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Mother Teresa's Birthday: Commemoration and Protest at the Empire State Building

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It's hard to imagine anything more sensitive than the sacred memory of the fallen of 9/11 -- witness the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero.

Now, another controversy with elements of religion and location has erupted in New York City. On Thursday, on what would have been the 100th birthday of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, more than 100 protesters converged on the Empire State Building, the Associated Press reported. The reason: the skyscraper's owners rejected a request by Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, to illuminate the fabled tower in blue and white --- the colors of the simple spun cotton sari that the "Saint of the Gutters" always wore -- to mark the centenary of her birth.

A controversy rivaling the dispute over the so-called "ground zero mosque"? Or simply a publicity stunt by Donohue to bring more donations to his group, as critics suggest?

Well, we are talking about dissing Mother Teresa, of all people. The Post Office couldn't even honor her with a stamp this year without sparking a protest, and the Empire State Building rejection was like catnip to folks like Sarah Palin.
"U kidding, Empire State Bldg officials?" Palin Tweeted when she heard of the controversy. "U won't honor Mother Theresa's [sic] compassionate, selfless efforts for humanity, but honor Communist Mao?" (Palin was referring to the decision to light the skyscraper last year to honor the 60th anniversary of China's Communist Revolution.)

To make matters worse, Anthony Malkin, scion of the real estate clan that owns the Empire State Building, has steadfastly refused to explain the decision in detail, which makes it appear as though he's scorning Mother Teresa in particular -- sticking "his middle finger into the face of Roman Catholics in the United States," as Donohue, the ever-quotable megaphone of the Catholic right, has put it.

"This guy's his own worst enemy. I've never seen anything like it," Donohue told me. "Prudence would dictate that you just slap on the blue and white lights and be done with it."

The iconic 1932 skyscraper was lit in red, white and blue in honor of the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the vote. That decision was apparently made after the Mother Teresa dispute erupted.

Donohue had recruited a slate of speakers, including Jewish representatives and a Hindu and a Muslim, as well as comedian Jackie Mason and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa. Still, only a few politicians were expected, and those slated to come are mostly local types.

More telling is the fact that only one priest is set to speak at the Catholic League's rally. Given the sainted place Mother Teresa still occupies in the Catholic imagination, that is a decidedly low-wattage turnout from official Catholicism. Donohue said all the bishops in the area were invited, and all wrote back saying thanks but no thanks, and good luck.

But if bishops think the protest rally is too controversial, what would Mother Teresa say?

A coalition of liberal Catholic groups -- folks Donohue doesn't even consider Catholic -- have sent a letter to the management of the Empire State Building expressing support for the decision to deny Mother Teresa the lighting honor, and blasting Donohue as a "dishonest" provocateur who is using the issue as a fundraising tool while ignoring Mother Teresa's own habit of self-effacement. The founder of the Missionaries of Charity, who died in 1997, was the only Nobel Prize recipient to forego a celebratory luncheon, and she insisted the money be given to charity instead, for example.

"As those who know her work have attested, Mother Teresa rarely celebrated her birthday herself, and would, we are sure, be appalled to hear that this anniversary of her birth had been used to create such a storm," the protest letter reads. "There are many ways to mark the life of Mother Teresa, and true to form Mr. Donohue has chosen the wrong one."

Donohue, who is nothing if not endearingly frank, admits they make a good argument.

"I don't think it's a great leap to concede the point that given her humbleness, that [Mother Teresa] wouldn't want to be the source of such acclaim and controversy." He said that's why the Catholic League has a place on its website directing visitors how to donate to local convents of the Missionaries of Charity.

Besides, he added, "I don't run a pastoral institute. I run a civil rights organization. I have a different mission."

The uproar grew out of Donohue's unsurprising request in February that the Empire State Building light the top of the tower to honor Mother Teresa's birth. The Empire State Building routinely lights the upper stories to mark various holidays, troop homecomings, sporting championships, ethnic festivals and so on -- green for St. Patrick's Day, for example, or red, white, and blue for July Fourth and Labor Day. And of course the 60th anniversary of the Chinese revolution.

In May the request was rejected without explanation. Donohue then wrote to Malkin asking him to reconsider or to explain the decision. Donohue received no answer, so he did what he does best -- started a media campaign and a petition.

Donohue said he had 40,000 signatures by June when Malkin -- described by associates as a strong-willed character who was provoked by a challenge from an equally stubborn personality like Bill Donohue -- issued a statement saying, in effect, no dice. "As a privately owned building, ESB [Empire State Building] has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations."

The statement added: "The Empire State Building's tower lights recognize key milestones, events, charitable organizations, countries and holidays throughout the world, not political or religion related events."

Donohue and others quickly pointed out that, uh, the skyscraper has in recent years been lighted at the death of New York Cardinal John O'Connor and dimmed for the passing of Pope John Paul II, and that it routinely changes its colors for Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid al Fitr (the Muslim holiday that ends Ramadan) and other religious holidays.

The ESB website then posted an expanded policy saying that the honors for O'Connor and John Paul happened before 2006, when the Malkin family installed new management at the tower. The new policy said that while the Empire State Building will continue to honor religious holidays, "we do not accommodate requests for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations," and "our policies and practices are subject to change in accord with ownership's preferences."

Those preferences apparently don't include honoring Mother Teresa -- though in April 2009 the tower was lighted in blue and pink to honor the centenary of the U.S. mission of the Salesian order of Catholic nuns. Go figure. Calls to Malkin's spokesperson have not been returned, an apparent no comment policy he is maintaining across the board.

Donohue, as usual, is not so reticent. He dismisses charges that he created this controversy to raise money, but at the same time he revels in the money and new members the furor has brought the Catholic League.

"Has it been a bonanza? You bet. Anthony Malkin has been the best the greatest catalyst for new membership for the Catholic League that I've seen in 17 years."

He said fundraising has been "magnificent," though he wouldn't say how much the Mother Teresa controversy has brought in. He did note that staging the event will cost some $15,000, with $6,300 just for the Jumbotron to broadcast video images of the nun, who is on the Vatican fast-track to sainthood. But he expects to recoup that, and then some.

Donohue is also laughing over the fact that while Malkin is avoiding the media on Mother Teresa, he has had to go before the City Council to lobby against plans by a competing real estate agency to erect a tower near the Empire State Building that would be almost as tall and would, in his opinion, ruin views of Manhattan's iconic skyscraper. Of course, the Mother Teresa issue always comes up. But Malkin scoffs at any suggestion that city leaders angry over Malkin's seeming dis to the sainted nun would approve the rival tower to spite him.

"The City Council is the elected representative body of the City of New York and I hardly think that anyone would sit there and think, 'You know what? Let's screw over the people of New York City, the people of the United States and the international iconography of New York City because of one guy who we think is a jerk.' " Malkin said after a City Council hearing this week. "I'll gladly take the responsibility for that, but I don't think that they would want the responsibility."

Donohue doesn't care whether the other skyscraper is built or not, but he does like the sense of divine justice in it all.

"It's like Mother Teresa is guiding us from the heavens."

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it's ok i saw on the news the other day that the empire state building has an infestation of bed bugs...have fun donohue!!!

August 27 2010 at 1:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

FYI: The Empire State Building was completed in 1931 and NOT 1932 (as cited in this article).

August 26 2010 at 10:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What, Sarah Palin tweeted about Mother Teresa? Really?! Palin's Third Wave Dominionist co-religionists actually claimed credit(?!) for "the death of Mother Teresa in India, one of the world's leading proponants of Mary as co-Redeemer". (Do web-search of "Operation Icecastle" for more info on an "imprecatory prayer" session atop Mt. Everest, credited among other "positive results," with an earthquake in Rome which damaged the Basilica where the Pope planned an inter-faith conference, a hurricane in Acapulco which destroyed a Catholic temple, and the demise of Princess Diana who was "carrying the illegitimate seed of her Muslim lover"...) The cult of Dominionism, which believes Palin to be the "anointed General of Joel's Army" was declared heretical in 1949 and again recently by its "parent" Pentocostal sect -- and especially regards the Catholic Church as "ungodly." That's why I'm very skeptical, to say the least, of Palin's professed admiration for Mother Teresa!

August 26 2010 at 9:42 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Maribeth & Tom

It is a disgrace that the Empire State Building refused to honor a GREAT WOMAN who happened to be CAtholic. OMG! We are in big trouble in this country.

August 26 2010 at 9:00 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

How much does anyone know about what Mother Teresa has actually done? I keep hearing that she helped the poor but I have yet to see any evidence anywhere. I looked for information on the official Mother Teresa website and found pictures of homes she has founded for nuns and priests. Not one picture of a school or orphanage that she built to help poor children. Not one success story about any of the people she helped who were able to rise up out of poverty to become self-sufficient adults who can contribute to society. If anyone out there can provide any specific proof of how she has helped people, I would love to see it

August 26 2010 at 8:27 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to redv14's comment

She spent her entire life helping the poor, children, sick and elderly. She opened orphanges for poor sick children. If you look on Google there are hundreds of stories. Not sure where you are looking. No, she is not just a mythl

August 26 2010 at 9:17 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Never forget the Texan evangelist of several years ago who claimed Mother Theresa would never see her way to heaven because she had not accepted Jesus Christ as her Personal Savior. In other words, she was not a born-again Christian.

August 26 2010 at 7:09 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

Wouldn't it be nice for a change for somebody to do what's right instead of what they have the right to do ?

August 26 2010 at 6:53 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply


August 26 2010 at 6:08 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply

Mother Teresa was a humanitarian above all. It has NOTHING to do with her religion. Most of the people she served were lower-caste Hindu. It is shameful that her birthday isn't being honored. Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister. Did that stop us from having a Federal holiday created in his honor??? He's recognized for his accomplishments in civil rights, apart from his religion. Mother Teresa dedicated her life to ease the suffering of the poorest of the poor. Why is recognizing her birthday such a controversy?

August 26 2010 at 5:30 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cheercurlz's comment
David S.

It's not a controversy at all. It is Bill Donohue that is making a spectacle of himself. The Empire State Building is private property, not a church, and they are under no obligation to honor any person, no matter how great they may have been. Mother Teresa's life will be celebrated in many churches today, and that should be enough for most of us.

August 26 2010 at 6:29 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I was Catholic until I turned 15 & changed to Baptist, but this is another subject. Mother Teresa was a very good woman & no matter who has what to say about her being a saint, she helped & served many people over her years & deserves the utmost respect. Very few people in this world even do a fraction of the kindness & warmth that this woman has shown her fellow man / woman in her lifetime. She does deserve to be honored on her birthday ACROSS THE WORLD. She gave her all for humanity & the least that humanity can do in return is REMEMBER HER once a year.

August 26 2010 at 5:18 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply

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