MOTHER TERESA - A Biography by Meg Greene, chapter name “THE MOST OBEDIENT WOMAN IN THE CHURCH”


Even though Mother Teresa kept up her busy schedule, it was clear by the early 1990s that travelling from place to place, visiting many of the world’s most troubled spots, could not last forever. Beginning in 1989, her health began deteriorating. In September of that year, she suffered a near-fatal heart attack and underwent major surgery. The heart trouble was not new; she had first been diagnosed with it almost 15 years earlier. Still, she continued her frenetic pace.

After being fitted with a pacemaker in December 1989, Mother Teresa travelled to establish new homes for the Missionaries of Charity. But in 1991, she was hospitalized again, this time at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California, where she was treated for heart disease and bacterial pneumonia. Later, she took ill while visiting in Tijuana, Mexico, and doctors were forced to perform surgery to open a blood vessel.

Although increasingly frail, Mother Teresa did not slow down. Then, in 1993, while in Rome, she fell and broke her ribs. That July, she was hospitalized for two days in Bombay for exhaustion; not more than a month later, she was back in the hospital in New Delhi, this time for a malarial infection, which was further complicated by heart and lung problems. She was transferred to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where she recuperated in the intensive-care coronary unit. She was home in Calcutta for less than a month, when she was treated by doctors yet again, this time for a blocked heart vessel. Clearly, age and the years of deprivation, travel, and work were taking their toll on Mother Teresa’s health.



By 1990, given her ill health, Mother Teresa began giving serious thought to stepping down as head of the Missionaries of Charity. She even went as far as to inform Pope John Paul II of her intentions. Yet, she did nothing. Some people believed that Mother Teresa did not wish to relinquish control of the order she had founded. Others thought that she feared a sudden drop in donations if she stepped down. Therefore, it was crucial to the survival of the order and their mission that she remains at the helm.

Even among her supporters, Mother Teresa’s refusal to appoint a successor was troubling. For many, building up what had become a major institution with a tremendous amount of goodwill and money, but not looking ahead to the future seemed short-sighted and egocentric. Church leaders were also concerned; clearly, it was time for a younger, more vigorous leader to take over the order. Mother Teresa’s supporters also feared that the great goodwill she had built up would somehow be negated by her ill health. One supporter, working in the Vatican, also believed that, even if she stepped down, Mother Teresa would still stay involved in the order. She could concentrate on things such as daily administration and education, which did not require the exhaustive travelling that she did. For the time being, Mother Teresa would not consider even a partial retirement.

Thus, despite her ill health, Mother Teresa continued to respond to new crises around the world. She also continued to receive large financial donations from world leaders. For instance, Yassir Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, presented her personally with a

$50,000 check-in Calcutta, though he never commented on why he made such a generous donation to the Missionaries of Charity.

The last three decades had for the most part been very kind to Mother Teresa. She enjoyed public acclaim and was handled gently by the media. But the attitudes changed in the 1990s. Signalling the perceptible shift was the publication of Germaine Greer’s article about Mother Teresa’s ef- forts in Bangladesh almost 20 years earlier. There was also trouble when it was announced that a movie of Mother Teresa’s life was being planned. Slated to play her was British actress Glenda Jackson and the script was being written by Dominique LaPierre, who had written the best-selling book City of Joy, which described working with Missionaries of Charity. The proposed film even had the Vatican’s support, yet Mother Teresa declined to cooperate with the film project and never explained her decision. Newspaper and magazine profiles of her were now often less flattering, portraying her as demanding and egotistical. This was an only portent of what lay ahead.



On November 8, 1994, the switchboard operator at the British television station Channel Four was bombarded by over 200 calls. Many of the callers were irate viewers who had just finished watching a half-hour film called Hell’s Angel, produced by Pakistani-born Tariq Ali, a noted and controversial author and broadcaster. The angel was Mother Teresa, and the tempest surrounding the film, already generating controversy in pre-views, showed no sign of cooling down soon.

The film, which featured journalist Christopher Hitchens, made some accusations, many of which had been noted earlier by the British-born Hitchens in his writings for such well-known publications as Vanity Fair and the ultraliberal news magazine Nation. Among the many inflammatory statements Hitchens made was that “Mother Teresa has an easy way with thrones, dominions and powers,” and operated “as the roving ambassador of [the] highly politicized papacy”1 of Pope John Paul II. In addition,

Hitchens charged that Mother Teresa lends spiritual solace to dictators and to wealthy exploiters, which is scarcely the essence of simplicity, and she preaches surrender and prostration to the poor, which a truly humble person would barely have the nerve to do In a godless and

cynical age it may be inevitable that people will seek to praise the self-effacing, the altruistic and the pure in heart. But only a complete collapse of our critical faculties can explain the illusion that such a person is manifested in the shape of a demagogue, an obscurantist and a servant of earthly powers.2

The source of the film was actually Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, a Bengali physician living in London. Dr. Chatterjee, who was born and raised in Calcutta, was dismayed at the discrepancy between Mother Teresa’s work and the growing cult-like adulation of her in the West. In a letter written to the production company Bandung, Dr. Chatterjee also stated that Mother Teresa’s assets totalled more than those of many Third-World governments; and that in Calcutta, unlike the West, she was regarded as something of a nonentity. Chatterjee’s greatest objection, though, was in how closely intertwined Mother Teresa’s work and identity were with Calcutta, another misconception on the part of the West. Chatterjee pointed out that there were a number of other individuals and groups doing far more for the city’s poor than the Missionaries of Charity, and these groups were completely overlooked.

The production company was more than willing to listen to Chatter- jee’s proposal. The company had already, in its short existence, voiced some of the very same grievances that Chatterjee had described. Calcuttans were annoyed that Western journalists and filmmakers portrayed their city as a place that cared little for the poor, the sick, and the dying. In the 1991 film the City of Joy, for example, Calcutta was depicted as little more than a dark pit of misery and despair.

The decision to interview Hitchens might at first have seemed odd. But, in fact, he was already quite familiar with Mother Teresa, having first met her in 1980. In a 1992 article called the “Ghoul of Calcutta,” Hitchens described his first encounter with Mother Teresa, whom he described as the “leathery old saint.” He had stopped at the Missionaries of Charity facility on Bose Road and was immediately put off by the home’s motto “He That Loveth Correction Loveth Knowledge.” Despite his reaction, Hitchens agreed to go along on a walk with Mother Teresa. Initially, he was favourably impressed:

I was about to mutter some words of praise for the nurses and was even fumbling in my pocket when Mother Teresa announced: “You see, this is how we fight abortion and contraception in Calcutta.” Mother Teresa’s avowed motive somewhat cheapened the ostensible work of the charity and made it appear rather more like what it actually is: an exercise in propaganda.3

As harsh as that initial assessment was, Hitchens had an opportunity in the film to voice even more accusations. Against footage of Mother Teresa that showed her bent and looking down, Hitchens described her connection with the deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, from whom she accepted large financial donations. The footage was also shown off her laying a wreath at the grave of Enver Hoxha, the ruthless communist dictator of Albania, and meeting with notorious figures in the business world. According to Hitchens, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity grossed an annual income in the neighbourhood of tens of millions of dollars.

Hitchens also suggested, as had some of Mother Teresa’s other critics, that if the monies accumulated by the order were kept in Calcutta, chances are the order would certainly make much more of a difference in working with the poor. Instead, Mother Teresa spread her nuns and their money very thinly trying to open homes throughout the world. Further, Hitchens argued, Mother Teresa chose her convent and the church’s teachings over the work of her clinics.

According to the BBC, the Channel Four program did spectacularly: approximately 1.6 million viewers tuned in to watch. In the aftermath of the documentary’s airing, callers phoning the station called the program insulting, hurtful, offensive, obscene, untrue, obnoxious, shocking, and satanic. One viewer even went so far as to accuse the head of the station, Michael Grade, a Jew, of anti-Catholic bias, while both Hitchens and Tariq Ali were branded as Bolsheviks and Marxist revolutionaries. Other viewers believe the film was nothing less than the work of a Judeo-Muslim conspiracy.

The Roman Catholic Church understandably rallied to Mother Teresa’s defence, denouncing the program as a grotesque caricature of the woman and her work. Noted Catholic writer and historian Paul Johnson called the documentary a diabolical and malicious attack by left-wing propagandists. Another 130 viewers went so far as to lodge a complaint with the Independent Television Commission, which, after considering the matter, refused to sanction the station for broadcasting the film.

In Calcutta, several of Mother Teresa’s supporters rallied to her cause, calling the film biased. As of 2004, the film has yet to be shown in India, due in part to how expensive the film is to sell, though copies are available privately. Mother Teresa was undeterred by the controversy surrounding her. When asked about the film in an interview, she simply stated, “No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work.”4 However, the day after the program was shown, she did cancel a scheduled visit to Taiwan, but did not explain her reasons for doing so to anyone.

Despite the backlash against the film and Hitchens, there were those who applauded what the film tried to do. One reviewer writing for the Guardian stated that Hitchens was completely right in questioning what he called the “cult of Teresa.” Another supporter of the program was the Reverend Andrew de Berry, who had met Mother Teresa many years earlier when he was a chaplain-in-training. He recalled her telling an audience that she advised the women of Calcutta to have as many children as they wanted. De Berry then wrote that the experience stayed with him always, and undoubtedly many who died on the streets of Calcutta were the children of mothers who took Mother Teresa’s counsel.



After Hell’s Angel Hitchens published a small book that picked up where the film left off. In The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Hitchens hoped to elaborate on Mother Teresa and her work, by “judging Mother Teresa’s reputation by her actions and words rather than the actions and words by her reputation.”5 According to Hitchens, Mother Teresa’s shining reputation was put upon her by the millions of people who needed to feel that someone, somewhere, is doing the things that they are not to help the poor. Further, Hitchens charged, Mother Teresa fed on this adoration, and, contrary to what she says, has not only come to accept it but expects and even demands it.

Hitchens’s book posed some troubling questions. Among other things, Hitchens questioned how Mother Teresa spent the money she had raised. Hitchens could find no satisfactory answer, and Mother Teresa consistently refused to discuss her financial affairs. As Hitchens stated, “The decision not to [fund a proper hospital], and to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution which would expose itself to litigation and protest were it run by any branch of the medical profession, is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.”6

Mother Teresa’s apologists have often portrayed her as an innocent who professes to know little of business and politics, and who is concerned only with God and God’s will. In reality, as Hitchens points out, Mother Teresa kept some questionable company over the years. She has received hospitality, awards, publicity, and money from numerous persons with overt political motives or dubious business histories such as Robert Maxwell; the Duvaliers; President Ronald Reagan; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton; and Charles Keating, one of the key figures in the savings and loan scandal of the 1990s. The relationship with Keating was particularly galling. Keating made a generous donation to Mother Teresa as well as made his private jet available for her use. When Keating was imprisoned for fraud and embezzlement, Mother Teresa petitioned the trial judge to look kindly on him. When she received a reply from one of the prosecutors, explaining that the $10,000 she had received from Keating was stolen from innocent and not especially wealthy investors, Mother Teresa never answered the letter.

Hitchens maintained that such blatant and deliberate disregard for the truth on Mother Teresa’s part was not a sign of naiveté or even stupidity, but rather arrogance. Claiming to be above politics, Mother Teresa also had the benefit of an almost unprecedented public forum. But while speaking out against abortion in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, she remained noticeably silent on the topics of unlawful deaths, murders, and oppression in such political hotspots as Ethiopia, Haiti, and Albania, where she kissed the hands of ruling dictators and willingly took their money and their awards.

Her refusal to acknowledge the deep problems of poverty emerged in Hitchens’s description of a 1981 visit that Mother Teresa made to Ana- costia, an African American ghetto in Washington, D.C. At that time, the Missionaries of Charity intended to establish some sort of operation there, though many of the area’s residents did not want to give the impression that their neighbourhood was helpless and poor like many of the Third World areas in which Mother Teresa worked. Just before a press conference, a group of African American men visited Mother Teresa:

They were very upset... They told Mother that Anacostia needed decent jobs, housing and services—not charity. Mother didn’t argue with them; she just listened. Finally one of them asked her what she was going to do here. Mother said: “First we must learn to love one another.” They didn’t know what to say to that.7

Hitchens’s book, like the film, had its detractors and admirers. George Sim Johnston, writing for the American conservative publication The National Review, called Hitchens’s work “unresisting imbecility,” and added that “the only good that will come from this book is the prayers the nuns of Mother Teresa’s order are no doubt saying for its author.”8 The New York Times Book Review found that Hitchens’s book is, “zealously overwritten, and rails wildly in defence of an almost nonsensical proposition: that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is actually not a saint but an evil and selfish old woman.” Yet the reviewer concluded that Hitchens had a point: “Ultimately, he argues, Mother Teresa is less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.”9 The Sunday Times was even more succinct: “Veteran lefty kicks old nun; old nun forgives; lefty doesn’t want to be forgiven.”10

Mary Poplin, a journalist writing for Commonweal magazine, visited Calcutta in 1996. She was there to write about Mother Teresa and her work; she also took the opportunity to ask Mother Teresa about Hitchens’s book. According to Poplin’s account, when questioned about the charge that Mother Teresa was one of the wealthiest women in the world and that she certainly did not need any more money, Mother Teresa, after a puzzled look, replied, “Oh yes, the book. I haven’t read it but some of the sisters have. It matters not, he [Hitchens] is forgiven.” Poplin laughed and then said, “Yes, Mother, in the end of the book, he says he knew you said you forgave him and he’s irate because he says he didn’t ask you to forgive him and he didn’t need it.” She looked at me as though I hadn’t understood, then gently and confidently instructed me, “Oh, it is not I who forgives, it is God, it is God. God forgives.”11



The bitter arguments over Hitchens’s charges in both Hell’s Angel and The Missionary Position might have ended there if it had not been for other, more moderate voices also coming forward with their criticisms of Mother Teresa. Dr Robin Fox, a thoracic specialist and editor of the highly respected medical journal, The Lancet, wrote in 1994 of the poor medical facilities found at Nirmal Hriday in Calcutta. According to Fox, he was astonished to find that there were no simple testing procedures implemented to distinguish an incurable from a curable disease: “Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home Along with the

neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Teresa’s approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer.”12 Further, although it appeared that the poor in the facilities that the Missionaries of Charity operated could not receive even basic treatment, Mother Teresa herself had access to the most modern medical treatment in the world, especially when her heart problems came to light.

Not long after Dr. Fox’s criticism appeared, a thoughtful piece by Clif- ford Longley, a writer and former religious affairs correspondent for the London Times, warned of Mother Teresa’s reverence for death. Such an emphasis, Longley feared, threatened to turn suffering into a goal. In addition, many health workers who visited the clinics and listened to Mother Teresa’s views on abortion wondered how anyone who concerned themselves with the problems of the poor could not also be concerned with the problems of fertility, overpopulation, and other questions of re- productive health. The furore over Hell’s Angel had in fact opened up the debate over Mother Teresa’s work during the last 50 years; for the first time, opposition to her seemed to be emerging and hardening. Was Mother Teresa’s way of dealing with the poor outmoded as some of her critics charged, or, as some of her supporters suggested, would there always be the need for the kind of Christian charity Mother Teresa exemplified?

In her article “No Humanitarian,” Mary Poplin who spent two months working as a volunteer, described the rough conditions of Mother Teresa’s medical facilities:

Like many Western visitors, I initially found the experience disorienting. Despite Mother Teresa’s repeated reminders that the order’s mission is religious, not social work, most Westerners who visit the homes for sick and handicapped children expect them to look like medical clinics or hospitals. They don’t. Most shocking is the absence of hospital-like procedures and equipment. This can be particularly disconcerting for people who have worked in hospital settings in America and Eu- rope  Surely, given Mother Teresa’s fame, such equipment was available?  The Missionaries of Charity, one learns, resist owning anything, even medical equipment that is not widely available to the poor.13



By the mid-1990s, Mother Teresa was fighting not only ill health but also the growing criticism of her mission. Any ideas she may have had about retiring were now out of the question. Her seemingly contradictory actions and world fame had put her in an uncomfortable position. Yet, she also relied more fully on the advice and support of the other sisters, some of whom believed that Mother Teresa was trying to get her affairs in order. In May 1993, Mother Teresa travelled to Belgium where she was to help celebrate a gathering of Co-Workers. Because so many volunteers were going to attend the meeting in Antwerp, they decided to hold a meeting of the governing body to discuss a Co-Worker chapter that had been planned for San Diego the following year. Many believed the gathering in Antwerp would be a good opportunity to address the organization about some of her concerns.

Mother Teresa was scheduled to speak on May 8; however, the evening before, Brother Geoff, General Servant of the Missionary Brothers, announced to the assembly that allegations had been made against the Co-Workers for misuse of funds; monies that should have gone to the poor were thought instead to have been spent on Co-Workers’ travel expenses, newsletters, and postage. He then informed the stunned audience that Mother Teresa was going to dissolve the Co-Workers organization the next day and cancel the San Diego chapter.

The announcement came as a terrible shock to the group. But for those who had been with Mother Teresa almost from the beginning, her actions were in character. For those volunteers, working with Mother Teresa had always been a bit of a balancing act: on one hand, she could raise enormous amounts of money for the poor; on the other, she had no problem telling the Co-Workers that they could not make Christmas cards in order to raise money. This attitude formed the crux of Mother Teresa’s own concern over money; namely that it would become too central a preoccupation for the organization and its volunteers. First and foremost, the work was always to be about the poor. In the end, with the help of Brother Geoff, the Co-Workers convinced Mother Teresa not to disband the group.

Plagued by her physical ailments, Mother Teresa battled memory lapses, confusion, and a growing dependency on others. She no longer was as accessible as she had been in years past. For many volunteers, there was the question of whether these changes were hampering her judgment and influencing what they perceived as erratic behaviour and inconsistent decisions. Her supporters, however, maintained that Mother Teresa was simply reminding her volunteers not to lose track of their priorities: to live a simple life and maintain a deep spirituality and faith in God.

In September 1993, Mother Teresa received sad news; Father Van Exem, the priest who had reluctantly agreed to serve as her spiritual advisor over 50 years ago, had died. His death was a terrible blow to Mother Teresa for the two had become close friends. Because she was still recovering from her own illness, she could not attend his funeral but watched sadly from her bedroom window as the funeral procession made its way to St. John’s Cemetery for burial.

Shortly before his death, Father Van Exem wrote to Mother Teresa, telling her that he would be offering his prayers for the following inter- cessions: that she would recover from her latest illness of a blocked heart vessel without surgery; that she would travel to China by October of that year; and that God would take him, instead of her. And so it was at the end of October that Mother Teresa arrived in China to arrange for the opening of a home for children. Her visit was a quick one; she stopped in Shanghai and Beijing before going to Rome and then to Poland. She returned to China once more in March 1994 with the hope of opening a house for handicapped children. Her wish to establish the Missionaries of Charity failed; China, by 1994, was becoming less open and Mother Teresa turned her energies elsewhere.


Mother Teresa’s final years were touched by controversy. In February 1994, she attended a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. She did so reluctantly, having been invited by then-President Bill Clinton. She had been asked to speak and did so with much of her speech focusing on the topic of abortion. However, when she was finished, no one at the top table where the president was sitting applauded, though President Clinton later apologized. Mother Teresa did meet Hillary Clinton, who travelled with her daughter, Chelsea, to Calcutta the following year to visit one of the Missionary of Charity homes. With Mrs Clinton’s help, a children’s shelter operated by the order opened in Washington in June 1995.

Two other unhappy events in Calcutta ensnared Mother Teresa. In September 1995, a 15-year-old girl who lived on the city streets was cooking a meal. She overturned the fire and was badly burned. A local doctor found her some days later lying outside with third-degree burns and severe damage to one arm. He managed to get the young woman into a state hospital, but it became difficult to obtain the right medications for her. Her relatives removed her and she went back to living on the street. After a month, her wounds became severely infected and so her relatives searched for another facility.

By this time, the local press had gotten wind of the story. The Missionaries of Charity were contacted and they agreed to send an ambulance for the girl. She was first taken to Nirmal Hriday but was turned away because she was not dying. The next stop was to Shishu Bhavan, where she was turned away again, having been told that she was not an orphan and moreover was married with a child. Her next destination was Prem Dan, but again she was refused admission because she was not suffering from tuberculosis nor was she insane. In the end, the burn victim was deposited back on the street.

The story was a sensation and marked the first time any reporting carried a strong bias against Mother Teresa. One reporter asked Mother Teresa about the young woman’s predicament. To his astonishment, Mother Teresa said that she would not discuss the issue. Some told the re- porter that the girl should have been in a hospital, not in one of Mother Teresa’s homes. But, as the reporter later stated, his intent was never to ask Mother Teresa to take the girl, but to ask her why—when she had purportedly never refused anyone care or help—she would not admit the girl to one of her facilities. The young girl was eventually taken to another state hospital, but the story had done damage and for many caused considerable disillusionment with both Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity.

Not more than two months later, Mother Teresa again became embroiled in controversy, this time of a political nature. This incident also was the first time Church officials in India publicly criticized her, and where she faced the most sustained opposition to her work and philosophy. The situation was one of the few times in which Mother Teresa became involved in a contentious row that had severe international repercussions.



On November 18, 1995, Mother Teresa held special prayers at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi. The occasion was to launch a two-week fast and protest campaign demanding scheduled caste recognition for Christian Dalits. Caste is an important part of Indian society; it is not only a declaration of social status, it determines the course of a person’s life. People born into the highest caste of Indian society were those with property, money, education, and opportunities. The lowest level of Indian society were the Dalits or “untouchables.”

In India alone, close to 160 million so-called Dalits, or known legally as scheduled castes, were routinely discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused, even killed, at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoyed the state’s protection. The discrimination against and segregation of the Dalits has been called India’s “hidden apartheid,” and entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste.

Although the practice of “untouchability” was abolished under India’s constitution in 1950, social discrimination against a person or group by reason of birth into a particular caste remains very much a part of rural India. Untouchables may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by members of the higher castes. They may not use the same wells, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms, and Dalit women are frequent victims of sexual abuse. Most Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities for better employment or education. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India’s policy of quotas in education and government jobs, Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper-caste creditors.

It was the government provision that allowed a small number of Dalits access to government jobs that set off the firestorm. But Dalits who had converted to Christianity were denied this opportunity on the grounds that once a person converted to Christianity, the issue of caste is no longer important. It was also argued that Christian Dalits had other opportunities available such as studying in Christian schools. Christian Dal- it's argued that, in using these educational facilities, they were being denied the country’s resources that as citizens they should have access to. But, as others argued, if Dalits are Christians, they cannot be Dalits, as Christianity does not recognize the notion of caste. If they are Dalits, then they are Hindus, and, as far as Mother Teresa was concerned, she had little to do with them.

Mother Teresa’s involvement with the campaign had tremendous repercussions. Accused of trying to introduce the pattern of caste systems into Christianity at the expense of non-Christian Dalits, Mother Teresa called a press conference in which she stated that she had no idea what the prayer meeting was about. Her statements infuriated the organization sponsoring the event. The organization secretary stated that, in fact, Mother Teresa did know the purpose of the prayer meeting as it had been explained to her by the auxiliary bishop of the Delhi archdiocese.

In another time, an incident such as this would have rallied Mother Teresa’s supporters. Instead, she not only antagonized non-Christians but Christians as well. One church official went so far as to say that Mother Teresa, with her antiquated views on abortion and family planning, had become obsolete. She had, in fact, helped create a greater schism in a country already plagued by numerous divisions.



On March 13, 1997, the Missionaries of Charity took a long-awaited step: choosing a successor to head their order. The announcement ended months of speculation not only about Mother Teresa’s future but about who would succeed her. The discussions over the new leader had been deadlocked for weeks as the order struggled to find an acceptable replacement. Eventually, the members were forced to turn to Pope John Paul II who offered a compromise: Mother Teresa would stay on as spiritual and titular head of the Missionaries of Charity, while Sister Nirmala, a 63- year-old member of the order would take over the day-to-day duties of the group. It was also decided that she would hold the post for six years when the group would meet again to choose either a new head or reelect Sister Nirmala.

Despite the effort at compromise, the transition did not go smoothly. Within hours of Sister Nirmala’s appointment, Mother Teresa announced plans to create a number of new homes. Sister Nirmala did not object. She was by temperament timid and decided to maintain a low profile, even bypassing the title of “Mother” for the time being. Mother Teresa acted as if she were still in charge while giving her blessing to her successor.

Though her health was failing, Mother Teresa continued to travel, raise funds, and visit many of the new homes that the Missionaries of Charity established. But in March 1996, she fell out of bed and broke her collarbone. Yet, by June, she was travelling again, though she fell once more, this time severely spraining her ankle. In the meantime, her memory grew worse and lapses became more frequent.

In August 1996, Mother Teresa was once more admitted to the Wood- land’s Nursing Home in Calcutta. She was having trouble breathing and many believed that she was going to die. She rallied, though, and left the facility on September 6, against her doctors’ wishes. She then attended special services marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Missionaries of Charity. But two weeks later, she was back in the hospital after having fallen down the stairs at the Motherhouse. More of her days were spent in bed suffering from severe back pain.

Finally, in January 1997, Mother Teresa announced her decision to resign as mother superior of the order; her health was too precarious, and even she seemed to realize that she could no longer battle her ailments as she once had. However, in May, she did travel to Rome where she met with the pope and then to the United States where she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom in recognition for her work. She also made time to tour New York City’s the Bronx with Princess Diana.

The untimely death of Princess Diana three months later was one more loss to bear. Mother Teresa had become good friends with the young princess, often offering her advice. The two also talked of Mother Teresa’s work, and Princess Diana had made a point of visiting Nirmal Hriday when she came to India, years before. Mother Teresa’s remarks on the princess’ death were in fact her last public statements. On September 5, 1997, the eve of Diana’s funeral, Mother Teresa’s heart finally stopped. After a private service at the chapel of the Motherhouse, her body was transferred to a Missionary of Charity ambulance with the word “Mother” written across it, and taken to St. Thomas Church, which was used by the Loreto Sisters. Here, thousands of mourners crowded among the pews to pay their respects to the tiny nun. A week later, the Indian government held a state funeral for Mother Teresa. On September 13, her body was carried through the streets of Calcutta on the same gun carriage used to transport two of India’s greatest leaders and heroes: Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Thousands of mourners lined the streets as the carriage travelled to the Calcutta sports stadium where a state funeral mass was held; numerous dignitaries were in attendance to pay their respects. Af- towards, in a private ceremony, with soldiers firing their guns in the last tribute, Mother Teresa was laid to rest beneath a plain stone slab on the grounds of the Motherhouse located at A.J.C. Bose Road. Here, she is not far from the people she served and helped.



Six years after her death, Mother Teresa was back in the news. In 2003, it was announced that John Paul II, to help commemorate the 25th anniversary of his election to the papacy, would beatify Mother Teresa on October 19. The event marks the final step before canonization or official sainthood. It was a remarkable process in that no one has ever been beatified in so short a time as Mother Teresa. Yet, Vatican officials worked rigorously to treat her case as they would any other.

Even before her death, some officials in the Vatican thought she ought to be canonized without the usual investigation. Pope John Paul II even waived the usual five-year waiting period to see whether a candidate’s reputation for holiness is justified. For Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the task ahead was even more daunting; he was charged with coordinating the team that eventually put together 67 volumes arguing that Mother Teresa met all the requirements for sainthood. In addition, the church lawyers held 14 tribunals all over the world to hear testimony from people who knew Mother Teresa well. Nearly all were friendly witnesses who had to answer 263 questions that were used as evidence that Mother Teresa had manifested the virtues required of a Roman Catholic saint: faith, hope, and charity, as well as humility, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance to an extraordinary degree. Mother Teresa also had her critics: three non-Catholics testified against her, among them Christopher Hitchens.

In the end, Father Kolodiejchuk’s team concluded that Mother Teresa’s willingness to work with those who were morally and financially corrupt was in keeping with her own philosophy: using ill-gotten money to do good for the poor and also provide spiritual benefits for the donors. As to her failure to take a more aggressive stance against institutionalized injustice, the team sided with Mother Teresa. They argued that her mission was to help individuals and bear witness to the Divine presence in the world, not fight for social change.

As with all candidates for sainthood, the church required a divine sign in the form of a posthumous miracle. Many claims were submitted; the one chosen concerned a Hindu mother, Monika Besra, who came to the sisters suffering from a life-threatening stomach tumour. The sisters prayed to Mother Teresa for a cure and pressed a religious medal that she had touched to Besra’s abdomen. Five hours later, the tumour had completely disappeared.

The beatification ceremonies in Rome were only the beginning of a media and merchandising frenzy surrounding Mother Teresa’s eventual canonization. In Calcutta, Mother Teresa’s legacy was to be honoured with an international festival of films. The event was a first; no saint in the history of the Catholic Church has had an international festival of films held in their honour. Among the films scheduled to be shown were Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God, two-time Emmy Award winner Anne Petrie’s Mother Teresa—Her Legacy, Japanese director Shigeki Chiba’s Mother Teresa and Her World, Anna & Folco Terzani’s Mother Teresa’s First Love, and Dominique LaPierre’s In the Name of God’s Poor. The controversial 1994 Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta was also to be shown, but in the end was pulled.

In addition to the film festival, the Vatican issued special commemorative stamps of Mother Teresa. Factories churned out additional merchandise, including Mother Teresa rosaries, crucifixes, and key chains. According to one vendor, his factory is working full time to make 10,000 Mother Teresa rosaries, key chains, and other trinkets. A stage musical and an animated cartoon based on her life and works were to be presented as well. In one of the more bizarre, but also more historically familiar, ways of honouring a holy person, a display of Mother Teresa’s blood was planned. Today, Mother Teresa’s thoughts can still be found in the more than 20 books she coauthored to offer spiritual advice and guidance to people. Her order continues to be active and hard at work. Both the sisters and the brothers continue to thrive, though not experiencing the rapid growth of homes and foundations that marked the last 25 years of Mother Teresa’s life. More than 3,000 volunteers come to Calcutta every year, hoping to make a difference at least for a little while.

At the same time, the Missionaries of Charity have shown themselves to be a little more worldly, as they successfully copyrighted the name of Mother Teresa in 2003. The nuns said they sought the rights to Mother Teresa’s name, the name of their order, and its rosary-encircled globe logo to prevent them from being exploited by commercial interests. It is difficult to say what the future holds for the order; like many other religious orders, the changing climate of the times often forces changes if a religious group hopes to survive. There may be changes in the way the community lives or is administered. There may even be a subtle shift in how best to help the poor, but, as Sister Nirmala comes from a contemplative background—as opposed to a medical or social work emphasis—the direction of the Missionaries of Charity is carried out as Mother Teresa had originally envisioned it.



When asked to explain the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa once remarked, “We are first of all religious; we are not social workers, not teachers, not nurses or doctors, we are religious sisters. We serve Jesus in the poor.”14 With that statement, Mother Teresa made clear the mission of the order and to the best of her abilities lived her life following that simple premise.

Still, there is no question that for the last 20 years of her life Mother Teresa and her work were at times seriously misunderstood. She inspired many people not through powerful speeches or magnificent works but because she exemplified a way, imperfect as it was at times, of using the power of love to heal and save. As journalist Mary Poplin pointed out, the key to understanding Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity is the sacredness with which they treat all people and their humble way of carrying out their work. To the Missionaries of Charity, Jesus is present in everyone they meet whether it is a young volunteer from New Jersey or an old Muslim woman starved and half-eaten by rats and worms, or the deformed infant just born and left in a garbage heap. Christ is present in everyone, but most especially in the poorest of the poor. From the very beginning, Mother Teresa and her order reached out to treat each person they encountered as they would Jesus Christ. Thus, they performed each task for the benefit of the poor as they would do it for Christ. In other words, it is Jesus’ diapers they wash, his meals they prepare, his ailing body they tend, and his hand being held.

On closer inspection, Mother Teresa appeared a contradiction, a walking paradox, and later, a woman out of step with the times. But that assessment dismisses her and her work much too easily. Mary Poplin, the journalist who volunteered for the Missionaries of Charity, tried to ex- plain her understanding of Mother Teresa:

Many writers have depicted Mother Teresa as someone who saw the poor and responded sympathetically to their needs. That is not quite the case. Mother Teresa served the poor not because they needed her but because God called her to the work. She was obedient to God’s call, not to her social conscience. She often remarked that if God had told her what was to happen after she picked up the first dying person off the Calcutta street, she would never have done it, for she would have been too afraid.15

Mother Teresa called herself “a pencil in God’s hand.” What she meant was that she was simply God’s instrument and she did only his bidding, re- lying on his providence to provide for her order and the poor. Part of her success lay in her ability to tap into and inspire a large number of volunteers, many of them young men and women who needed help. Quite often, it was the more knowledgeable and qualified volunteers who had the most trouble working with and understanding Mother Teresa. But for many young people who had only high ideals but were not sure how to put those ideas into practice, Mother Teresa and her work were a good match. No matter if they stayed an hour, a week, or a year, they were always welcomed. For in the time they stayed, these volunteers made a difference to those around them and Mother Teresa was grateful for their gifts. For others, Mother Teresa was unique, not because of her work with the poor, but because for many people, she was doing what they wished to do. She was what they were not.

Her legacy is strong; at the time of her death, there were more than 4,000 sisters in the Missionaries of Charity, along with 400 brothers and thousands of others who have volunteered as Co-Workers, Lay Missionaries of Charity, and Missionaries of Charity Fathers. It is through these volunteers that Mother Teresa’s spirit lives on. Yet, Mother Teresa had her flaws as well: she was stubborn, difficult to work with, and demanding. Perhaps she needed those qualities to carry out the work to which she believed God had called her. But Mother Teresa was also a woman who sang Happy Birthday to Jesus at Christmas, who regarded all life as holy, and who saw the face of God in the face of every human being she encountered. For Mother Teresa, her works came not from the strength of her intellect, but of the great power and love she had in her heart.




    1. Anne Sebba, Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 122.
    2. “Mother Teresa Dies,” BBC Politics 97, news/09/0905/teresa.shtml (accessed October 13, 2003).
    3. Christoper Hitchens, “Ghoul of Calcutta,” Nation, April 13, 1992, p. 474.
    4. “Mother Teresa: A Profile,” CNN Interactive, WORLD/9709/mother.teresa/profile/ (accessed October 15, 2003).
    5. Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory and Practice (New York: Verso, 1995) p. 7.
    6. Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position, p. 41.
    7. Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position, p. 10.
    8. George Sim Johnston, “Mother Teresa and the Missionary Position,” review of The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens in National Review, December 25, 1995, p. 58.
    9. Bruno Maddox, “The Missionary Position,” review of The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens in The New York Times Review of Books, January 14, 1996.
    10. Robert Kee, “The Missionary Position,” review of The Missionary Position

by Christopher Hitchens in The Sunday Times, November 10, 1995, p. 25.

    1. Mary Poplin, “No Humanitarian,” Commonweal, December 19, 1997, pp. 11–14.
    2. Parvathi Menon, “Mother Teresa,” Frontline: India’s National Magazine, September 20–October 3 1997, 14190170.htm.
    3. Mary Poplin, “No Humanitarian,” pp. 11–14.
    4. Nelson Graves, “Mother Teresa No Stranger to Controversy,” Reuters: New York, August 24, 1996, WOPrimo.woa/20/wo/JW75gJ4TBP1s3EEW9q71laknBdo/
    5. Mary Poplin, “No Humanitarian,” pp. 11–14.