SEEKER OF SOULS

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Souls in search of final blessing often came to the temple of a powerful Hindu goddess in Calcutta. But nearby, many discovered another source of solace: a small woman, wrinkled and bent, a willing companion to the dying. She tenderly cared for the abandoned and the sick, washing their wounds, soothing their sores, preparing them for death. "They must feel wanted, loved," Mother Teresa said. "They are Jesus for me."

Only physically did Mother Teresa's heart fail her, subjecting her to years of illness that finally led to her death last week at age 87. She had always been adamant about who owned her heart. "People think we are social workers," she once told one of her spiritual advisers, Father Edward Le Joly. "We are not. We serve Jesus. I serve Jesus 24 hours a day."

She was true to her master through the obscurity in which she first labored, through the acclaim that began in the 1960s, through the sometimes heated denunciation that ensued when she defended controversial church teachings on contraception. She was not some saintly relic but a willing servant of her God: "I am like a little pencil in [God's] hand. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used."

For those who believed and perhaps even for those who merely admired her, Mother Teresa was a living saint, drawing both rich and poor to her side and to the message of God. She could, wrote Malcolm Muggeridge in his 1971 book Something Beautiful for God, "hear in the cry of every abandoned child the cry of the Bethlehem child; recognize in every leper's stumps the hands which once touched sightless eyes and made them see."

Saints--like princesses popularly invested with the image of goodness--are even more powerful in death. Those who loved Mother Teresa have long been murmuring hopeful prayers for her official canonization in the Roman Catholic Church she served so faithfully. That may not be imminent, but for many, there can be no doubting it, no devil able to advocate otherwise. Already, her humble ways and the grand religious enterprise she founded are worthy of veneration and emulation.

The woman who became Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on Aug. 26, 1910, the daughter of a prosperous, ethnic Albanian business contractor in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia. When she was seven, her father Nicholas died during what may have been a Balkan ethnic brawl. She would always be silent about her early life, but she told Muggeridge she had a vocation to serve the poor from the time she was 12. At 18, Agnes joined Ireland's Sisters of Loreto and took the name Teresa in honor of the French saint Therese of Lisieux, renowned for her piety, goodness and unflinching courage in the face of illness and early death.

After a brief period in Rathfarnham, where she learned English at the order's abbey, Sister Teresa sailed for India. She spent the next 17 years as a teacher and then principal of a Calcutta high school for privileged Bengali girls. It was on Sept. 10, 1946, during a train ride to Darjeeling for a religious retreat, that Teresa received a "call within a call" in which she felt God directed her to the slums. "The message was quite clear," she told colleagues. "I was to leave the convent and help the poor whilst living among them. It was an order."

Two years later, after her adopted homeland won independence, Teresa received permission from Rome to strike out on her own. Attracting a dozen disciples, she started what she called her "little society." The nuns crept along the harsh streets of Calcutta in search of mankind's most miserable; the sisters had to beg for their own support, even their daily meals. "There were times during the first three or four months," says Teresa's biographer, Navin Chawla, "when she'd be humiliated, and tears would be streaming down her cheeks. [She] told herself, 'I'll teach myself to beg, no matter how much abuse and humiliation I have to endure.'"

She soon asked the Vatican if she and her followers could take a vow supplementary to those of poverty, chastity and obedience: "to devote themselves out of abnegation to the care of the poor and needy who, crushed by want and destitution, live in conditions unworthy of human dignity." It took Rome two years to say yes, and in 1950 the Vatican formally established the Missionaries of Charity, commanding members of the order "unremittingly" to seek out the poor, abandoned, sick, infirm and dying. Teresa warned that it was work few persons could endure; each volunteer was told that only a "burning fire" would succeed. With the establishment of the order, Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa, leading a ministry to the destitute, doomed and dying. The order's guiding theme was her own: "Let every action of mine be something beautiful for God."

One of the Missionaries' first projects, in 1952, was to turn a former hostel beside a Hindu temple into a place where the poor of Calcutta, who often died alone in the streets, could spend their last hours in comfort and cleanliness. As a Catholic mission, the sisters faced alienation and neighborhood hostility. The temple priests even asked city authorities to relocate the newly named Nirmal Hriday, or Home for the Dying, hospice. But then one of the Hindu priests was found with advanced stages of tuberculosis after he had been denied a bed in a city hospital, reserved for those who could be cured. And so this representative of the enemies of the Catholic order ended up in a corner of the Nirmal Hriday, tended by Mother Teresa herself. When the priest died, she delivered his body to the temple for Hindu rites. News of this charity filtered out into the city, and Calcutta started its long love affair with the humble sisters.

Muggeridge brought that saintliness to the world's attention in a 1969 BBC documentary. In it, he even claimed to have witnessed a miracle: footage from an area of the Home for the Dying that was deemed too dark to register on celluloid turned out on processed film to be bathed in a "particularly soft light" that Muggeridge likened to love, "luminous, like the halos artists have seen and made visible round the heads of saints." While the episode was celebrated worldwide, cameraman Ken Macmillan had a down-to-earth explanation: he had used a brand-new kind of film from Kodak that was particularly sensitive. Nonetheless, visitors to the hospice noticed a beatific glow that surrounded the sisters ministering to the dying.

Miracle worker or not, Mother Teresa was now a media star. A decade after the documentary, she received the Nobel Peace Prize because "poverty and distress also constitute a threat to peace." At her request, the traditional banquet was canceled so the $7,000 cost could go to the poor. "We need to tell the poor that they are somebody to us," she told the audience of rich and honored guests, "that they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and be loved."

Today some 4,000 sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, clad in white saris with blue borders, pursue her rigorous path, along with 450 brothers in a separate men's order. Mother Teresa created a network of 569 missions spread across 120 nations that operate workshops for the unemployed, food centers, orphanages, leprosariums, and refuges for the insane, retarded and aged. She won access to global leaders; she counted Princess Diana a personal friend; Pope John Paul II valued her as a revered colleague.

As her work earned fame around the world, money poured in from individual and corporate benefactors. Mother Teresa never worried about funding the many expanding activities of her order. "The Lord sends it," she once said. "We do his work; he provides the means." The order is reportedly flush with cash, though no outsider knows the exact wealth in its coffers. In India alone, revenue officials say, the group's assets exceed $41 million, which is largely in real estate.

Mother Teresa had a more controversial side: she was never afraid to speak and act with impunity on matters of the secular world. She repeatedly decried abortion. "If a mother can kill her own child, then what is left of the West to be destroyed?" she once said. At Harvard University's commencement in 1982 she called it "the greatest evil."

There have been charges that her sisters not only give succor to the dying but also ask if they want "tickets to heaven," surreptitiously baptizing lifelong Hindus and Muslims for Jesus. The sisters deny these accusations; in India such conversions would be met with outrage, and the charge is widely disbelieved. But such acts would be in keeping with Teresa's fervent devotion to the cause of Christ.

Recently she came under attack from those who believe, as George Orwell once wrote about Mahatma Gandhi, that all saints should be judged guilty until proved innocent. In 1994 Britain's Channel 4 broadcast a revisionist look at Teresa that was harshly titled Hell's Angel. Written by Pakistani-born leftist Tariq Ali and British columnist Christopher Hitchens, the program claimed that the Missionaries of Charity accepted donations from some unsavory individuals, including Haiti's former autocrat Jean-Claude Duvalier. In return, Mother Teresa and her sisters delivered effusive encomiums in favor of the rich and infamous eager to buy international respectability. Teresa replied that she had no moral right to refuse donations given for the poor and miserable. Hitchens followed up with a scathing, book-length critique called The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which noted that Mother Teresa once wrote to Judge Lance Ito requesting leniency for Charles Keating, whom he was about to sentence in the late-1980s savings-and-loan scandal. Keating had once contributed $1.25 million to the Missionaries of Charity.

The order's Home for the Dying in Calcutta also attracted criticism. Unlike in modern hospices in the West, the dying at the mission home are not provided with pain-killing drugs. In November 1996 a German volunteer questioned one of Teresa's nuns. "I have heard you don't give any medicines," he said. The nun replied, "This is not a treatment center. This is a place where the dying can die with dignity."

For decades Mother Teresa was elected head of the order with only one dissenting vote: her own. But in the fall of 1996, she nearly succumbed to heart disease, and the sisters realized it was time to elect a successor. In March, 123 representative nuns gathered to pray for wisdom and chose a Hindu Brahmin convert named Sister Nirmala, whom one called a compassionate "carbon copy" of their revered leader.

The woman who has taken Teresa's place demurs, saying, "I'm not Mother Teresa; I'm Sister Nirmala. Please don't call me Mother." This 64-year-old, 4-ft. 10-in. nun, who sometimes refers to distances by the number of Rosaries she can pray while traveling them, did not make her Christian conversion until age 17. She was moved to a new faith by the terrible religious carnage that attended the Indian partition in 1947 and by observing Mother Teresa in Calcutta, years later, attending to its refugees. "It was inspiration at first sight," says Nirmala, who became one of the order's first volunteers.

Teresa sent her to law school and made her the Missionaries' legal counsel. In 1965 Nirmala traveled to Venezuela to establish the order's first overseas mission; four years later, she was called back to Calcutta to join its contemplative wing, which emphasizes the mystical power of prayer, something dear to the heart of Teresa. As time went on, Nirmala acted as Teresa's nurse and companion. Now it is her turn to rely on Teresa's spiritual guidance. Even though she may be afraid, she has said, "Looking at God, I am sure I will be able to do what I have been chosen for."

That will surely be different. Despite her celebrity status and a flourishing empire, Mother Teresa had a faith that was not of this world. She was intent on saving souls in an era that no longer believed souls existed. She confounded and overcame that skepticism with the paradox attributed to St. Francis of Assisi nearly eight centuries ago: in giving we receive; in dying we are born to eternal life. It was not a message the 20th century expected to hear or wanted to learn, and Teresa angered many with her simple, hardheaded adherence to it. But to many others, the rewards of her example were enormous. As hundreds of mourners gathered at Calcutta's mother house last week, a weeping Muslim driver explained, simply, "She was a source of perpetual joy," a holy commodity indeed.