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June 10th, 2010
11:39 AM ET

Empire State Building declines to light up for Mother Teresa

CNN's Mythili Rao reports from New York:

August marks what would have been Mother Teresa's 100th birthday, with commemorative masses, exhibitions and other events around the world heralding the occasion. But count the Empire State Building out of the celebrations.

New York City's tallest skyscraper has declined to shine the colorful, festive lights that it reserves for special occasions in her honor, leaving some of the nun's followers feeling slighted.

"Selection as an Empire State Building Lighting Partner is at the sole discretion of the ownership and management of the Empire State Building Company LLC," the privately owned building's website says. The site says that selection is "a privilege, not an entitlement."

Outside its practice of lightings for Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), the Empire State Building "has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations," ESB owner Anthony E. Malkin said in a statement.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, called the decision "mind-boggling" and "indefensible and obscene," speculating that anti-Catholic bigotry was at play.

"Malkin has made his decision to stiff Catholics," Donohue said. "His decision to double down at this juncture - in the face of massive support for our request - is something he will regret for the rest of his life."

The Catholic League plans to demonstrate outside the Empire State Building on August 26, which would have been the 100th birthday of Mother Teresa, who cared for the poor and homeless of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. She died in 1997.

The Catholic League says over 40,000 people have signed a petition in favor of the lights. "I think that too many Catholics have fallen asleep at the wheel," Donohue told CNN. "It's time for people, the rank and file to say enough is enough. I hope it's going to be nonviolent, I wouldn't encourage violence but I know there's a lot of anger."

The brewing controversy has found an ally in New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, a Catholic. Quinn said that lighting the Empire State Building in Mother Teresa's honor would "be a very uplifting and unifying and inspiring message to have at a time when I think the city could use it."

"I think the organization that owns the Empire State Building seeing this as a religious request is really missing much of the significance of the life's work of Mother Teresa, across the world and in New York City," Quinn said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York said that a spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The lighting tradition dates back to 1932, when the Empire State Building shined a 50-mile searchlight beacon to announce that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president. Colored lighting wasn't introduced til 1976, when the tower was lit in red, white and blue for the American Bicentennial.

The vast majority of the occasions and organizations honored in lights by the Empire State Building are secular causes - June honorees include the World Series, Caribbean Week, and the Belmont Stakes, among others - but the building has been known to make exceptions, honoring Pope John Paul II and former New York Archbishop John Joseph O'Connor in years past.

In May, the skyscraper was lit blue and white to call attention to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York's Salute to Israel Parade.

The Empire State Building has been recognized as an official landmark by the National Parks Services and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission since the 1980s.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Culture wars

soundoff (371 Responses)
  1. Vince

    The LLC's decision is just because they are right - religion has ruined much of this world and influenced the way decisions are made to the poorest and devastating result. To call this obscene, you'd have to be an idiot; not to feud with Catholics, but their religion is morally wrong and disgusting. I am a New Yorker and I back the LLC's decision completely. No more religion or stupid endorsements of the kind...

    June 10, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
    • Mosman

      I'm a Catholic. How much time to you need to tell us everything you know about the church? Maybe two minutes?
      The Catholic Church built Western civilization, inspiring more great art and architecture than apparently you know. Darwin? Whose he? Saint Augustine was proposing evolution about 1300 years before Darwin. Mendel, a Dominican monk, was the father of genetics. A Catholic priest convinced Einstein that the universe was not static. Until Galileo was shut up by the Church, he attempted to destroy other scientists who disagreed with him. Even aside from religion, the Church has been a source of great thought and good in this world.

      June 10, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • NakkiNyan

      The church has committed more atrocities as well, quit playing like your church is the only driving force for advancement. More advancement was done in spite of the church trying to stop it.

      June 11, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  2. Karma Will Get You

    The people who bash Mother Teresa, might want to think twice. Even if you don't believe in God, this type of behavior can only bring bad karma. These people are probably the same individuals who watch a beating take place and do nothing.
    I think the light fight on the Empire State Building is stupid, but there truly is no need for such nastiness. I suppose you people hate Gandhi also?

    June 10, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  3. Silverbear

    Donahue is just another blind follower who lashes out anytime something is against his or the Catholic point of view. He uses Anti Catholic so much, it is almost an automatic if he is being interview. Fact is as noted, Mother Theresa stopped believing in God many years earler. Maybe her association with some nasty dictators should be included Donahue's lashing out against anyone who does not agree with him. You know, John Lennon said it best, "Imagine no religiion..." We can only hope

    June 10, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  4. Bob26

    Catholics lost one good opportunity to show the world that Catholicism is not all about pedophile priests. They should not have taken 100 percent ownership of this Saint who belonged to the poor of every religion.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  5. Ultramafic

    "Mother" Theresa took money from Charles Keating who had stolen that money from investors. Not a penny was ever returned to its rightful owners. Read Christopher Hitchens' excellent "The Missionary Position". An enlightening read.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
    • Sean

      Would you have returned it???

      June 10, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  6. Sean

    Don't worry... I'm sure the people who had a hand in taking down three buildings with two planes will settle the dispute sooner or later...

    June 10, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  7. Russ

    ...and the sooner we get rid of religion, the better. The Taliban aren't the only fundamentalists that demean the human spirit.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  8. Grace

    I don't think it would have mattered to Mother Theresa. Her rewards are from God and that is all that matters. She is with the brightest light now, no building lights can top that!

    June 10, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  9. Imbecile

    Oh, no! It's a conthpirathy!

    Those were for nations, this is for a person. Don't tell me you can't tell the difference.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  10. Frosty

    You are kidding right? This woman was a fraud. Plain an simple. Underneath it all she showed nothing but disdain, hatred, condescension and contempt to those she "helped". It's just pitiful.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Imbecile

      agreed. Now, prepare for the onslaught of the sycophants.

      June 10, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  11. Dave

    Saying the building's anti-catholic ignores that 2 of the 4 holidays they do light up for are catholic/christian holidays. Lighting up for any saint that some catholic/christian group insists on would just open a floodgate of people demanding similar privileges, and equal time, which is a headache & financial burden that I'm sure the private owners of the building could have difficulty handling. This particular group is wasting effort on something irrelevant & counter to the teachings of their own religion, misusing the name of their religion to bully, and they should be ashamed of themselves. I'm 100% sure Mother Teresa herself would find this quite ridiculous.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Dave

      Note that my comment is taking this quote from the article (which wasn't disputed in the article) at face value, and I don't know what else they may light the building up for:
      "Outside its practice of lightings for Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), the Empire State Building 'has a specific policy against any other lighting for religious figures or requests by religions and religious organizations,' "
      This sounds like a good policy that's in place to avoid accusations of bias (assuming people are reasonable, which unfortunately often isn't the case). Regardless, the last 2 sentences of the 1st comment are the real point & stand uncorrected.

      June 10, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
  12. Sean

    Fact: And the red and yellow lights displayed give tribute to China and Mao....

    June 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  13. stuntborg

    If events such as the 25th Anniversary of Crain's New York Business and Caribbean Tourism Week are commemorated in lights, I see no problem with Mother Theresa being acknowledged. Of course, who the hell would know it was? What would the colors be, blue and white? I'd think it was for the Yanks or some Jewish thing.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  14. Kevin

    I wonder if Bill Donohoue has become so caught up in Catholocism that he has forgotten about Christ entirely. Really? Protesting that the owners of a building wouldn't put lights on for Mother Teresa? Can you see Christ stomping his feet and protesting something so silly? I doubt it. Instead, Christ would be doing all he could to get the evil and corruption out of the church. And I bet Christ would have a few choice words for Donohue.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
    • SonsofLight

      Hi Kevin:

      Well said. It's my understanding that official catholic doctrine around witnessing/testifying specifically addresses this issue. When Christ proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, he never once tried to CONVINCE (not yelling here, just don't have the ability to type italics) people of anything. You never read or hear stories about Christ saying, "hey, wait a second, you don't understand..." then reiterating his statements. He said things once and left it up to people to exercise their free will to decide whether or not to believe him or take action. By taking such a strong, angry position, Mr. Donohue runs the risk of tarnishing the reputation RC Church in a same (but obviously far less dramatic) way as radical Islam tarnishing the reputation of all moslems. Mr. Donahue and Ms. Quinn should both be more careful and prudent.

      June 10, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
  15. Imbecile

    The world will be a better place when religions no longer hold any sway over public policy whatsoever and become nothing more than the private observances of the intellectually incurious.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
    • Russ

      Amen to that! (in a purely secular way)

      June 10, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
    • boocat

      A second "Amen" to that

      June 10, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  16. Barbara

    Haven't you got anything better to do to honor someone that you call a saint? It might have been nice but it would do no one any good nor is anyone harmed in the omission.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  17. Sofritico

    Mother Theresa's life-long confessor published her letters after her death. For more than half of her career, she no longer believed in God. Mother Theresa died an atheist and the Catholic Church spun that by saying that the fact that she was not a believer yet she did God's work proves that there is a God. The total breakdown of that logic notwithstanding, she did good work. There is no God. Anyone who has worked where she did with half a brain would have come to the same conclusion.

    I would have lit up something for her. She did good work. But she should not be thrust upon us a religious or saintly person. She died an atheist and lived that way for more than half her life. Read the book.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  18. arnab

    Instead of protesting and wasting time in from of the empire state building do some social work for the poor and the homeless.. that will be a true tribute to Mother Teresa

    June 10, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  19. Jayden

    I can see why Mother Teresa's admirers would be upset, but you shouldn't say something is anti-Catholic when you have clear evidence it isn't. If the Empire State Building lit up for a recent Pope and Archbishop, its leaders clearly don't have an anti-Catholic bias. Beyond that, part of owning a building is that you get to decide what you do with it. Anyway, if you read Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, you'll probably conclude she would have hated massive celebrations and buildings being lit in her honor. This is a woman who wanted all her letters burnt on her death.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  20. SonsofLight

    Mother Teresa spoke at the fortieth anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly in October 1985. On Christmas Eve of that year, Mother Teresa opened "Gift of Love" in New York, her first house for AIDS patients. In the coming years, this home would be followed by others, in the United States and elsewhere, devoted specifically for those with AIDS.
    Quoting an angry rep from a private NFP org called "The Catholic League" is not the same thing as quoting Roman Catholic canon or doctrine. Sounds like it would have been a less biased article if the "Catholic" angle was removed altogether. True, Mother Theresa was honored by the R.C. Church, but the real question is whether or not her acts of charity/causes warrant anniversary lights atop The ESB. Here are the facts: from the late 1980s through the 1990s, despite increasing health problems, Mother Teresa travelled across the world for the profession of novices, opening of new houses, and service to the poor and disaster-stricken. New communities were founded in South Africa, Albania, Cuba, and war-torn Iraq. By 1997, the Sisters numbered nearly 4,000 members, and were established in almost 600 foundations in 123 countries of the world. With that in mind: lights or no lights?

    June 10, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
    • Sarah

      The problem is that you can't effectively operate a clinic to fight HIV/AIDS if you are unwilling to give those who don't have the disease condoms. She could have saved so many more lives, but she refused to put her Catholic ideology aside and deal with the reality of the situation. Then when her own life was in danger, she opted to go to a secular and advanced hospital to seek help rather than go to one of her own clinics. I'm not saying she was a bad woman – she certainly tried very hard to be a good person. In either case, its not my decision to make as to whether the lights are turned on for her. It is Anthony Malkin's and he already made it so the debate is pretty irrelevant.

      June 10, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
    • Critical Thinker

      re: Sarah – "The problem is that you can't effectively operate a clinic to fight HIV/AIDS if you are unwilling to give those who don't have the disease condoms. She could have saved so many more lives, but she refused to put her Catholic ideology aside and deal with the reality of the situation. "

      To put it simply, saving souls is more important than "saving" lives (the latter of which is misleading, since only God Himself actually saves lives). Giving people condoms is imply enabling and encouring them to commit immoral acts. Will using condoms prolong their lives? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But at what expense? Better to teach them to control their passions so they won't be doing anything where they could use condoms.

      June 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.