A transparent, white plastic box, placed on Mother Teresa’s tomb at Mother House in Kolkata is nearly filled to the brim with little pieces of paper. As the time for the Friday Mass draws near, more visitors start scribbling hurriedly on the slips of blank paper kept near the box and dropping them inside. “Those coming to Mother House write their intentions (or wishes) on paper and put them inside this box for Mother’s blessings. During the special mass on Fridays, the day Mother passed away, we ask the priest to bless all the intentions and pray for them,” explains one of the nuns.
The founder of the Missionaries of Charity will be canonised at the Vatican on September 4. But the nun who stepped out of Loreto in 1948, and made it her life’s mission to work for the “poorest of the poor” around the world has for years been revered as a ‘saint’ by the people whose lives she touched. Sister Bernadette, 78, of Loreto Calcutta remembers a chance meeting with Mother Teresa at the Kolkata airport years ago. “People at the airport kept coming to her and asking for her blessing. She had a paper and she would write God bless you and sign her name on it. She said, ‘you see this, I am putting them in God’s hands’,” remembers the nun.
The Simple Joys of Life
Those who knew her well, lived and worked with her, remember the person behind the public face. “She had a great sense of humour. She would always be joking and when she found something funny, she would place both hands on her hips and bend double with laughter,” remembers former chief election commissioner of India and Mother Teresa’s biographer Navin B Chawla.
A nun of the Loreto order, 82-year-old Sister Eithne, recalls that same spirit in one of her meetings with Mother Teresa. “I remember meeting her here in this house (Loreto House, Kolkata). She came to meet the community, her old friends. What I remember about that meeting is that there was great laughter and fun,” she says.
While her avowed mission remained to care for the destitute, everyone around her felt enriched by her love. “She always had time for everybody,” says Father Dominic Gomes, vicar-general of the archdiocese of Calcutta. “After I was ordained, I was asked by the Church to go for my higher studies to Rome. I needed a passport. I made so many rounds of different offices and nothing was working out,” he remembers. “One day I was at Mother House and Mother noticed that I looked very sad, and she asked me what was the matter. I told her I had been trying to get my passport made for the past three months without any success. She immediately said give all your documents to me. To my surprise, the next day I had my passport.”
Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity remember how their superior cared for them the same way that a mother would. Sister Tarcisia, who joined St Teresa’s primary school in Kolkata as a six-year-old when Mother Teresa was the in-charge, talks of her “motherly” affection. “She knew that my health was not strong, so whenever there was some heavy work to be done, moving a table for instance, she would push me out of the way.” This from a woman who her biographer recalls as being habitually unmindful of her own health. “ She often chose to ignore the advice of Dr Bardhan, her long-standing cardiologist in Calcutta,” remembers Chawla. “Mother Teresa needed a pacemaker at some point of her life and she was forbidden by the doctor to even go down the stairs. One day I was with her and there was a telephone call. And she said I am going to Bangladesh. There’s a cyclone there, I have got to go. I reminded her of her doctor’s orders and she said I will tell him later,” says Chawla.
There are as many anecdotes about Mother Teresa, as the number of people who came into contact with her. Father Felix Raj, principal of the St Xavier’s College in Kolkata remembers her great love for students. Photographer Raghu Rai talks about how she could be tough when needed, but would change if she found reason in what was being said. Recalling his first meeting with her, sometime in the 1970s, he says, “Even at that time, the Missionaries of Charity were quite strict about giving access to photographers and journalists.” When Rai happened to see three nuns in prayer through the movement of a half curtain behind Mother Teresa, he started taking their photos. On being questioned by Mother Teresa as to what he was doing, Rai answered, “Mother, there are these sisters praying and they look like angels.” “How you melted, Mother, and accepted that moment,” he recalls.
Chawla talks of her immense will and how she would go to any length for her work. In one of his initial meetings with Mother, when he was secretary to the Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Delhi, he remembers that she had come to ask for land to build a facility for the leprosy-affected in the city. “I asked her how much land she needed and she looked at me and said five acres. Then we went to see the LG and she told him in detail about the plight of these people and the LG was so moved he was nearly in tears. He also asked her how much land she required and she looked at me with an impish smile and said ten acres! Because she had won him over she got 11 acres. And I saw this in country after country, situation after situation. If Mother Teresa could cajole anything out of anyone for her poor, she had no hesitation in doing so,” he says.
The Nay Sayers
This very attitude of her, however, in indiscriminately accepting help for her mission has been used by her critics against her, the most vocal of whom had been British journalist Christopher Hitchens. In a documentary titled Hell’s Angel - Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Hitchens questioned Mother Teresa’s meetings and closeness with certain political heads of states and business tycoons of questionable repute and in some cases her acceptance of funds or trophies from them. Notable among these were Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier and American activist and businessman Charles Keating. Hitchens’ allegations are echoed by Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku, who wrote in an article, “Mother Teresa did not serve the poor in Calcutta, she served the rich in the West. She helped them to overcome their bad conscience by taking billions of dollars from them,” and felt that Mother had given a bad name to Calcutta by portraying it as a city of hopelessness and death. Chawla admits that in all likelihood, she did meet Michelle Duvalier, Jean-Claude Duvalier’s wife. “It was true of Mother Teresa that whoever could do her work, she would go there and try and get work done for her poor. I did ask her once how is it that you take money from these dubious people. And she said how is it different from the thousands who come to feed the poor in all my homes. I don’t look into their antecedents. Whoever they may be they have a right to give in charity and I have no right to judge them. God will judge them,” he says.
That Cult Following
Hitchens traced the root of Mother’s global popularity and adulation to journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s devotional representation of her in the book Something Beautiful for God. But he and those he interviewed in Hell’s Angel accused Mother Teresa of “admiring the strength of the powerful almost as highly as she recommends resignation of the poor”. He gave the example of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, an industrial disaster in India, when Mother Teresa’s advice to the victims had been to “forgive” the multinational company responsible for it. Writer and journalist Mihir Bose whom Hitchens interviewed in the film felt Mother Teresa “ accepted implicitly that there’s nothing you can do for the poor except take them off the streets and look after them. You cannot change their attitude, you cannot make them feel that they have an ability or the means to improve and change their lives”. Father Felix Raj answers the accusation. “People have criticised Mother and said instead of giving a fish why don’t you teach these people how to fish. She answered, ‘okay fine I am capable of giving a fish but why don’t you start teaching others how to fish. Then both of us participate in the mission’,” he says.
Watch | Kolkata’s saint: Mother of the Poor
Foreign physicians who visited the Missionaries of Charity homes in Calcutta have written of poor medical care given to the people there, including a lack of distinction between curable and incurable diseases, no use of pain relief medication and lack of proper sterilisation of medical tools, including needles. It is an allegation also voiced by writer and former volunteer at Missionaries of Charity, Mary Loudon, in Hell’s Angel. But Mother Teresa’s supporters explain it as their lack of understanding of her mission. “I think they are giving the best possible treatment wherever it is. It is true that when the sisters feel no medical care will help... what is the need of shifting him to the hospital when he may die on the way. At that moment you try to help the person, not shift him to a medical facility,” says Father Felix Raj.
Less easy to justify is her religious non-acceptance of abortion and birth control measures and here even Chawla admits that he disagreed with her views. So deeply religious herself, did she ever try to convert anyone to her faith, another criticism levelled against her? “She has not converted even one in terms of religion. But she has converted all, including me, her conversion is the conversion of the heart,” says Father Felix Raj. Chawla explains that Mother never felt the need to convert the destitute because for her every suffering person she picked up from the street was her God.
For herself and her sisters though, prayer and devotion to Jesus was sacrosanct. Stepping out of the comfort of Loreto House into the Calcutta of 1948, a city torn by post-partition strife and recovering from the famine of 1943, needed some courage. “In the beginning there was no money, even for food. And she had to feed the 12 women who joined her order. She would beg for rice and sprinkle some salt on it. And then she would pray and someone would send vegetables. In the early days she strengthened her capacity to pray,” says Chawla.
Rai remembers her words to the authorities during the refugee crisis when people started arriving to Calcutta across the borders from Bangladesh. “My sisters will put up with everything; they will spend all their time, and do their duty, but they will have to come back every evening for their prayers to rejuvenate their spiritual energies,” Mother had said to the officer in charge of relief operations.
Talking of the first time that he met Mother way back in 1975, Chawla, talks of her trademark white sari with the blue border, which she chose over a nun’s habit in 1948. “She was bent over, even then, and when she turned, I noticed that her sari, which was clean and shining, was darned in several places,” he says. For Mother Teresa, that sari was more than a garment. It was a promise from Jesus that “your sari will become holy because it will be my symbol”.
For the world though, that sari came to symbolise and contain in its folds a love and compassion that was almost beyond human. In later years artists such as MF Husain would use it to symbolise her. His paintings of her were without facial features. Perhaps the artist in him saw in her the embodiment of that universal motherhood, that those close to her felt in her embrace.
- August 26, 1910: Born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, in Skopje, Macedonia in a devout Catholic family. At the age of 12, she felt a call to help the poor.
- November 28, 1928: Left home to join the Loreto Convent in Dublin, Ireland. It was here that she was given the name Sister Mary Teresa.
- January 1929: Traveled to Darjeeling, India, for the novitiate or training period.
- May 1931: Made her First Profession of Vows.
- 1931: Sent to Kolkata, where she was assigned to teach at Saint Mary’s High School for Girls, a school dedicated to girls from the city’s poorest Bengali families.
- May 24, 1937: Took her final profession of vows and as customary, took the title of ‘Mother’.
- 10 September, 1946: Mother Teresa was travelling to Darjeeling from Calcutta when she felt her second calling, which she termed as a ‘call within a call’. She said that Christ had spoken to her and told her to abandon teaching to work in the slums of Kolkata and serve the city’s poor.
- 7 October, 1948: The Missionaries of Charity was established.
- 1979: Mother Teresa was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work "in bringing help to suffering humanity."
- March 1980: She received the Bharat Ratna for her work
- September 5, 1997: After prolonged illnesses of heart, kidney and lungs, Mother Teresa died at 9:30 PM at the Mother House in Kolkata.
- October 19, 2003: Mother Teresa was beatified by Pope John Paul II after her miracle was recognised by the Vatican.
- December 17, 2015: A decree issued by Pope Francis recognised a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, thus, making her eligible to be canonised as a saint.
- September 4, 2016: Mother Teresa will be declared a saint by the Pope in a special ceremony.