Ten years on since her passing away, Mother Teresa’s life story remains a study in humanity. It’s time to reflect on her monumental achievements, as well as to take stock of how the Missionaries of Charity, the order she founded in 1948, is fending for itself. Wherever I travel within the country, I hear tales about people’s encounters with the Mother. As her biographer, every anecdote helps shape my own perceptions.
Mother Teresa founded her order with a vow to serve only the poorest of the poor. Having witnessed the growth of her organisation, I was anxious how the Missionaries of Charity, which had created a presence in over 120 countries, would survive after Mother Teresa passed on. She was charismatic and the funds flowed in plentifully, helping her to expand on her work.
Believing that funds would shrink, and that fewer young men and women would be drawn into joining the order, I had mentioned this to a Sister in the Missionaries of Charity whom I knew well, and who looked after the institutions in North India. She replied spontaneously that it did not matter at all. “Instead of looking after 15 houses [institutions], I will look after ten, and may be I will look after them even better!”
As her biographer, I decided to broach this with Mother Teresa herself. The first time, she did not answer, and simply pointed a finger heavenwards. When I raised the matter some weeks later, she smiled and said, “Let me go first.” I persisted, and then she said “You have been to so many of our houses in India and abroad. Everywhere the Sisters wear the same saris, eat the same kind of food, do the same work. Mother Teresa is not everywhere. Yet the work goes on.” Then she added, “As long as we remain committed to the poorest of the poor and do not end up serving the rich, the work will prosper.”
When I made an assessment last year, I found that the Missionaries of Charity’s presence had extended to almost 135 countries, and the number of men and women joining the Order had not diminished.
But that is only part of the answer. Whether the institution itself grows or not is not the core issue. This is an order that reaches out to destitutes everywhere — from abandoned babies and old people, from the leprosy-affected in Asia and Africa, to Aids patients in the US, and to the lonely and hungry in some of the most desolate streets of Europe. What is important to the Sisters are not only the numbers that they feed, but those whom they can comfort.
Mother Teresa once told me about a woman living in a bedsitter in London who used to write postcards to herself so that she could show her neighbours that she was not abandoned by her family. She looked forward to the weekly visits of the Sisters, who would help in tidying up her room, cook her some food and comfort her in her loneliness, which Mother Teresa called the “leprosy of the West”.
For the Mother and her Sisters, comforting one individual was more important than “getting lost in numbers”. Meanwhile, the leprosy-affected in India had a very special place in her heart. I have often visited Titagarh outside Kolkata where the Sisters run an institution which is a small township of the leprosy-affected. For years they have been provided medication so that there is no active disease left. But having faced the stigma for so long, they live apart from ‘normal’ people. The Sisters keep them busy. All the saris that the Missionaries of Charity Sisters wear are woven on their looms.
In my second meeting with Mother Teresa in 1975, the subject on her mind that morning was leprosy. She had come to request the Lt Governor of Delhi, whose secretary I was at that time, for some land in the heart of the leprosy colonies of Delhi, so that she could build a hospital and dormitories, and more importantly, engage them in activities so that they did not have to beg for a living.
My association with that colony — and with their healthy children — has remained during these 32 years, more than half my life. Some of those children, many now parents themselves, whom I had assisted to get employment in different areas of government or in private jobs, have amply demonstrated what a single nun’s vision can do to transform their lives by simply bringing them health, opportunity and dignity.
Navin Chawla, an Election Commissioner of India and a former IAS officer, is the author of Mother Teresa: The Authorised Biography.