Mother Teresa’s Legacy is Under a Cloud

Mother Teresa’s legacy of compassion finds itself under a very critical public scanner today

They call her the ‘Angel of Mercy’. She was compassion incarnate; she didn’t think twice before touching a leper on the road or cleaning a festering wound on an unfortunate soul. She was equally at ease breaking bread with the homeless at Nirmal Hriday or standing toe-to-toe with world leaders exhorting them to do good. She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in faraway Albania a 100 years ago on August 26. The world knows her as Mother Teresa. Social workers all around the world have drawn inspiration from her work and commitment to her cause. Yet, today in her centennial year, her legacy has lost its shine and is in disrepair.

When one pays a visit to Mother House, the heart of the 58-year-old Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, one doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Sisters in the well recognised blue-bordered white saris go about their work. Locals come in ones and twos, bow in front of a statue of the woman they fondly call Maa and go inside the small chapel where her body has been resting for 13 years. In the chapel a group of sisters are kneeling, singing hymns. Located in one of the lanes of Taltala, home to lower class workers in west Kolkata, it is calm and pious, a world away from the cacophony outside on the busy A.J.C. Bose road.

But the cacophony is threatening to spill inside the Missionaries. Followers and volunteers are questioning the quality of service given in the care centres. They feel the Missionaries’ care centres are allergic to using modern-day therapy and technology to care for the inhabitants. Often untrained volunteers are given tasks that would normally require one to be trained in medicine and therapy. Missionaries has always kept change at bay. But in a world where it is very difficult to hide behind secrecy, the number of disillusioned followers is increasing. Missionaries doesn’t keep a tab on the financial transactions that take place. No one other than the sisters knows where the money that is donated is spent. Donations continue to pour in but people are asking for transparency on how the money is used.

The discord is most pronounced in the first home that Mother Teresa set up in 1952 — Nirmal Hriday, the Home for Dying Destitutes. A former rest house for followers from the nearby temple of Goddess Kali, the Home is a perfect picture for the work that Missionaries is known for. Disabled, disfigured and homeless men and women, many of whom are living their last days, find shelter here. It presently has 99 inmates, served by six sisters and dozens of volunteers, mostly young foreigners. The poor are bathed, clothed and fed until they recover and leave, or die. “Over the years, 86,170 people have been admitted. Of which 34,815 died,” says Sister Glenda, the head of Nirmal Hriday. It was Mother’s favourite home.

Disillusion
It is the kind of work that inspired Hemley Gonzalez, who lived on the other side of the world in Miami, United States. A migrant from Cuba, Gonzalez had grown up in a poor neighbourhood and was inspired after reading a biography of Mother Teresa. “I wanted to come to India and serve in Kalighat (the place where Nirmal Hriday is situated),” he recounts over the phone. Gonzales, who runs a real estate business in Miami, reached Kolkata in December 2008 and stayed for two months.

“I was shocked to see the negligence. Needles were washed in cold water and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates. There were people who had chance to live if given proper care,” says Hemley. He narrates incidents of an untrained volunteer wrongly feeding a paralysed inmate, who choked to his death; and another where an infected toe of an inmate was cut without anesthesia. “I have decided to go back to Kolkata to start a charity that will be called ‘Responsible Charity.’ Each donation will be made public and professional medical help will be given,” says Hemley, who now runs a campaign on Facebook called ‘Stop Missionaries of Charity,’ and has over 2,000 members.

“We should remember that Mother Teresa was clear that Missionaries of Charity was not operating a hospital. The homes are to serve the poor and give them the basic needs,” says Sunita Kumar, wife of former India Davis Cup coach Naresh Kumar and one who has been working with Missionaries’ sisters for over four decades.


But this reasoning that has evoked harsh reactions. “What stops them from starting a hospital? Surely, money is not a problem,” asks Aroup Chatterjee, a London-based critic of Missionaries of Charity. Chatterjee wrote a controversial book Mother Teresa – The Final Verdict in 2002 and collaborated with British writer and well known Mother Teresa-critic Christopher Hitchens to produce a documentary called Hell’s Angel for Channel 4.

Apart from the hospital, volunteers also cite the need for a well-planned rehabilitation for the sick who go back to the streets once they recover. “Some were sent back to the streets of their own will, but some against it,” says a European volunteer who has been coming to Nirmal Hriday since 2006. She cites the example of an “old lady” suffering from diabetes and incapable of walking. “We were told she was sent to another centre outside Kolkata but just few days later someone saw her on the street close to our centre… We were worried but could not do much.”

Sister Glenda clarifies that professional help is never avoided. “Look at Buddhni Bakshi,” she says pointing to a bald teenage girl sleeping on a stretcher. “She was abandoned by her parents because the wound in her head used to stink badly. When she came here, we did tests at a local hospital that showed a tumour in her head. We spent Rs. 4 lakh for the surgery and now she is fine,” adds Sister Glenda. The initiative to get professional help, say former volunteers, is a change.

Allergic to Change
Change is something that Mother House has tried to limit as much as possible, say people close to Mother House. The sisters continue to live a life that Mother Teresa followed. Their days begin at 4.30 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. They have three changes of cloth and wear one till it can’t be repaired anymore. Correspondence is still through fax and mobiles are absent. Sisters don’t get any pocket money, visit their homes once a decade and write letters once a month.

The sisters themselves reiterate that the lifestyle is important so that the poor can connect with them and approach them without hesitation. While the scholastic life brings admiration and respect, the resistance to change, especially in their services, also evokes criticism of being “out of sync with changing times.” Gonzalez questions why money can’t be used to improve the service at the homes run by the sisters. “Even the inmates soiled and infected clothes are washed by hands. Why can’t they buy a washing machine?” he asks.

It has become a sensitive issue since 2005 when a British television crew filmed children at Daya Dan, a care centre, tied to their beds. Questions arouse about the “primitive practices and lack of using modern methods of teaching.” The incident forced Mother House to release a statement saying, “We value constructive criticism and admit that there is always room for improvement.” Volunteers, who come in dozens from countries like Spain and Italy, have separately narrated incidents about sisters resorting to “shaking violently” or “beating” to discipline the challenged children.

Recent developments though indicate a fresh thinking. “Hygiene has been an issue but has improved as sisters opened to better standard through volunteers from Western countries,” says Father Robin Gomes who has been working with the Missionaries of Charity for more than 20 years. At Daya Dan, which also runs a dispensary for the poor twice a week, sisters in apron and gloves (a change from earlier days) go about like trained nurses.

A bigger change at the centre is in the way the 60 mentally and physically challenged children are taken care of. “We now have speech therapists and physiotherapists coming in regularly who look after the children,” says Sister Karina, a Mexican nun who has been heading Daya Dan for one year. The therapists also help train sisters and volunteers and a few of them are sent to training institutes for week-long classes.


Money Matters
It is good news about some of the changes. Unfortunately, we are still in the dark when it comes to their financial records,” says Gonzalez. The donation issue first came up in the early 1990s when it was revealed that Charles Keating, an American banker known for the infamous “saving and loan scandal,” had donated up to $1.25 million to Missionaries of Charity. Amidst calls to return the money, Mother Teresa controversially chose to remain silent, an incident that is still sited by her critics who demand transparency.

In early 2000, Susan Shields, a former Missionaries sister who left the organisation “unhappy”, created a furore by saying she herself had “written receipts of $50,000” in donation but there was no sign of the “flood of money.” Forbes India talked to a volunteer in the Los Angeles office of Missionaries of Charity who admitted that “even when bread was over at the soup kitchens, none was bought unless donated.” A report in German magazine Stern, revealed that in 1991 only seven percent of the donation received at Missionaries of Charity was used for charity. Former volunteers and people close to the Mother House revealed that the Vatican, home to the Pope, has control over the “monetary matters” ever since Missionaries of Charity came under its fold in 1965. The control got stronger after Mother Teresa died in 1997.

When asked about how much money the Charity gets annually, the then superior general Sister Nirmala in a rare media interview a few years ago remarked “Countless.” When asked how much it was, she answered, “God knows. He is our banker.” Forbes India’s request for details was turned down at the Mother House. Sister Mary Prema, the present superior general, did not agree to a meeting.

Missing Mother
Father Sebastian Kuzhipala worked with Mother Teresa in her last 10 years and admits that “Missionaries of Charity misses Mother’s charisma. Other than being very simple and having high moral values, Mother Teresa was a strict disciplinarian, a smart organiser. She understood the influence she had over people but used that for the right purpose.”

Mother Teresa’s relationship with the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, himself a convent school product, was famous. A “sick Mother Teresa” stormed into a slum to prevent local administrators from razing homes built for the slum dwellers. When asked why she was interfering, Mother Teresa famously replied, “This is my home. What is of the poor is mine and what is mine, is for the poor.” She made a call to Chief Minister’s house and the razing was stopped.

“To quote the Bible, she was “as cunning as a serpent and as innocent as a dove,’” says Father Gomes. “Like all organisations that were headed by famous people and suffer after they leave, Missionaries of Charity has a void. At the same time, the sisters at Missionaries of Charity continue the work that she had done. Every time you see the blue bordered sari, your remember Mother Teresa,” he adds.

The association has worked well for Missionaries of Charity. The number of homes and sisters, despite a drop in those coming from India, has increased since 1997. Realising the importance early, the late Pope John Paul VI made sure that a council of sisters was formed before Mother Teresa died. That council, consisting of senior sisters, now runs the organisation and also recommends amongst itself the next head. This is then cleared by the Vatican. In its last meeting in March 2009, the council elected Sister Mary Prema as the new superior general of Missionaries of Charity. A German native, Sister Prema has been seldom seen publicly and few know her outside the Mother House. This, say observers, while keeping intact Mother Teresa as the face of the organisation even after her death, has also led to the disconnect with the local people. One indicator of this disconnect might be the almost complete absence of Indians among the volunteers.

After her beatification, after which she is officially called Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the process is on now in the Vatican to bestow Mother Teresa with sainthood. In a 1989 interview with Time magazine, when asked about the future of the Order, Mother Teresa had replied that it was Jesus’ concern.

Now would be the right time for God to take a closer look.