MOTHER TERESA - A Biography by Meg Greene, chapter name KALIGHAT



On a rainy day in 1952, a young boy, no more than 13 or 14 years old, lay dying on a neighbourhood street. He appeared to be one of the many beggar children who are found in the streets of Calcutta. Naked and emaciated, the boy’s limbs looked more like matchsticks than arms or legs. A concerned resident called the ambulance, which took the boy to a nearby hospital. The hospital, already overcrowded, refused to help. Instead, the boy was dumped in a Calcutta street gutter where he died alone and unknown. At some point, the city sent a van or a cart to haul the body away. Although such scenes were common in Calcutta, a local newspaper picked up the story of the dead boy and heightened public attention to the dying poor.

Mother Teresa was no stranger to the problem. In the increasing number of talks she gave to the public about her congregation, she related a very similar story. One day, when she and another sister were just beginning their work, they encountered what appeared to be a bundle of rags lying on a street. As they approached, they realized, to their horror, that the bundle was not just ragged, but a middle-aged woman, half-conscious, her face half-eaten away by rats and ants.

Together, Mother Teresa and her companion carried the woman to the nearest hospital. The nurses refused to take the woman, claiming the hospital had no beds. When Mother Teresa asked hospital officials where she could go, they told her to take the woman back where she had found her. Frustrated, Mother Teresa refused to leave until she had a promise that the hospital would make room for the sick woman. In the end, hospital authorities relented and gave the dying woman a mattress on the floor.

She died a few hours later with Mother Teresa by her side. It was then, Mother Teresa told her audiences, that she had decided to find a place for the dying and take care of them herself.



“When Mother Teresa began her work in the slums,” recalled one sister, “we often found people dying or sometimes dead.”1 When possible, the sisters took the ailing person to the hospital, where more often than not they were turned away. Often there was no place to take them at all, leaving the sisters unable to offer anything else except comfort and company until the person died. At one point, Mother Teresa rented two rooms for five rupees each in the Motijihl slum. But the space, only eight feet square, could not even begin to hold the numbers of dying people who needed help; at best only two to three persons could be accommodated, leaving little room for the sisters to tend to them. When one of the patients died during the night, the others, now fearful, fled. Undaunted, the sisters continued to bring the sick and dying to the two rooms, while praying that they could find a larger building adequate to their needs.

Mother Teresa also realized that, if she were to realize her goal of establishing a home for the dying, then she needed more than prayers. Determined, she went to the city’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ahmed. Explaining her desire to him, Mother Teresa promised that if he would help her find a place, she would do the rest. The doctor, well aware of Mother Teresa’s growing reputation, treated her request seriously. By offering to help, Mother Teresa and her nuns would be relieving some of the already heavy burden the city faced in dealing with dying people on the streets.

In fact, Dr Ahmed knew of a place that might perfectly suit Mother Teresa’s needs. Together they went to inspect a building, which had been used as a pilgrim’s hostel near the Temple of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and fertility. Located in the Kalighat district, the temple was situated near the banks of the Hooghly River. The site was popular among the Hindus who came to worship at the temple. According to legend, Kali’s father made a sacrifice in order to guarantee the birth of a son. Unfortunately, the gift did not include an offering to Shiva, Kali’s husband. Insulted by the slight to her husband, Kali committed suicide. Shiva, desolate over the death of his wife, carried her in his arms, threatening destruction wherever he went. To save mankind, another god, Vishnu, hurled a discus at Kali’s corpse. The body shattered, falling in pieces to the ground, which is now considered sacred.

Of all the consecrated ground, the most sacred was the area where the toes of Kali’s right foot lay. On that spot, a temple to the goddess was built. Over time, the temple was surrounded by streets bearing pictures of the deity and became an important and symbolic centre of worship for Hindus throughout India. Some came to fulfil a vow; others journeyed seeking a cure for an illness. Still, others came to celebrate important ceremonies such as naming rites for infants, marriages, or cremations on one of the funeral pyres located near the temple. The religious importance of the temple of Kali was so great that many Hindus wished to be cremated there.

The building that Dr Ahmed showed Mother Teresa consisted of two great rooms set at right angles and linked by a passageway. Calcutta officials had received complaints that squatters were misusing the building, and so wished to have someone occupy it to save it from further destruction. Besides the large, airy rooms, there was also electricity, gas for cooking, and a large enclosed courtyard where patients could take the air and sun and where clothes and bedding could be hung to dry. Mother Teresa decided on the spot that she would accept the building; the doctor, acting on behalf of the city, agreed to let her have it provisionally. When asked later why she accepted the doctor’s offer, she explained that since the building was associated with the famous Hindu temple and that pilgrims used to come to rest there, so would the dying before continuing their final journey to heaven. Almost immediately, Mother Teresa and several of her nuns and novitiates set to work. The quarters had fallen into the terrible condition and needed to be cleaned from top to bottom to make them ready for the new arrivals.



On August 22, 1952, the pilgrim’s hostel opened under the name Nir- mal Hriday, which is Bengali for Pure or Immaculate Heart. Since it opened on the day that celebrates the Virgin’s Immaculate Heart, the building was named in her honour. To make ready for the patients, the nuns had placed low cots and mattresses on ledges in both the large rooms, which, when filled to capacity, would hold 30 men in one room and 30 women in another. But Mother Teresa and her helpers did not have much time to contemplate this latest offering from Providence. They soon took to the streets in search of the hopelessly ill and suffering who had no place to go.

Early on, Mother Teresa laid down some rules for Nirmal Hriday. No leprosy patients would be admitted. This was done to allay the fears of other patients who might refuse to come or try to leave. Mother Teresa also instituted these rules to calm the fears of the local residents and pilgrims who lived near or worshipped at the temple. It was implicitly understood that people from all religious creeds and races would be welcome at Nirmal Hriday. Mother Teresa also decided that only patients refused by city hospitals, of whom there were many, would be admitted. Soon, city ambulances made their way to the doors of Nirmal Hriday to deliver patients whom the city’s hospitals had rejected. But Mother Teresa and the other nuns continued to search the streets for the ill and dying, whom they transported to the home in a wheelbarrow.

Those brought to Nirmal Hriday were given medical treatment whenever possible. Patients who were beyond saving received the last rites ac- cording to their faith; for Hindus, this meant water from the nearby Ganges on their lips; for the followers of Islam, readings from the Koran (the Islamic holy book); for those who were Catholic, confession and communion. While recovery from their ailments was cause for thankfulness, the primary goal of Nirmal Hriday was to offer those who were dying a chance to pass away in peace and dignity. As Mother Teresa once stated, “A beautiful death is for people who lived like animals to die like angels— loved and wanted.”2



Not everyone was pleased about the creation of Nirmal Hriday. Although Mother Teresa believed the hostel’s proximity to the shrine was beneficial for the dying, residents of the area as well as visitors to the shrine, felt differently. Many believed that having a home for the dying nearby defiled the temple grounds. As Father Van Exem remembered, the situation was full of bitter irony. Even though the home for the dying was near a temple honouring a deity of death, “people did not want the dying to come there actually to die.”3 Many days, Mother Teresa and her nuns faced angry demonstrators shouting at them to leave. On several occasions, protestors threw stones at the nuns. There were even death threats made against the Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa. A man once threatened to kill Mother Teresa as she was making her way to the home. She did not move and told the man that if he killed her, she would only reach God sooner. The man let her pass.

Other Hindus complained that intending to Hindu patients, Mother Teresa and her nuns were also trying to convert the dying to Christianity. The Brahmins (upper-class Indians), who served as temple priests, wrote regularly to the city of Calcutta, complaining about Nirmal Hriday, asking the city to evict the tenants. They argued that the agreement made with Mother Teresa was only provisional and that she and her patients be removed from the area as soon as possible.

 Finally, Dr Ahmed, accompanied by a police officer, went to Nirmal Hriday to see for themselves what was really going on. As they entered the building, they saw Mother Teresa pulling maggots from the flesh of a patient. The stench was so overwhelming that the two men could barely stay in the room. Dr Ahmed heard Mother Teresa telling the dying patient to say a prayer from his religion and she would say a prayer from hers. Together, she said, they both have offered something beautiful to God. When she turned and saw the two men, she offered to show them around the home. The police officer, with tears in his eyes, said no, that there was no need to see anything else. Upon returning to the demonstrating crowd outside, the policeman spoke and said that he would remove Mother Teresa from the premises, but only if the women of the neighbourhood came in to continue her work. Although the visit from Dr Ahmed soothed the situation somewhat, hostility remained toward the home and the nuns, especially from the Brahmin priests, who continued to petition the city to remove Mother Teresa, her nuns, and the patients from the hostel.

Then, one day, a young priest at the temple, who had been one of Mother Teresa’s most vocal critics, fell ill. Vomiting blood, he was diagnosed with the last stages of tuberculosis. No hospital would admit him, and so it was that he came to Nirmal Hriday to die. He was given a place in a corner and the nuns lovingly tended him. He died not long afterwards. When the other Brahmin priests learned what had happened and how he had been treated by the Missionaries of Charity, their hostilities subsided. They realized then what others were learning too: the nuns at Nirmal Hri- day took care of all who came with love and tenderness and asked for nothing in return.



Like the Motherhouse on Lower Circular Road, daily life at Nirmal Hriday had a routine all it's own. Anyone could enter Nirmal Hriday just by walking through the door. The large open rooms remained divided into two wards: one for men, the other for women. A simple board hung in the hall listing the number of men and women currently being treated at Nir- mal Hriday. In the beginning, the dying were laid on the black marble floor. Soon, though, each room contained three rows of low iron beds, with two rows resting on a raised platform. Behind each bed, a number was painted on the wall to help keep count of patients and beds. Patients who needed fluids had intravenous tubes connected to various bottles. Those patients who were dying were placed near the entrance of each ward, so the sisters could better tend them. Nirmal Hriday was quiet, too, with the only sounds coming from the sisters moving about or medical treatment being administered. At one end of the hall was a burlap curtain; behind this, the dead were kept until it was time for burial. In many cases, after a patient died, local religious groups representing the Islamic, Hindu, or Christian communities claimed the bodies in order to bury the deceased according to his or her religious beliefs.

From the day Nirmal Hriday opened, Mother Teresa kept a meticulous record of the number of cases admitted. Upon admittance, each patient’s name, age, and address were recorded; whether the patient died or was released was also recorded. For those with no name or home, the entry was labelled “Unknown” with the date of admittance recorded. Over the years, with the aid of better hygiene and nutrition among the population and the construction of more hospitals and clinics tending to the poor, Nirmal Hriday saw its mortality rate drop from almost 50 per cent to 10 per cent. As word of Nirmal Hriday spread, volunteers came forward to aid Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in their work. Hindu pilgrims who came to worship at the temple now made contributions to Nirmal Hriday. A local businessman sent a delivery boy every month with a supply of Indian cigarettes known as bidis to give to the patients, and in time decided to deliver them himself. On Sundays, some of the wealthy members of Calcutta society came to Nirmal Hriday to wash and shave the patients. Other volunteers came to help clean out wounds, cut hair, or feed the patients. Still, others cleaned the rooms, washing floors by hand with a mixture of water, ashes, and disinfectant. Almost all who visited left Nirmal Hriday transformed. For Mother Teresa, such experiences were necessary to understanding the plight of the poor. “Don’t just look around like a spectator,” she said to newcomers, “really look with your ears

and your eyes, and you will be shown what you can do to help.”4

Mother Teresa also instituted a rule that everyone from the novitiate to nun work at Nirmal Hriday. It was backbreaking work as one had to be a doctor, nurse, porter, and attendant at any given time. The hours were long, usually extending far beyond the normal workday with 18-hour days a common occurrence. There was little respite, for there always was medicine to be given, patients to be washed or fed, or prayers to be said. A sense of humour helped to counter relentless suffering and death. But few Sisters complained; more startling perhaps, many Missionaries of Charity asked to work at Nirmal Hriday.




Despite all she had done, there was residual anger over Mother Teresa’s presence so near a Hindu temple. One Calcutta city council member introduced a motion that called for moving the home to a more suitable location. City leaders debated the issue and then agreed that, as soon as a suitable location was found for Nirmal Hriday, the facility would be moved. As most officials were happy with what Mother Teresa was doing, however, they tended to downplay complaints. And since they did not want Mother Teresa to leave, no one even proposed an alternate location for Nirmal Hri- day, which continues to operate in the same location even today.

Most patients at Nirmal Hriday fell into two categories: street cases, or people who had no family and were destitute, and family cases, where family members were unwilling or unable to care for those, especially the elderly, who were sick. In family cases, if the elderly patient recovered, the sisters made every effort to reunite the family members. Later on, those patients abandoned by their families were transferred to Prem Dan, a home established in 1975 for the elderly poor, and those ill but with a good chance of recovery. No matter the distinctions, the sisters tried never to turn anyone away who was in need.

Since it first opened in 1952, Nirmal Hriday has rescued more than 54,000 persons from the street. Of that number, half died at the home. Although a mortality rate of 50 per cent is high, Nirmal Hriday was a home for the dying. In this respect, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity succeeded in their mission to provide a sanctuary for those with nowhere else to go to make their peace with God and to die with dignity. The home also emerged as one of the most potent symbols in the West for Mother Teresa and her work. As she later wrote, “In my heart, I carry the last glances of the dying. I do all I can so that they feel loved at that most important moment when a seemingly useless existence can be re- deemed.”5



No sooner had the criticism of Nirmal Hriday died down, than rumblings about Mother Teresa herself surfaced. These criticisms grew throughout the decade and followed her for years. As the number of Mother Teresa’s detractors increased, the debate about her character and her attitudes toward such controversial topics as abortion and family planning intensified. As donations to her order increased, Mother Teresa came under scrutiny for accepting contributions from questionable donors.

One of the first to question Mother Teresa’s handling of Nirmal Hriday was a young medical student named Marcus Fernandes. Before coming to Nirmal Hriday, Fernandes was already familiar with Mother Teresa and her work. His sister had attended Loreto, and through her, he had learned a great deal about the Missionaries of Charity.

As inexperienced at medicine, as he was, Fernandes, nonetheless, was unhappy with the haphazard clinical practices that he found at Nirmal Hriday. He made several suggestions to Mother Teresa about how she could improve the chances of patients’ recoveries. According to Fernan- des, the biggest problem at Nirmal Hriday was not cancer, tuberculosis, or heart ailments, but malnutrition. Fernandes suggested that giving patients rice fortified with vitamin supplements would improve their chances of survival. He also suggested new approaches to diagnosis along with a separate area where he could make a more thorough examination of patients. His recommendations failed to convince Mother Teresa. His widow, Patricia Fernandes, remarked, “He could not persuade her to treat them with vitamins. She did not want them treated; she expected people to die and would simply say, ‘Well, she’s gone to God.’ She was not particularly interested in medicine.”6

Others who visited or worked at Nirmal Hriday similarly noted Mother Teresa’s seeming nonchalance over others’ deaths. One visitor recalled how, when her sisters asked Mother Teresa to try to save a 16-year-old boy from dying, she simply blessed the ailing young man and said, “Never mind, it’s a lovely day to go to Heaven.”7 A young woman volunteer, who had been thinking of joining the Missionaries of Charity, helped a young woman with a heart defect enter Nirmal Hriday. Mother Teresa told her that there was nothing more she could do, it was in God’s hands as to whether the young woman would live or die.

Dr Fernandes stayed at Nirmal Hriday for two years, before leaving for London to complete his medical training. When he returned to India and again offered his services to Mother Teresa he saw, to his dismay, that nothing had changed at Nirmal Hriday except that some conditions had become worse. A great deal of the money that had been donated to Nir- mal Hriday was being wasted, and the facilities needed improvement. Fernandes was particularly angered by the sight of an X-ray machine that was now useless and rusting. When he approached Mother Teresa about it, she told him that there was no one trained to use it. Dr Fernandes continued off and on to see Mother Teresa, but after her refusal to pay for his treatment of a skin ailment that had been plaguing her, he severed his association with her. He did, however, volunteer his time and services with other charity and missionary groups in Calcutta. But, when asked, he never changed his assessment of Mother Teresa. To him, she was a hard and extremely ruthless woman.8

Another vocal critic of Mother Teresa was a British doctor of ophthalmology, Major E. John Somerset, who was affiliated with the Calcutta Medical College Hospital from 1939 to 1961. During the early 1950s, when Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity were first becoming known, Dr Somerset was donating his time to five or six charitable homes for the aged and sick in Calcutta. He soon began getting regular visits from Mother Teresa, who would bring him, patients, she had found in need of treatment. Many of the cases Somerset treated were children who suffered from severe vitamin A deficiency to such a degree that their corneas were melting away. Although Somerset promised Mother Teresa that he would see as many cases as he could, he asked that she let him know be- forehand and not come when he was seeing his regular patients. But to Somerset’s dismay, Mother Teresa ignored his request and continued to bring patients to him without an appointment. He came to regard her as a nuisance and a bother.

Another volunteer, Sue Ryder, who had worked as a nurse during World War II, also had her problems with Mother Teresa. When Ryder came to India with her husband, she occasionally visited the slums with Mother Teresa. She approached Mother Teresa about merging the Missionaries of Charities ventures with her own charitable foundation but was rebuffed. The two women had other problems with each other. Ryder strongly suggested that the night staff at Nirmal Hriday be increased, as it was often overnight that patients needed the most comfort and care. However, Mother Teresa refused to consider a change in schedules: her sisters were to return to the convent at night to say their prayers. The matter was closed.



Complaints about Mother Teresa did little to dampen the tremendous goodwill many felt toward her and her congregation. This was particularly true in the English Catholic community of Calcutta. Many women volunteered to help raise funds or provide toys, food, and clothing, especially for the children. One volunteer, an Englishwoman named Ann Blaikie, coordinated volunteer efforts and on occasion spoke to civic organizations and other groups about the Missionaries of Charity.

As Anne Sebba, one of Mother Teresa’s biographers noted, the attitude of the English, especially English women, was very important in Mother Teresa’s early successes. Many of these women lived in the exclusive areas of Calcutta, belonged to certain clubs, and socialized only with each other. Their only interaction with Bengalis came through their domestics or in some official capacity. Some British who spent time in India before and after its independence believe that Mother Teresa went a long way in helping them to justify the privileged life that much English living in India enjoyed. As more than one person recalled, by stepping out from their upper-class surroundings and journeying to the slums or to Nirmal Hriday or to one of the many clinics or schools Mother Teresa had established, they could, for a moment or two anyway, say that they helped Mother Teresa and eased their guilt. And Mother Teresa knew how to manipulate her audiences, whether she was speaking to one person or an entire roomful. One man who grew up knowing Mother Teresa described how she solicited funds and supplies. According to his account, Mother Teresa fixed her gaze on the person and stated how the Missionaries of Charity really needed such and such an item, and that they did not know how they would find the money. The person often found himself rooted to the spot; almost always that person ended up pulling out the chequebook to provide Mother Teresa with whatever she wanted.9 Other English men and women who spent time in India and also helped Mother Teresa felt something much more profound. As one man explained it, when he was in India during the war, he rarely came into contact with poor people, though he realized he should have. He also believed that the British had taken far more out of India than they had contributed. In the end, the British failed in their duties to aid the poor and helpless of India.10 Helping Mother Teresa was a way to make amends.

Although this attitude may have eased many consciences, it also angered the people who were the supposed beneficiaries of such generosity, who resented Western condescension. For many Indians, the efforts of Westerners, and the British in particular, promoted the false impression that the people of India were indifferent to the suffering of their own. Further, these critics charged, Westerners, as symbolized by Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, appeared to be the only ones who do help the poor and infirm in India, when in fact this was not the case.

Still, there is little question that with the establishment of Nirmal Hri- day, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity gained a reputation for good works not only in Calcutta but throughout the nation and the world. By 1955, though, Mother Teresa had other things on her mind. She turned her energies and attention to two groups who needed her help and for whom she had done nothing specific: children and lepers.




    1. Raghu Rai and Navin Chawla, Mother Teresa (Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1992), p. 159.
    2. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1997), p. 55.
    3. Rai and Chawla, Mother Teresa, p. 160.
    4. Spink, Mother Teresa, p. 57.
    5. Mother Teresa with Jose Luis Gonzàles-Balado, Mother Teresa: In My Own Words (New York: Gramercy Books, 1996), p. 70.
    6. Anne Sebba, Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 60.
    7. Sebba, Mother Teresa, p. 60.
    8. Sebba, Mother Teresa, p. 61.
    9. Sebba, Mother Teresa, p. 65.
    10. Sebba, Mother Teresa, pp. 63–64.