Yes, today’s the day that Mother Teresa becomes Saint Teresa, and so, as the Vatican hands her the receiver for a Hotline to God, let’s review the evidence that she’s not as saintly as everyone thinks.
First, here’s an article from the August 26 New York Times about Aroup Chatterjee, an Indian doctor who has written two books debunking the Mother Teresa myth: Mother Teresa: The Untold Story, and Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict. I haven’t read either, but have reserved the second one (now out of print as well as borrowed) from our library. The second book is reviewed favorably by T. Hanuman Choudary at Swarajya. (Click on picture below to go to the article.)
Among the accusations against the incipient saint by Chatterjee (who is from Calcutta, home of Mother Teresa’s most famous mission), as well as by Choudary, are the following (these are all direct quotes):
“Over hundreds of hours of research, much of it cataloged in a book he published in 2003, Dr. Chatterjee said he found a “cult of suffering” in homes run by Mother Teresa’s organization, the Missionaries of Charity, with children tied to beds and little to comfort dying patients but aspirin.
He and others said that Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity in her work to extremes, allowing practices like the reuse of hypodermic needles and tolerating primitive facilities that required patients to defecate in front of one another.”
- “Over the next year , Dr. Chatterjee traveled the world meeting with volunteers, nuns and writers who were familiar with the Missionaries of Charity. In over a hundred interviews, Dr. Chatterjee heard volunteers describe how workers with limited medical training administered 10- to 20-year-old medicines to patients, and blankets stained with feces were washed in the same sink used to clean dishes. [JAC: Things are reported to be somewhat better now, but Mother Teresa’s reputation as a saintly woman was already well established by 1995.]”
- [Following are summary’s of Chatterjee’s arguments given by Choudary]: “Chatterjee found that what was propagated about Mother Teresa was only partially true, and much of it fiction. She accepted donations from drug peddlers and swindlers knowingly. What is worse, she even wrote to the prosecuting government officers and judges in the US to not punish them. In response to Mother Teresa’s letter to let a swindler go, an American prosecutor once wrote to her to return the monies to the cheated – monies she accepted from the swindler – in the true Christian spirit.”
- “Mother Teresa lied by exaggerating the figures of persons she was feeding daily in her acceptance speech while receiving the Nobel Prize in 1979. The ambulances donated by a Calcutta businessman were, in fact, used by her nuns as taxis to ferry around in Calcutta. Her nuns refused to pick up dying persons within even 200 meters of the compassion house. (Chatterjee has recorded his telephone conversations with the nuns and reproduced them verbatim in the book). But Mother Teresa continued to tell her Western audiences that her mission routinely picked up abandoned babies and the dying and dead bodies from Calcutta’s pavements.”
My editor at OUP, Latha Menon, also reviewed Chatterjee’s book in The New Humanist and gives a favorable verdit. One excerpt:
Chatterjee’s researches confirm in depressing detail the now familiar story of neglect, appalling lack of medical care, and emphasis on prayer rather than proper nursing in Mother Teresa’s homes. He compares the minute impact of the Missionaries of Charity with the efficient and wide-ranging activities of other charities such as the Ramakrishna Mission and the Child in Need Institute. These groups, a number of them established by Indians long before Mother Teresa’s appearance, provide schools, properly equipped hospitals, and training in useful skills; they distribute free condoms and advise on reproductive health. Unlike Mother Teresa’s outfit, they encourage slum dwellers to become strong and self-sufficient.
You can find a lot more about the grim conditions at Nirmal Hriday, the Calcutta hospice, by online searching. The Wikipedia entry, however, is telling, because the sole description of care at that facility is below, and it hasn’t been taken down. I suspect it’s accurate in the details (it also notes that Mother Teresa encouraged her nuns to baptize the dying regardless of their religion):
In 1991, Robin Fox, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet visited the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and described the medical care the patients received as “haphazard”. [JAC: You can see that letter here.] He observed that sisters and volunteers, some of whom had no medical knowledge, had to make decisions about patient care, because of the lack of doctors in the hospice. Fox specifically held Teresa responsible for conditions in this home, and observed that her order did not distinguish between curable and incurable patients, so that people who could otherwise survive would be at risk of dying from infections and lack of treatment.
Fox conceded that the regimen he observed included cleanliness, the tending of wounds and sores, and kindness, but he noted that the sisters’ approach to managing pain was “disturbingly lacking”. The formulary at the facility Fox visited lacked strong analgesics which he felt clearly separated Mother Teresa’s approach from the hospice movement. Fox also wrote that needles were rinsed with warm water, which left them inadequately sterilized, and the facility did not isolate patients with tuberculosis. There have been a series of other reports documenting inattention to medical care in the order’s facilities. Similar points of view have also been expressed by some former volunteers who worked for Teresa’s order. Mother Teresa herself referred to the facilities as “Houses of the Dying”.
It’s disturbing to me that patients who could have been cured, including children, were allowed to die. Certainly Mother Teresa could have had a doctor look them over and do some triage. The fact is that she just didn’t care, for she thought she was winning souls for the Christian God.
And I’ll add that the miracles ascribed to Mother Teresa are rarely questioned, although the one I’ve looked at, the “cure” of Monica Besra’s cancer by the ill woman holding Mother Teresa picture on her stomach, is completely bogus. Besra had tubercular tumors, not cancer, and received conventional medical treatment. In fact, Besra’s doctors take credit for her cure, and argue, correctly, that emphasizing the curative power of prayer may discourage Indians from seeking medical care. Despite that, NBC News, reporting on the imminent canonization last night, noted that as there was an “exhaustive investigation” by the Vatican of her two miracles. Like hell!
Finally, I’ve put below the 24-minute film, “Hell’s Angel,” narrated by Christopher Hitchens but inspired by Chatterjee. It was shown on Channel 4 in Britain in 1994, and I can’t imagine such a film being shown on any network in the U.S. these days.
The film goes heavily into Mother Teresa’s unsavory political connections—and you may see it as stretching a bit—but it’s worth paying attention to her crusade against abortion and birth control—in India!—and the minimal care she gave the dying patients in her Calcutta hospice. (Notice the gruesome sign on the wall, “I AM ON MY WAY TO HEAVEN”.)
And, of course, any Mother Teresa aficionado must read Hitchens’s own published critique: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. (There’s also a fairly new paper, though in French, by two Canadian researchers who come to pretty much the same conclusions as do Chatterjee and Hitchens.)
I recommend watching this, and it’s good to see Hitchens when he was young and angry (though he controls it well):
All I can say after reading all this (Chatterjee and Hitchens were both the formal “Devil’s Advocates” at Mother Teresa’s sainthood vetting) is that any religion that would turn this woman into a Pipeline to God is deeply dysfunctional. As Hitchens says, she is venerated in the West not so much for her actual deeds as for the perception that somebody from the West was doing something tangible to help poor brown people. In that sense Mother Teresa was a living Virtue Signal, and, as so often happens, those signals mask a lot of unpleasant noise. And, as Latha Menon said in her review of Chatterjee’s book:
Any illusion of genuine virtue being a requirement for official sainthood must be fading fast in people’s minds. The successes of Josemaria Escriva and Pius IX will have seen to that.
Speaking of unpleasant noise, you can find that over at PuffHo (click on screenshot if you must):