In India, Mix of Praise, Criticism Greets Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Kshitij Nagar and Jhumur Deb
New Delhi and Guwahati, India
160906-IN-Teresa-1000 A sister from the Missionaries of Charity places a portrait of Mother Teresa during celebrations marking her elevation to sainthood at the congregation’s Nirmal Hriday center in New Delhi, Sept. 4, 2016.
Kshitij Nagar/BenarNews

Legions of Mother Teresa’s followers across India on Tuesday were still celebrating her weekend elevation to sainthood, as critics stood firmly against the Vatican’s canonization of the late missionary who worked out of Kolkata (Calcutta).

A four-day film festival dedicated to the memory of Mother Teresa, who was born in Albania as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, kicked off Tuesday in Shillong, the capital of the far northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya.

Organized by the India chapter of the World Catholic Association for Communications, the Mother Teresa International Film Festival showcases 20 documentaries and short films based on the life of the nun. Teresa, who died in 1997, founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 to help poor people dying of leprosy, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Kolkata), as she is now known, set up Meghalaya’s only leper center in Nongpoh, a hamlet situated some 50 km (31 miles) from Shillong, in the mid 1970s.

The center is now a full-blown dispensary managed by the Missionaries of Charity, said Ashok Goenka, a well-known businessman in the state, who had met Mother Teresa during her visit to Shillong in 1975.

“Despite her ill health, she took part in a 32-km (19.8-mile) walkathon to raise funds for the construction of the leper center,” Goenka told BenarNews.

“I distinctly remember the pain visible in Mother Teresa’s eyes when she saw many leprosy patients helplessly living on the streets,” he said.

Bindoo Lanong, a former journalist-turned-politician who interviewed Mother Teresa at the Kolkata headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity in 1976, said the saint’s only mission was to help people in distress.

“During my 30-minute interview with her, Mother Teresa urged me to appeal to the people of Meghalaya through my writings to help selflessly those who are in need of help,” he told BenarNews.

‘I owe my life to her’

Mother Teresa’s canonization on Sunday by Pope Francis came months after the Vatican confirmed in December that the pontiff  had recognized two miracles attributed to her, one of which involved the healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors.

“I owe my life to her,” a teary-eyed Sister Dominica (born Andrea Regina) told BenarNews at the Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) center run by the Missionaries of Charity in New Delhi.

“She is the reason I am here. It is through her that I realized that my life’s calling was to help the poor. And I am not the only one, she helped so many people in various ways,” Sister Dominica said as she took part in celebrations to mark her idol’s canonization.

Sister Annly (born Shaila Gomes), a member of the Missionaries of Charity, said she considered Mother Teresa’s elevation to sainthood nothing but a formality.

“She has always been saintly for me. And her reputation comes from decades of service she has put in to help the poorest of the poor, who the world had forgotten and had left to die. That is her legacy,” she told BenarNews.

A sister from the Missionaries of Charity prays during celebrations marking Mother Teresa’s elevation to sainthood, Sept. 4, 2016. [Kshitij Nagar/ BenarNews]

Revered, criticized in Kolkata

But as live coverage of Mother Teresa’s canonization in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City was being aired on Indian television channels, many of her critics took to social media to slam the alleged “un-Christian practices” of the Missionaries of Charity under the hash tag #FraudTeresa.

“I grew up in Calcutta in the area near her center. Yes, there [was] poverty, but nowhere near the levels [that] she projected. She almost glorified it,” one of the critics, who went by the name @MouseMania, told BenarNews without revealing his true identity.

Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, a Kolkata-based physician, author and long-time critic of Mother Teresa, told BenarNews: “I do not think her practices of caring were very sound. She reused syringes as a matter of principle.”

Chatterjee said he had written to the Pope denouncing the decision to make Mother Teresa a saint.

In his 2012 book titled “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice,”  late author Christopher Hitchens wrote that some doctors who visited facilities run by the Missionaries of Charity found a severe shortage of hygiene.

While quoting from an unpublished book written by a former nun who worked with Missionaries of Charity, Hitchens said that Mother Teresa taught nuns to baptize dying patients secretly by pretending to cool their foreheads with a wet cloth “while in fact baptizing him by quietly saying the necessary words.”

The nun’s supporters, however, vehemently refuted these claims.

“I worked with her closely in New Delhi for many years. I am a practicing Hindu, and never did she make me feel out of place. Many times, she wouldn’t even ask the patients’ name, leave aside their religion,” Tina Kapoor, a volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity, told BenarNews.

“The world may criticize her or call her a saint, but for me she will always be Mother,” said Sister Francine (born Lotty Joseph), a newly inducted member of the order.


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