she had explained that if "God takes away your good name, you accept it. If you're on the street, you accept being in the street. Sometimes that's how it is - everything is taken away from you."
Now, without her overwhelming presence, her order will find it more difficult to ignore such critiques - or even to reap such publicity and public largesse. And some of her followers are more determined than ever to tackle the root causes of poverty rather than administer Band-Aids. Certainly, whatever direction the Sisters of Charity choose to map, the order will never be the same. Then again, as Petrie points out: "There will never be another Mother Teresa. But her message remains in the work: she always told people who wanted to come to India to do the work the hard way - to start with their own families. She taught that the poorest countries in the world were not the developing nations but the United States and Canada - because of the lack of love."
Maclean's September 15, 1997