Mother Teresa's troubled legacy
‘Is nothing sacred any more?’ the American woman asked nobody in particular while ruefully examining the glow-in-the-dark Mother Teresa statue.
I was in the Mother Teresa-themed gift shop located beside – but bearing no official relationship to – the Missionaries of Charity headquarters on AJC Bose Road in Kolkata. My two months of volunteering had concluded and I was shopping for a gift for my Catholic grandmother.
Though intended rhetorically, the woman’s words begged the question that I had been pondering for weeks: what value sacredness?
Missionaries of Charity exemplifies the danger of inviolability. Established by Mother Teresa in 1950, it consists of over 4,500 Catholic nuns in 133 countries. While the Catholic Church continues to deflect an onslaught of criticism for its mandates, few are willing to challenge the charity founded by the world’s favourite Sister.
But there is mounting evidence against Missionaries of Charity, from a gross mismanagement of funds to a fundamentalist doctrine that justifies the unnecessary suffering of the very individuals the organization claims to be helping.
In the article ‘Mother Teresa: Where Are Her Millions?’, Stern magazine reported that Missionaries of Charity receives an estimated $100 million in annual revenue. In the same article, former Missionaries of Charity nun Susan Shields stated that her order in the Bronx regularly accepts cheques for upwards of $50,000.
And yet, despite all appearances of being a lucrative charity, I discovered that the resources and care provided at one of its best-known facilities are horrifically and disproportionately negligible.
I arrived in Kolkata shortly after Diwali, when strings of lights cascading down the sides of buildings twinkled above the sleeping street children. I was assigned a placement at Kalighat: Mother Teresa’s home for the dying, and the first Missionaries of Charity site. Since the building was undergoing renovations, the residents were temporarily relocated to a wing in the long-term care facility Prem Dan.
The dark, concrete dormitories in Prem Dan had rows of army-style cots lining the walls. The squat-style toilets were in a narrow room slick with water, urine and faeces. Patients wearing foot bandages soon found their dressings soaking and rank, and those unable to walk upright were forced – through a scarcity of wheelchairs and crutches – to crawl through the mess in order to relieve themselves.
Judge not lest ye be judged, I imagined my grandmother lecturing. And while I had abandoned all pretence of religion years ago, it was still practical advice. So I turned my attention to my primary task as a volunteer: laundry. Perhaps naively, I assumed that it would allow me to make a difference while working in a sanitary environment. These illusions were dispelled the moment I saw the cramped room with concrete walls and a drain at one end.
The washing process began when a nun dropped the freshly soiled clothing onto the floor by the drain and brushed the largest chunks of human waste down the hole with a broom. Another nun dunked the garment in disinfectant and passed it off to a volunteer, who scrubbed it in soapy water. From there, the article was passed through two rinsing basins before being wrung out and carried to a clothesline on the roof.
This was a direly insufficient method of sanitization that posed a health risk to residents and volunteers alike.
‘Seven volunteers have come down with fevers in the last month. Four were even hospitalized,’ said the young bearded Frenchman stationed at the basin beside me. ‘Make sure you wash your hands before you eat lunch.’
When I asked why there was no washing machine, he referred to the vows of the Missionaries of Charity congregation: chastity, poverty and obedience.
Adjacent to the laundry room was the surgery. Medical procedures were performed by a nun and an Italian nurse. However, soon after I arrived, the latter fell so ill that she was forced to fly home. This left the surgery desperately short-handed. As a former lifeguard with basic first-aid training, I offered my services.
Those admitted with severe lesions had maggots writhing among the rotten skin. The patients were predominantly homeless and, without the protection of bandages, flies had laid eggs in their lacerations.
One woman bore over 50 finger-sized holes in her scalp, and we spent more than an hour nipping at the larvae with our tweezers as she screamed in agony. It required five more days of plucking to cease the infestation. As Sister C scrubbed and hacked away at another patient’s infections, I administered topical saline solution and iodine. A handful of male volunteers restrained patients who were sobbing and howling for their gods and their mothers.
‘Aren’t you giving them morphine?’ I asked.
The nun vehemently shook her head. ‘No. Only Diclofenac.’
Diclofenac is an analgesic painkiller commonly used to treat arthritis and gout. It is not an anaesthetic and does not eliminate sensation. Yet this was Sister C’s treatment of choice for patients undergoing severe pain – despite the fact that directly across the hall was a room brimming with supplies provided by Catholic hospitals around the world. Local anaesthetic is often one of the first items donated.
Sister C’s rationale, however, can be summed up by a statement made by Mother Teresa at a Washington press conference shortly before her death in 1997: ‘I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.’ This clearly indicates that Mother Teresa and, by extension, Missionaries of Charity believe that suffering enhances holiness.
Serving her religion
After all, it was Mother Teresa’s primary intention to serve her religion – helping others was merely the means of doing so. ‘There is always the danger that we may become only social workers… Our works are only an expression of our love for Christ,’ she once told journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.
Back in the surgery, pain management was not the only area of grave concern – the hygiene standard was comparable to that in the laundry. There were no paper sheets on the examination table (I wiped it down with disinfectant at the end of each day), leading to an astronomical risk of cross-contamination.
This was especially dangerous since many of the patients suffered from HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, typhoid and tuberculosis. The only gloves available to me were extra large, so I purchased my own at the local market. Sister C worked bare-handed – and didn’t always wash between patients.
The poor maintenance of the surgery was largely due to the fact that Sister C was the only nun trained as a nurse, and was therefore extremely busy. Occasionally she had to enlist the assistance of nuns with few or no medical skills. I witnessed a giggling novice nun attempt to administer an injection while the patient shrieked in fear and pain.
These were only a few of the many instances of the negligence I encountered at Kalighat. I learned from other volunteers that similar incidents were occurring at Missionaries of Charity homes across the city.
Over the years, Forbes India, Britain’s Channel 4 TV and journalist Christopher Hitchens have all investigated the millions of dollars unaccounted for by Missionaries of Charity. But their reports have not been enough to spur public action: awareness can only go so far against the idea of the consecrated. It is only by removing the concept of inviolability that we will be able to face the objective truth of abuse and neglect. Only then will the Missionaries of Charity finally be held accountable for its actions.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.