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Mother Teresa’s Legacy is Under a Cloud

Mother Teresa’s legacy of compassion finds itself under a very critical public scanner today

Published: Aug 6, 2010 06:22:25 AM IST
Updated: Aug 6, 2010 08:22:51 PM IST
Mother Teresa’s Legacy is Under a Cloud
Image: Goutam Roy
What Lies Beneath Nirmal Hriday, home for the Dying; this is the first home that Mother Teresa set up in 1952. People here are mostly living out their last few days

They call her the ‘Angel of Mercy’. She was compassion incarnate; she didn’t think twice before touching a leper on the road or cleaning a festering wound on an unfortunate soul. She was equally at ease breaking bread with the homeless at Nirmal Hriday or standing toe-to-toe with world leaders exhorting them to do good. She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in faraway Albania a 100 years ago on August 26. The world knows her as Mother Teresa. Social workers all around the world have drawn inspiration from her work and commitment to her cause. Yet, today in her centennial year, her legacy has lost its shine and is in disrepair.

When one pays a visit to Mother House, the heart of the 58-year-old Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, one doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Sisters in the well recognised blue-bordered white saris go about their work. Locals come in ones and twos, bow in front of a statue of the woman they fondly call Maa and go inside the small chapel where her body has been resting for 13 years. In the chapel a group of sisters are kneeling, singing hymns. Located in one of the lanes of Taltala, home to lower class workers in west Kolkata, it is calm and pious, a world away from the cacophony outside on the busy A.J.C. Bose road.

But the cacophony is threatening to spill inside the Missionaries. Followers and volunteers are questioning the quality of service given in the care centres. They feel the Missionaries’ care centres are allergic to using modern-day therapy and technology to care for the inhabitants. Often untrained volunteers are given tasks that would normally require one to be trained in medicine and therapy. Missionaries has always kept change at bay. But in a world where it is very difficult to hide behind secrecy, the number of disillusioned followers is increasing. Missionaries doesn’t keep a tab on the financial transactions that take place. No one other than the sisters knows where the money that is donated is spent. Donations continue to pour in but people are asking for transparency on how the money is used.

The discord is most pronounced in the first home that Mother Teresa set up in 1952 — Nirmal Hriday, the Home for Dying Destitutes. A former rest house for followers from the nearby temple of Goddess Kali, the Home is a perfect picture for the work that Missionaries is known for. Disabled, disfigured and homeless men and women, many of whom are living their last days, find shelter here. It presently has 99 inmates, served by six sisters and dozens of volunteers, mostly young foreigners. The poor are bathed, clothed and fed until they recover and leave, or die. “Over the years, 86,170 people have been admitted. Of which 34,815 died,” says Sister Glenda, the head of Nirmal Hriday. It was Mother’s favourite home.

It is the kind of work that inspired Hemley Gonzalez, who lived on the other side of the world in Miami, United States. A migrant from Cuba, Gonzalez had grown up in a poor neighbourhood and was inspired after reading a biography of Mother Teresa. “I wanted to come to India and serve in Kalighat (the place where Nirmal Hriday is situated),” he recounts over the phone. Gonzales, who runs a real estate business in Miami, reached Kolkata in December 2008 and stayed for two months.

“I was shocked to see the negligence. Needles were washed in cold water and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates. There were people who had chance to live if given proper care,” says Hemley. He narrates incidents of an untrained volunteer wrongly feeding a paralysed inmate, who choked to his death; and another where an infected toe of an inmate was cut without anesthesia. “I have decided to go back to Kolkata to start a charity that will be called ‘Responsible Charity.’ Each donation will be made public and professional medical help will be given,” says Hemley, who now runs a campaign on Facebook called ‘Stop Missionaries of Charity,’ and has over 2,000 members.

“We should remember that Mother Teresa was clear that Missionaries of Charity was not operating a hospital. The homes are to serve the poor and give them the basic needs,” says Sunita Kumar, wife of former India Davis Cup coach Naresh Kumar and one who has been working with Missionaries’ sisters for over four decades.

Mother Teresa’s Legacy is Under a Cloud
Image: Goutam Roy
THE WAY AHEAD The mentally and physically challenged children at Daya Dan recieve treatment from speech therapists and physiotherapists

But this reasoning that has evoked harsh reactions. “What stops them from starting a hospital? Surely, money is not a problem,” asks Aroup Chatterjee, a London-based critic of Missionaries of Charity. Chatterjee wrote a controversial book Mother Teresa – The Final Verdict in 2002 and collaborated with British writer and well known Mother Teresa-critic Christopher Hitchens to produce a documentary called Hell’s Angel for Channel 4.

Apart from the hospital, volunteers also cite the need for a well-planned rehabilitation for the sick who go back to the streets once they recover. “Some were sent back to the streets of their own will, but some against it,” says a European volunteer who has been coming to Nirmal Hriday since 2006. She cites the example of an “old lady” suffering from diabetes and incapable of walking. “We were told she was sent to another centre outside Kolkata but just few days later someone saw her on the street close to our centre… We were worried but could not do much.”

Sister Glenda clarifies that professional help is never avoided. “Look at Buddhni Bakshi,” she says pointing to a bald teenage girl sleeping on a stretcher. “She was abandoned by her parents because the wound in her head used to stink badly. When she came here, we did tests at a local hospital that showed a tumour in her head. We spent Rs. 4 lakh for the surgery and now she is fine,” adds Sister Glenda. The initiative to get professional help, say former volunteers, is a change.

Allergic to Change
Change is something that Mother House has tried to limit as much as possible, say people close to Mother House. The sisters continue to live a life that Mother Teresa followed. Their days begin at 4.30 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. They have three changes of cloth and wear one till it can’t be repaired anymore. Correspondence is still through fax and mobiles are absent. Sisters don’t get any pocket money, visit their homes once a decade and write letters once a month.

The sisters themselves reiterate that the lifestyle is important so that the poor can connect with them and approach them without hesitation. While the scholastic life brings admiration and respect, the resistance to change, especially in their services, also evokes criticism of being “out of sync with changing times.” Gonzalez questions why money can’t be used to improve the service at the homes run by the sisters. “Even the inmates soiled and infected clothes are washed by hands. Why can’t they buy a washing machine?” he asks.

It has become a sensitive issue since 2005 when a British television crew filmed children at Daya Dan, a care centre, tied to their beds. Questions arouse about the “primitive practices and lack of using modern methods of teaching.” The incident forced Mother House to release a statement saying, “We value constructive criticism and admit that there is always room for improvement.” Volunteers, who come in dozens from countries like Spain and Italy, have separately narrated incidents about sisters resorting to “shaking violently” or “beating” to discipline the challenged children.

Recent developments though indicate a fresh thinking. “Hygiene has been an issue but has improved as sisters opened to better standard through volunteers from Western countries,” says Father Robin Gomes who has been working with the Missionaries of Charity for more than 20 years. At Daya Dan, which also runs a dispensary for the poor twice a week, sisters in apron and gloves (a change from earlier days) go about like trained nurses.

A bigger change at the centre is in the way the 60 mentally and physically challenged children are taken care of. “We now have speech therapists and physiotherapists coming in regularly who look after the children,” says Sister Karina, a Mexican nun who has been heading Daya Dan for one year. The therapists also help train sisters and volunteers and a few of them are sent to training institutes for week-long classes.

Mother Teresa’s Legacy is Under a Cloud
Image: Goutam Roy
TOUCH The Council is accused of being disconnected

Money Matters
It is good news about some of the changes. Unfortunately, we are still in the dark when it comes to their financial records,” says Gonzalez. The donation issue first came up in the early 1990s when it was revealed that Charles Keating, an American banker known for the infamous “saving and loan scandal,” had donated up to $1.25 million to Missionaries of Charity. Amidst calls to return the money, Mother Teresa controversially chose to remain silent, an incident that is still sited by her critics who demand transparency.

In early 2000, Susan Shields, a former Missionaries sister who left the organisation “unhappy”, created a furore by saying she herself had “written receipts of $50,000” in donation but there was no sign of the “flood of money.” Forbes India talked to a volunteer in the Los Angeles office of Missionaries of Charity who admitted that “even when bread was over at the soup kitchens, none was bought unless donated.” A report in German magazine Stern, revealed that in 1991 only seven percent of the donation received at Missionaries of Charity was used for charity. Former volunteers and people close to the Mother House revealed that the Vatican, home to the Pope, has control over the “monetary matters” ever since Missionaries of Charity came under its fold in 1965. The control got stronger after Mother Teresa died in 1997.

When asked about how much money the Charity gets annually, the then superior general Sister Nirmala in a rare media interview a few years ago remarked “Countless.” When asked how much it was, she answered, “God knows. He is our banker.” Forbes India’s request for details was turned down at the Mother House. Sister Mary Prema, the present superior general, did not agree to a meeting.

Missing Mother
Father Sebastian Kuzhipala worked with Mother Teresa in her last 10 years and admits that “Missionaries of Charity misses Mother’s charisma. Other than being very simple and having high moral values, Mother Teresa was a strict disciplinarian, a smart organiser. She understood the influence she had over people but used that for the right purpose.”

Mother Teresa’s relationship with the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, himself a convent school product, was famous. A “sick Mother Teresa” stormed into a slum to prevent local administrators from razing homes built for the slum dwellers. When asked why she was interfering, Mother Teresa famously replied, “This is my home. What is of the poor is mine and what is mine, is for the poor.” She made a call to Chief Minister’s house and the razing was stopped.

“To quote the Bible, she was “as cunning as a serpent and as innocent as a dove,’” says Father Gomes. “Like all organisations that were headed by famous people and suffer after they leave, Missionaries of Charity has a void. At the same time, the sisters at Missionaries of Charity continue the work that she had done. Every time you see the blue bordered sari, your remember Mother Teresa,” he adds.

The association has worked well for Missionaries of Charity. The number of homes and sisters, despite a drop in those coming from India, has increased since 1997. Realising the importance early, the late Pope John Paul VI made sure that a council of sisters was formed before Mother Teresa died. That council, consisting of senior sisters, now runs the organisation and also recommends amongst itself the next head. This is then cleared by the Vatican. In its last meeting in March 2009, the council elected Sister Mary Prema as the new superior general of Missionaries of Charity. A German native, Sister Prema has been seldom seen publicly and few know her outside the Mother House. This, say observers, while keeping intact Mother Teresa as the face of the organisation even after her death, has also led to the disconnect with the local people. One indicator of this disconnect might be the almost complete absence of Indians among the volunteers.

After her beatification, after which she is officially called Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the process is on now in the Vatican to bestow Mother Teresa with sainthood. In a 1989 interview with Time magazine, when asked about the future of the Order, Mother Teresa had replied that it was Jesus’ concern.

Now would be the right time for God to take a closer look.

(This story appears in the 13 August, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Jamie Edgar

    This seems like extreme criticism for someone who died almost 20 years ago. There are many things churches do that I don\'t agree with, but blaming someone for problems in their charity so long after her death is just cruel and makes the person doing the blaming appear to be media hoaring.

    on Sep 2, 2016
  • Bb

    Leave the Missionaries of Charity alone. They do more work that is needed in one hour than most people can claim to do in their entire lives. It is a sad day when people who can do nothing other than criticise point fingers at those who quietly go about giving endlessly of themselves.

    on May 31, 2012
    • Anthony

      No, it is a sad day when people don\'t hold those in charge accountable. Unclean needles are likely to infect someone with a serious illness. Besides the undo suffering that was extended in the name of Jesus, how many people lost their lives to these conditions? The donations were intended to help these sick people and to improve both their medical equipment and staff. Ignoring the intention of the money donated and ignoring the needs of these sick people is immoral and fraudulent. MT doing this in the name of God gave here the freedom to do as she please, not God or even the donators. It is a sad day when you would defend the Missionaries of Charity without any facts to show their charity isn\'t just prolonging suffering, pain and poverty. If MT did keep excess funds in the bank while basic needs were not being met in her clinics, then she is guilty of fraud and should be sentenced to jail for an extended period of not for life because her actions cause people to needlessly suffer and die.

      on Aug 12, 2013
      • Aunima

        Please, Anthony, do you have any idea as to the kinds of people that are serviced ? These are people from the streets of India, existing in the midst of unimaginable filth. You say they lost their lives to \"these conditions\" in the hospitals ? What was the alternative ? Their lives, whatever was left of it, would have been prolonged in the piles of trash, poop, spittle ? How many times have you and I passed by such people on the roadsides of India, refused to cast a glance, and walked quickly by ? At least MC is acknowledging their existence, what prevented Christopher Hitchins from doing so ?

        on Dec 14, 2014
  • Dawn

    I think that these current people are using Mother Teresas teachings as an excuse like so many other greedy people to make money. If she were alive, I am sure this would not be happening. So again it isn't her but the people who claim to follow her that are at fault.

    on Jan 12, 2012
  • David Johnson

    As a whole, Mother Teresa has done some very good deeds for a lot of impoverished people in some bad places. To say she was perfect and a Saint may not be correct, but neither should she be condemned for the lives she may have saved with what little she had to work with. As for her vouching for some low life priest who should have been hung upside down for what he did to children, maybe she was duped like so many of the parents that blindly put their children in harms way because they felt a priest was supposed to be a man of God and would never do anything to hurt a child. Before we know why she stood up for (him) we should certainly try to find out why!

    on Jan 12, 2012
  • Tamara

    And to give of nothing with nothing and still produce better than circumstance results, requires criticism? If they are fit to do better, why haven't they? Not the one's who actually give of themselves; paid for degree, doctrine, or not...they reached out their arms and hands and gave results...and yet people still on-look with judgment and critique. ..of actions farther reached then they have ever committed to themselves (my hypothesis)....this is what I think of those who don't see fit the practice of the shelter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Rather than come at them with problems join them with SOLUTIONS!!!!!!!

    on Jan 12, 2012
    • Catseye

      How much money has been given to Mother Teresa and her charities? (Answer: billions.) How much of those donated billions have gone to suffering people in these places in the form of pain medication or other basic care, or even, say, toys for children in the orphanages they operate? (Answer: none.) All this "serve the poor" stuff is bull. The Missions of Charity proselytize and earn money for the Church; that's it. Don't believe it? Bet you don't believe the Church would cover up child rape rather than harm its brand identity.

      on Jan 12, 2012
  • Shelby

    It has never sat well with me when people praised "Mother Teresa", but could not tell me what exactly it was that she did that made her so wonderful. I'm not surprised that their praise is baseless, though it disgusts me what she and her people have done. To use a favourite word of politicians, it's "reprehensible."

    on Dec 14, 2011
  • Avinash Machado

    Sounds like a high control cult.

    on Aug 9, 2011
  • Clouds

    Classic case of arrogance combined with ignorance in the case of Hemley Gonzalez. I wish him good luck. He comes from real estate and knows nothing about the medical world, india or mothers teresa initial vision: didnt he read the book? apparently not, he never mentions the word compassion. However, mother Teresa served the poor and the way she did it, she reached many.

    on Mar 14, 2011
  • Corneilius

    This is well established pattern of 'missionary charity' supported by State and Vatican that is fundamentally abusive. That is not to say that ALL missionaries and asociated Charities are abusive. It is to say there is a wide pattern of such behaviours. The Residential Schools systems operated by Church and State all over the world are being exposed by Survivors and both Church and State, and their apologists are doing their level best to cover this up, to limit their liabilities and to mask their culpability. We cannot trust ANY organisation or Institution that is not transparent. We are talking here about hundreds of years of abuses, of millions of lives destroyed.

    on Jan 19, 2011
  • srinivas rao

    This is purely looting of money in the name of charity

    on Sep 11, 2010
  • Hemley Gonzalez

    PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION and join me in asking the Indian Government to DEMAND financial and medical transparency from the medically negligent and financially fraudulent "Missionaries of Charity". Please use the following link and share it with everyone you can! http://www.indianvoice.org/stop-the-missionaries-of-charity-petition.html

    on Sep 2, 2010
  • Clovis Sangrail

    Christopher Hitchens wrote a damning article about Mother Teresa's egoism, selfishness and gigantic fraud.

    on Aug 22, 2010
  • Subroto Sarkar

    Till now no one from the spot is writing any observations. Those who are from the far are commenting specially those who are opposing Mr. Hemley Gonzalez. To them I say that Mr. Hemley Gonzalez observation is correct as I am from the spot and was a frequent visitor of the homes run by the Mission of Charity. So I will tell seeing is believing.

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Priyanka

    I am volunteering in a Missionaries of charity, its fine everything okay but i don't like the menu chart for the kids, they only provide some rice and pulse, sometime one single tablespoon of smashed vegetables or scrambled egg, just one table spoon! the kids are visibly suffering from malnutrition! they all are underweight, suffering from TB and other such diseases! 2/3 month old infants are fed water 4 times a day and milk only 3/4 times a day! I don't think its very much healthy and good for these orphans!

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Sourjya Singh

    hehe.. :) hemley is anything but biased...i was shocked when i first saw the name of the new group he wanted me to join on facebook cuz i knew he volunteered for the missionaries during his stay in kolkata...yet when i went through the stories and the pictures i was a changed person...my views on this so called charitable organisation has gone through a sea of change...way to go HEMLEY...we love you... :) and @ Mr.Karim....trust me on this one...Hemley is anythng but an agent for a Hindu Nationalist party...that's a very real fact .....

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Kevin Sheerstone

    He is simply stating the obvious.

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Udayabhanu Panickar

    Yes, I also think he is biased. Biased for the welfare of those poor children and elderly. Biased against illegal activities. That is a quality in my books. Why is it that they are afraid to show where the money goes? That it self proves that it is going for an illegal act. I wish there was more people like Mr Gonzalez! Also we should see if a case can be filed against them to make their accounts public, after all the money they get is public money and they should be answerable for it. Also it should be looked into why this special treatment for them where as charities connected to other religions are always made public and audited?

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Muhammad Karim

    Hemly is possibly an agent working for Hindu Nationalist parties, just look around the number of copies of this article Hindutva parties are circulating around the city.

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Tony Field

    I agree totally with Hemley. All charitable organisations should publish their accounts. However even the Vatican's finances are shrouded in mystery. The Catholic church has $ billions at its disposal yet still asks for donations from the poor.

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Shreyas

    Missionaries after Mother Teresa died is one effed up organization. Vatican had certain power

    on Aug 18, 2010
  • Rorrye

    I Agree with Hemley!!! What is totally obvious!!! The fact that someone is embezzling, or just plain hiding and not spending money where it is so desperately needed. ONE SIMPLE QUESTION!! Show where and how the money was spent. SIMPLE. Kudos to Hemley for his thoughtfulness and caring. Go Get Em Hemley!!!!

    on Aug 15, 2010
  • Paula Tobianski

    Please accept Mr. Gonzalez's "bias" - he and many others have seen, first hand, the incomplete care given in these missionaries. If you don't like what you've read, go there yourselves. Do more research - his facts are not the only ones to be found, online or off. Christopher Hitchens wrote a book that mirrors much of what Mr. Gonzalez speaks about. In addition, at least explain what biases you see - I see absolutely NONE.

    on Aug 12, 2010
  • Hemley Gonzalez

    I am "biased"? Please.. No problem, I'll stop talking about all of this once this organization does the following: 1. Show us how much money they have received and continue to receive in donations 2. Show the donors EXACTLY how this money is being spent That's the real issue here and if their were to do the above, the entire world would cry foul at their negligent and fraudulent operation. I will continue to drive this point home. Shows us how much money you receive and what you do with it or STOP. Simple. And most importantly, this is what one day (sooner rather than later) the Indian government must demand the same of them. Here's our group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=326098194662

    on Aug 10, 2010
  • matt

    i completely agree.

    on Aug 10, 2010

    I believe there are a lot of biases in Mr. Hemley Gonzalez observations. Thanks.

    on Aug 10, 2010