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Mother Teresa, 87, Dies; Devoted Her Life to Poor

India: Beloved nun, who had long been in ill health, was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. For nearly half a century, the order she founded in Calcutta has ministered to the sick and needy.

September 06, 1997|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For her inspiring self-abnegation and work with the poor, Mother Teresa received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian decoration, which President Reagan presented to her in 1985; Britain's Order of Merit; and numerous other awards and decorations.

Like Albert Schweitzer earlier in the 20th century, Mother Teresa became a media superstar and celebrity, although she customarily told reporters that she would rather talk about her work than about herself. For two consecutive years, the gnarled nun was voted the "most admired woman" by readers of Good Housekeeping magazine, and in 1992 she received the top number of votes from contestants in the Miss Universe pageant as "the world's greatest person."

Marvel Comics issued a 48-page comic book about her life and work, and in her adopted India her reputation was so great that, she ruefully noted, even abortion clinics were named in her honor.

"I have said often, and I am sure of it, that the greatest destroyer of peace in the world today is abortion," Mother Teresa said in a message to the U.N. conference on population held in Cairo in 1994, renewing controversial remarks she had made in her Nobel acceptance speech. "If a mother can kill her own child, what is there to stop you and me from killing each other? The only one who has the right to take life is the one who has created it."

Such unflinching orthodoxy won Mother Teresa a considerable number of critics, as did some of her contacts with the rich and powerful of the world. In 1980, she accepted Haiti's Legion of Honor from dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Nine years later, she laid flowers on the grave of Albanian Communist strongman Enver Hoxha.

Charles Keating, who figured in one of California's messiest savings and loan scandals, reportedly gave her a $1.25-million donation and granted her the use of his private jet. He received a personalized crucifix in return, and Mother Teresa wrote to Judge Lance Ito, who presided over Keating's savings and loan trial, to laud his kindness and generosity.

A Los Angeles deputy district attorney wrote back to Mother Teresa, describing Keating's conduct and asking that she return the donated money so restitution could be made to some of the fraud victims. Three years later, he had not received a reply.

"I do not read any newspapers, not even the headlines. I am only interested in service to mankind," Mother Teresa once said.

She lived on a rupee and a half's worth--about 4 cents--of food a day, and when she traveled, she took a wardrobe of only two saris.

Good Works Thrive and Grow

Under Mother Teresa's shrewd and firm leadership, the Missionaries of Charity grew to encompass 4,000 sisters working in 570 missions in 120 countries. The order now operates homes and hospices for AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis patients; soup kitchens; children's and family counseling programs; orphanages; and schools for the destitute.

In 1963, she and Brother Andrew Travers-Ball co-founded the Missionary Brothers of Charity, a religious order for men.

In 1995, Mother Teresa refused to say whether she had a preference about who should succeed her as superior general of the order.

"God sent Teresa. He will send somebody else to carry on the work," she once said.

Dahlburg, Paris Bureau chief for The Times, was the New Delhi Bureau chief from 1993 to 1996.

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