For the poorest of the poor

Print edition : September 20, 1997

People the world over mourn the death of Mother Teresa.

CALCUTTA'S farewell to Mother Teresa was a lofty tribute to a life of selfless service. The city took to the streets on September 13 to honour and pay respect to the charismatic nun who spent nearly half a century in the service of the poorest of the poor in different parts of the world. Following a sombre and dignified funeral procession and public Mass, which was watched on television by an estimated two billion people around the world, Mother Teresa was laid to rest in her home, Mother House, in a private burial. Mother Teresa died of a cardiac arrest on September 5. She was 87.

The body of Mother Teresa lying in state at St. Thomas' Church in Calcutta. In the fullness of her life and work, the nun who made Calcutta her home and tended to the poorest of the poor blazed a trail as a great humanitarian.-PARTH SANYAL

The funeral procession started from the 155-year-old St. Thomas' Church on Middleton Row, where the body had been placed in a glass casket for public viewing for six days. As the Government of India had accorded her a state funeral, an honour usually reserved for heads of state (Mahatma Gandhi was the only other Indian not to hold an official position to be accorded a state funeral), the Army, by tradition, assumed charge of the funeral arrangements a day before the funeral.

At 8.54 a.m., six Army officers of the rank of Major-General and Brigadier carried the coffin from the church and placed it on the gun carriage. The carriage was the one that had been used for the funerals of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The cortege, escorted by Army officers and by Mother Teresa's colleagues from the Missionaries of Charity, was followed by a convoy of 14 vehicles. These vehicles carried members of her immediate family (Mother Teresa's niece Agi Bojaxhiu had flown in from Italy) and the larger family that she considered her own - the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity and people from its various centres.

The procession moved through the historic thoroughfares of the city - from Middleton Row through Park Street, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Cathedral Road, Queen's Way, Casuarina Avenue, Red Road and on to the Netaji Indoor Stadium. There was a fortuitous break in the monsoon rain, and the cortege moved slowly along the 5-km route where hushed mourners had lined the barricaded roads early. Tall buildings became vantage viewing points. The silence of the streets was broken only by the whirr of an Army helicopter overhead.

With a young inmate of Prem Dan, one of the shelter homes established by the Missionaries of Charity.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

After a three-hour ceremony that was partly a Roman Catholic Mass and partly a memorial service attended by representatives of governments and people from around the world, the cortege made its final journey from the indoor stadium, stopping 500 metres from Mother House. Army pall-bearers lifted the white coffin from the gun carriage and entered Mother House through a narrow lane off Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road. Thousands of people had congregated on both sides of the road to bid farewell to Mother Teresa, in spite of an afternoon shower.

"Gone but not forgotten, Mother we love you," said a banner put up by Mother Teresa's neighbours near Mother House. "My God, what Mother has done is a miracle," said Mrs. I. Cantopher, who lives in a dilapidated building in the lane. At one stage, the police had to resort to a mild lathi-charge to disperse the surging crowd of mourners, who broke barricades and sought to move ahead as Mother Teresa's body was being taken by the pall-bearers inside Mother House.

The coffin being taken for the Mass and memorial service in the gun carriage that had been used for the funerals of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.-PARTH SANYAL

THE issue of the involvement of the Army in the funeral of a person seen as the embodiment of peace was a matter of some controversy and media comment, especially in the Western press. The presence of the Army lent added gravity and order to the occasion. The green-and-white colours of the funeral cortege did not jar; they reaffirmed Mother Teresa's place as an honoured citizen of the nation.

The jawans of the 14 Gorkha Brigade, who lined the road outside Mother House, reversed arms and bowed their heads. Three volleys from 14 rifles were fired by the Gorkhas in salute, while four buglers sounded the Last Post, bringing to a ceremonial end a chapter in the history of the Missionaries of Charity.

Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity at the tomb of Mother Teresa in Mother House on September 14.-SHERWIN CRASTO / AP

The burial was a private function attended by clerics and senior nuns of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa's grave is covered by a single white marble slab. "Mother has been brought back to her home," said Sister Nirmala, who was elected Superior-General in place of Mother Teresa in March 1997.

IN an unprecedented show of solidarity and identification with Mother Teresa and what she represented, the people of Calcutta and others from across the country came in tens of thousands to St. Thomas' Church over the six days that her body was on view. Undeterred by rain, often having to wade through knee-deep water and waiting patiently, sometimes for hours, in queue, mourners from all faiths and classes filed past the body in silence, holding flowers and candles, a sob sometimes punctuating the quiet.

The funeral ceremony at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, attended by several heads of state and government and other dignitaries.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

MOTHER TERESA'S body was brought to the Netaji Indoor Stadium by Army pall-bearers led by General Officer Commanding (Bengal Area), Major-General Jitendra Singh. They entered the stadium to the strains of Rabindranath Tagore's song, "Aguner Parashmani Choao Mane" (Let my heart be touched by the flame of the fire).

The Mass was led by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State. In deference to Mother Teresa's respect for other faiths, developed in her years of work in a multi-faith nation, messages from leaders of other religions were read out at the end of the service. West Bengal's distinguished Marxist Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, a personal friend of Mother Teresa's, arrived after the religious ceremony and offered a wreath, to sustained applause from the gathering. His gesture was a statement of the relationship the Left Front Government had established with Mother Teresa over the years: cooperation and support for her public work and a conscious distancing from the religious aspects of her work.

West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu pays his respect to Mother Teresa, a friend whose public work in the service of the poor had his cooperation and support.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Calcutta, in his opening address, said that Mother Teresa had the ability to touch hearts and bring comfort to the suffering. He said: "On the walls of every Missionaries of Charity house, the words 'I Thirst', the last words of Christ on the cross, are written. She said the greatest poverty was to feel unwanted and unloved. This poverty exists even in affluent countries."

The Mass was followed by an offertory. It began amid singing of a hymn in Hindi, with the offering of a portrait of the Sacred Heart by a Brother of the Missionaries of Charity. Small, touching symbols of Mother Teresa's life were then offered: a co-worker offered a candle; Daya, an orphan child, presented a posy of flowers; Rinku, a rehabilitated prisoner, brought a jug of water and Lal, a physically handicapped person, gave a piece of bread. Sister Nirmala offered an empty chalice, while Sister Monica, a counsellor, offered a pencil, in evocation of Mother Teresa's oft-repeated statement that she was a mere instrument in the hands of God.

Cardinal Sodano, who represented Pope John Paul ll, said that the story of Mother Teresa's life "is a story of biblical faith." Responding to the criticism that Mother Teresa could have done more to fight poverty by addressing its causes and not its manifestations, he said: "Mother Teresa was aware of this criticism. She would have shrugged as if saying, 'While you go on discussing causes and explanations, I will kneel beside the poorest of the poor and attend to their needs. The beggar, the leper and the victim of race do not need discussions and theories... They need love. The hungry cannot wait for the rest of the world to come up with a perfect answer... They are without a constituency in the ideologies'."

In her brief funeral speech, Sister Nirmala pledged to carry on the work of her mentor. She said that Mother Teresa's life was one of "sacrifice, prayer and affection for all, particularly the poorest of the poor in whom Jesus's thirst is most revealed". "Pray for us," she said, "so that we can be steadfast in our determination to serve the poor, the sick, the dying and the hungry."

Sister Nirmala, Superior-General of the Missionaries of Charity.-JOHN MOORE / AP

Sister Nirmala thanked the Government of India for according a state funeral to Mother Teresa and said: "Mother will accept this in the name of the poor. By according such an honour the Government has acknowledged her service to the poor. It is Mother's love which has brought the dignitaries of the world here at the Mass."

THERE was a large gathering of Mother Teresa's admirers amongst the heads of state and government and other dignitaries who came to attend the public ceremony. Albanian President Rexhep Mejdani, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed were present. Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Queen Noor of Jordan and Queen Sofiya of Spain were there too. The Duchess of Kent, Katharine Luch, represented the British Government. First Lady Hillary Clinton represented the U.S. Government, while French President Jacques Chirac's wife Bernadette Chodron de Courcel represented her country. The First Ladies of Canada and Poland were also present. Representatives of 46 other countries, including Pakistan, Albania, Germany, Norway, Australia, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Switzerland and Austria attended the ceremony. President K.R. Narayanan, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, Home Minister Indrajit Gupta and Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee placed wreaths on the body.

In his concluding address, Archbishop D'Souza made particular mention of Jyoti Basu for his help in making the funeral arrangements. The Archbishop spoke highly of the Indian Army and police personnel in Calcutta for their service.

NOW that a chapter in the history of the Missionaries of Charity has come to an end, questions arise over the future of the organisation that Mother Teresa founded. Sister Nirmala told Frontline that Mother Teresa's death had doubtless left a void among them, but they would continue to work with the same spirit.

As they look to a future without the charismatic guidance of Mother Teresa, what are the plans of her successors? Maintaining continuity is their foremost task. Addressing a press conference a day before the funeral, Sister Nirmala announced that she would not take the title of 'Mother'. "That title is only for Mother Teresa," she said. "We are much better off as Sisters."

Facing a barrage of questions from the media, ranging from fund-raising to conversions and abortion, Sister Nirmala defended the orthodox Catholic stand on these issues. Sister Nirmala was firm in her view that changing times did not warrant any change in her congregation's views on abortion and a contraception-based family planning programme. "Abortion and the use of contraceptives like condoms are against the rule of God."

At the crowded press conference she was asked why the order did not try to root out poverty, instead of simply helping the poor. "Poverty-alleviation programmes are to be left to the Government," she said, reiterating Mother Teresa's assertion that "poverty is beautiful". She went on to say: "We want the poor to use poverty in the right way. They should accept poverty with the stoicism displayed by the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity. They should not moan and groan but be content with whatever little that the Lord has given them." This was an answer which, in its lack of understanding of the predicament that poverty is, disappointed many in the audience.

Sister Nirmala denied that the Charity was encouraging conversions to Christianity and quoted Mother Teresa's well-known words:"We want Hindus to be better Hindus and Muslims to be better Muslims." She added: "But if someone wants to become a good Christian, we will help them."

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