New Internationalist

Mother Teresa’s troubled legacy

September 2014

S Bedford exposes horrific negligence at a Missionaries of Charity centre in India – and asks when the order will be brought to book.

Nun holds Mother Teresa cards [Related Image]
No friend of the poor? Mother Teresa once said they should 'accept their lot'. © AP photo/Bikas Das

‘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.

Judge not?

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.

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.

S Bedford is a travel writer and journalist from Toronto.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 475 This feature was published in the September 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Sue Roediger 29 Sep 14

    14 years in Catholic school ... the concept of suffering being a good thing is still a part of my psyche. I am working hard to excise it............ I know some people find this kind of story unbelievable or think it is somehow ’made up to discredit the good sisters’ ...... but I actually believe it. I have read accounts by other formers nuns of that order. The whole thing is a tragic misrepresentation of Jesus' words.

  2. #2 robert 30 Sep 14

    Mother Teresa's ’Letters’ reveal a complex soul confronting and living among the extreme challenges, both inner and outer.

    I suspect the title might be appropriately altered to ’The troubled Legacy of Catholicism and the Poor.’

  3. #3 Ben Lynch 01 Oct 14

    S Bedford -

    Your experience matches mine.

    I, too, worked in the Prem Dan.

    I tell people about the place by describing it as:
    Imagine a Costco or Home Depot empty. Then fill it with cots and then on the cots put concentration camp-like emaciated people on them. Then next to them, there is a plate full of human feces - enormous amounts - next to each cot. Then a urinal next to that filled. Each morning I washed the sheets, emptied the urinals and feces and mopped the floor. Then washed the laundry in a massive witch-like urn and beat the laundry with a bat.

    I worked with one Indian man who had a massive open wound in his foot - with maggots. We could see his tendons moving when he moved his toes. We had to clean the wound. Four helpers lifted him onto a concrete table, put a stick into his mouth and pinned down his extremities while I assisted the nurse in cleaning his foot. I will admit that this situation really made me question the whole thing - especially afterwards when I went outside in the courtyard and discussed with health professionals from all over the world why there were no pain meds. This was in 1997.

    It is shocking and sad - and I believe you are absolutely right.

    The pain and suffering was to be closer to God - or to earn their right to heaven.

    Regardless what the reason was, it was wrong. The amount of screaming I heard in that few minutes has been with my the rest of my life - and I was not even the person in pain.

  4. #4 Joseph 02 Oct 14

    Well I have mixed feelings towards this article, there is an element of truth. Things could be improved with regard to hygiene and use of pain killers. But I feel it is a very secular understanding of pain and suffering. The world does not want pain and suffering, they want the easy way out. But for us Christians pain and suffering is part of the package of who we are as Christians. ’Unless you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciples’, said Jesus. Even the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity live a very austere life; they are a witness to the world that has forgotten the simplicity of life. It was so easy for S. Bedford to criticize the works of these nuns after spending few days if not weeks, imagine the nuns are doing it every day, without complaining, without any pay or reward, always with a smile, they have no life of their own, they are totally dedicated towards the suffering and the dying every day, they are dedicated to the scum of the society who otherwise are neglected and left to die. Yes a lot of charity is made towards this cause, but every penny is spent for the upliftment of the poor and the maintenance of their community and their sisters. These nuns live such simple lives, their only possession is a pair of sari and a bucket and mug. They are not living a lavish life with that entire fund. They are reaching out to different parts of the world opening foundations where nobody wants to go or do anything about the poor and the suffering. Thank God there are people, who care. Things could be better no doubt, but to say they are mishandling funds is unkind and unfair judgment and all those who lived with these nuns can vouch for their simplicity of life. They are not hoarding funds, They have no source of income, no institutions that are income generating, they depend on the graciousness of the donors to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked, to heal the sick and care for the dying and the destitute and the scum of the society. There was a suggestion made to buy and use washing machine, How would someone use the washing machine with clothes stained with urine and faeces and how hygienic would that be???I wish everyone who criticize the work of these nuns to put themselves in their shoes and live their lives for a day and then talk. In uncomplaining poverty they go about serving humanity.

  5. #5 Tim 20 Oct 14

    Funnily I only hear about Mother Theresa's homes for the poor. At least she has left behind a legacy. Maybe its not perfect in being what Christian love should really be, but its really something for those almost inhuman poor and neglected, rather forgotten ’people’. I wish more folks would start homes and orphanages for these neglected people if they reckon they can do better than the sisters, rather than pointing fingers.

  6. #6 Amen 07 Nov 14

    She died an atheist, finally confronting the truth that there was nothing out there and the Bible was a big hoax all long. She wrote that down too, but it was taken away by the order.

  7. #7 Carolyn Westlake 28 Feb 15

    No surprises. Corrupt as so many powerful institutions are. This one purports to be Godly, always a warning to the poor and vulnerable. And it's Catholic..... So no surprises. What is is how many people fall for it

  8. #8 Ananth 11 Jan 16

    Dear Ms Besford,

    You have described how the homeless patients came in infested with maggots. Do you think it was better to let them remain that way infested with maggots?

    Don't think that all these people, who did scream in pain during the procedure where better off than they would have been before that procedure?

  9. #9 Mark McDaniels 01 Mar 16

    I have volunteer at several US centers and have found something very different. Loving and educated caretakers. Is this a cultural thing? those Indian nuns lack the cultural and medical background to understand the need for hygiene? I have heard from other volunteers working with this order in LatinAMerica and is different from the US centers but nothing like the Indian experience you describe. Should we make responsible directly the heads of the order in each center or each city for this situation? Should we question the Catholic Church and the administrators of this order on what they do with the money?

  10. #10 Walter Gomez 08 Mar 16

    I served as a volunteer at Missionaries of Charity homes including Prem Dan in 2007 for a short while. I did not witness any thing close to what is described in the article. The young volunteers from all over the world were doing a wonderful job taking care of the sick and dying.
    The 'investigative reporter' should have followed the money trail and perhaps would have discovered Mother Teresa driving around in one of her Rolls Royce to watch an Opera and then on to some fancy restaurant for some fine dining. Jesus' call was not ’ ...serve my religion’ but ’Love your neighbour as I loved you’!!!!

  11. #11 Alan LaBudde 05 Sep 16

    i've offered to directly paypal a long term volunteer for things needed on the Kalighat facebook site....maybe a direct charity relationship will help....if only they had a real Doctor that visited i'd try to develop an individual relationship with him.....sigh....wish me luck....a simple web cam would solve things very quickly I think.
    Alan LaBudde

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This article was originally published in issue 475

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