Reflections on the harsh criticism of Mother Teresa


Mother Teresa. Funky Tee under a Creative Commons Licence

There was certainly reason to be critical but what difference has it made? Mari Marcel Thekaekara asks.

Just before Mother Teresa’s canonisation earlier this month, I wrote in the Guardian about how I grew up in a Kolkata flat, a three minute walk from Mother Teresa’s convent, locally referred to as The Mother House. I had detested her authoritarian ways and the dictatorial manner in which her order, and her nuns were controlled. At that stage, all of eighteen, full of the arrogance and self-righteousness of the young, I was vociferous about Mother Teresa, the petty, control freak.

Coming from Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata, we didn't question austerity. Though we thought it was cruel to make young sisters walk barefoot in the hot Calcutta sun, on burning pavements in the sixties. But, we were inured to extreme poverty. As I’ve written in my column here at New Internationalist, after the Bangladesh war, a few million refugees poured into Calcutta from our neighbour, former East Pakistan. Almost overnight, our streets and railway stations were filled with desperately poor people, sleeping on the streets, pitching makeshift tents of patched together plastic. Calcutta never recovered from that. We knew poverty. Anyone who helped was well regarded.

No one had ever before done anything remotely like Mother Teresa's order, namely picking up destitute and dying people off the pavements and giving them a clean place to die in dignity. So however much I disliked her petty, control freak ways – she read her nuns personal mail, they were allowed to write home only once or twice a year – I would be the first to admit that no one else did anything about the dying destitute people she rescued.

There are many, many criticisms. There always are. I've been a critic too. But the vitriol spewing from many western readers shocked me. In contrast, Kolkata was organizing a carnival almost, rejoicing in the canonisation of their 'Mother' in faraway Rome, which was so alien to the Bengali Hindu. There were large screens put up at street corners to live stream the Roman ceremony. People were ecstatic.

Some readers just seemed to miss the point. I hated her arrogance. I was not enamoured of sainthood in general or Mother Teresa in particular. But in that time, and in that context, of unbelievable poverty, no one could dismiss the work done by the Missionaries of Charity. A college friend, Leslie D'Gama, captured the problem when he wrote:

Mari and I lived in the same area, went to college around the same years, studied the same subjects and went through the same agonies of indecision over Mother Teresa. I had the dubious distinction of photographing her regularly during my study for a diploma in still photography. Further, I might have been one of the very few to refuse to play the keyboard for one of her Final Vow programs at St Mary's. I totally relate to everything here – I just did not take to the "machineries of charity" as I was wont to call them back then. I bristled with indignation when she told me over the phone "I am Mother Teresa, you cannot refuse to play the organ for my sisters!" I thought it was arrogance personified. It was all about power. Years later, in 1997 when I led a social service program and took a bunch of kids to experience Nirmal Hriday at Kalighat, I could not believe that such a huge group of people could be working for no personal gain at all. Then, when they asked me to carry two dead bodies out to a waiting hearse, one of them was a month old baby, I went through heart wrenching moments of anguish. Today, when she has been declared a Saint, I do not want to jump on the bandwagon of saying that I knew her, or even to pop up pictures taken with her. I just want to acknowledge the power that she created through her love and humility.

Others, however, went too far in their criticism. Christopher Hitchens, for example, stooped to appalling levels of abuse when he called her ‘a lying thieving Albanian dwarf'. This is difficult to take seriously.

I may not have personally liked the Mother. But neither can I – who could never replicate her sisters' work of cleaning open sores and faeces, tending to leprosy patients and picking up live, aborted foetuses out of abortion clinic garbage pails – dare to hold forth about the work done for desperately poor people.

I've heard that the harsh criticism has resulted in better hygiene and care facilities. I hope this is true.