March 9, 1997
Followers Struggle to Fill Mother Teresa's Sandals

CALCUTTA, India, March 5— Off an alleyway in the teeming heart of this city of 15 million people, a plain wooden board with simple white lettering hangs on the wall inside a discreet doorway. By means of a slide that can be adjusted by the nuns within, the board tells visitors what they mostly want to know.

''Mother Teresa: In,'' it says.

From the gray-washed building Calcuttans know simply as the ''Mother House,'' Mother Teresa has presided for decades over the Order of the Missionaries of Charity. The order has been judged by many to be the most successful Roman Catholic mission of the century, as well as one that has helped sustain the church's reputation for compassion in an age when its critics have frequently accused it of doctrinal rigidity.

From a start in 1948 when Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, ventured alone into Calcutta's streets to tend to the ''poorest of the poor,'' the order has grown to a worldwide institution with more than 4,000 nuns and 400 Catholic brothers running nearly 600 homes, clinics and schools in more than 100 countries, including the United States. Mother Teresa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, may be better known than any living Catholic leader aside from Pope John Paul II.

But the signs from the Mother House these days suggest that the era of Mother Teresa, who is 86 years old and weakened by a chronic heart ailment and other health problems, is drawing to a close.

For weeks, an electoral college composed of more than 100 nuns and brothers from around the world, including at least half a dozen Americans, has been gathered in the house on Lower Circular Road, struggling with the problem of choosing a successor to Mother Teresa as the order's superior general.

A month ago, a deadline for a decision passed with no announcement, other than a statement that the nuns and brothers would continue their retreat. Now, fresh reports, purportedly originating from the Mother House, have suggested that a decision could come soon, possibly in days. Few church matters have aroused such anticipation since the last time the College of Cardinals in Rome chose a Pope, in 1978.

Once before, in 1990, the order met to find a successor to Mother Teresa, at her request, but a last-minute wave of sentiment led to a vote in which only a single vote, Mother Teresa's own, was cast for an alternate candidate.

At the time, Mother Teresa was already in ill health, with a heart pacemaker that had been fitted in 1989, and had permission to step down from Pope John Paul, who directly oversees the work of the order.

This time, there seems little chance that Mother Teresa's wishes will be defied. Five feet tall when in good health but bent lower now by a spinal affliction and in a wheelchair for much of her days, Mother Teresa is said by those close to the Missionaries of Charity to have convinced the order that it is time for her to step down.

To do so, Mother Teresa has had to confront worries that the order, without her charisma and rigorous leadership, may have trouble making a transition to a new era.

Loyalists within the order are said to have been convinced that Mother Teresa should be allowed to retire when she spent much of the last three months of 1996 in and out of Calcutta hospitals. More than once, she hovered at the brink of death with complications from what doctors described as a mild heart attack, followed in late November by a balloon angioplasty -- her third in six years -- a procedure designed to clear blockages from the arteries that supply blood to the heart.

''Every single sister I have spoken to has acknowledged that they must let her go this time, because she is so sick,'' said Navin Chawla, a senior Government official who has written two biographies of Mother Teresa. Mr. Chawla, 51, who has spoken to Mother Teresa by telephone from New Delhi in recent days, said the mood in the Mother House appeared solemn, but resigned.

''I can't imagine any last-minute change of heart this time,'' he said.

Mr. Chawla said that Mother Teresa sounded stronger than she had in weeks, but that this appeared to be due more to willpower than returning health. With oxygen equipment and a heart monitor in her bedroom, and capable of standing unassisted for only brief periods, Mother Teresa has spoken often recently of her own death. In the spare sentences that have been her hallmark, she has said that dying holds no fear for her, that on the contrary it is something she awaits with anticipation.

''It will come when my work is over, when the example has been given,'' she told an Italian friend, Gabriele Romagnoli, who visited her in a Calcutta hospital in December and wrote an account of their discussion that appeared in The Week, an Indian news magazine.

Mr. Romagnoli quoted Mother Teresa as adding, ''I know that God will know when the time is right, and so I cannot do anything other than wait peacefully.''

The order's reluctance to allow Mother Teresa to retire appears to have been compounded by uncertainty over whom to appoint in her place. Unconfirmed reports in 1991 said that Mother Teresa had signaled her preference for Sister Frederick, an 80-year-old nun of mixed British and Maltese descent who has acted as the principal administrator of the order in recent years and who has a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian.

But Sister Frederick, who has overseen the medical care of Mother Teresa, is said to be ailing herself and reluctant to take on the job.

Another nun considered to be a possible successor in the past, Sister Agnes Das, 66, is said to be suffering from cancer, and to have ruled herself out. Many in the Missionaries of Charity are said to have considered Sister Agnes to be the natural successor, since she was the first nun to join Mother Teresa in her work among the poor in the late 1940's.

She would also have been a popular choice in India, since she was born in what is now the Indian state of West Bengal, whose capital is Calcutta.

Recent speculation in India had focused on several other senior nuns, all native-born Indians. Among these three, the most widely discussed possibility has been Sister Priscilla Lewis, the order's official spokeswoman, who is in her early 60's, and who is favored by many in the order because of her experience running the order's missions outside India, including 16 years in New York City.

With secrecy surrounding the retreat, outsiders have speculated about the influence of Pope John Paul. People with close links to Mother Teresa have said that the Polish-born Pope's interest is partly personal, as a fellow Eastern European and religious conservative who has developed a deep bond with Mother Teresa. In the 1980's, the Pope bowed to what Mr. Chawla described as ''a bit of friendly bullying'' by Mother Teresa when he agreed to allow the Missionaries of Charity to open a soup kitchen inside the Vatican walls.

Inevitably, many in the order are said to be apprehensive. One point of concern is the attitude of future Indian governments toward the order once the shield provided by Mother Teresa's international renown is removed. India, as a predominantly Hindu country, has been less accommodating to Christian missions generally than it has to the Missionaries of Charity, which has been strongly favored ever since India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, met Mother Teresa in the 1960's and promised her whatever help she needed.

But Mr. Chawla said there would be no change in official attitudes. He said Indians were deeply proud of the Missionaries of Charity and of Mother Teresa, who took Indian citizenship in 1950, and saw the order as part of broader Indian tradition of spirituality and compassion.

The apprehensions are palpable at the first of the order's missions, the Sacred Heart Institute for the Sick and the Dying in the Kalighat district of Calcutta, which was opened in 1952 when Mother Teresa moved her mission off the streets for the first time.

While many of the men and women lying on the steel cots in the soft yellow light of a Calcutta evening seem to be too ill even to know who Mother Teresa is, the volunteers who do much of the work at the mission focus much of their conversation these days on ''Mother,'' as she is known.

The volunteers wonder about many things, including the flow of donor funds for the Missionaries of Charity once Mother Teresa's leadership is gone. But Andreas Wimmer, 42, a native of Munich who has spent eight years at Kalighat, said he took heart from Mother Teresa's own answer.

''She has told us, 'If the work were mine, it would die with me, but it is the work of God, so He will look after it,' '' he said.

Photo: Mother Teresa, 86, weakened by a chronic heart ailment, talked with visitors at her missionary order's house in Calcutta, India, in December. (Dieter Ludwig for The New York Times)

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