Mother Teresa has been both sainted and vilified for her life’s work and legacy. A vivid and honest portrayal of one of the world’s most controversial organizations.
other Teresa. The words alone conjure an image of a tiny woman, hunchbacked and wrinkled, wearing a white and blue sari while walking through the streets rescuing the poor. We see her huddled at one of her famous homes for the dying, embracing lepers, cradling starving children. She was everything we are not, an idealized vision of goodness. No longer a person as much as a personification of our collective imaginings.
While on a train in India, Mother Teresa heard a call from God, prompting her to “leave the convent and help the poor while living among them.” Her resulting legacy, the order of the Missionaries of Charity, was started in 1950 and now includes more than 4,500 sisters and over a million laypeople in at least 133 countries. Her work with orphans, prisoners, sex workers, the sick, the dying, the disabled—the unwanted—garnered her international acclaim, including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, the Nehru prize in 1972, and the Nobel prize 1979. She was canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church in 2003, despite many people questioning her practices.
It was this image of Mother Teresa that led me to explore joining the Missionaries of Charity. In 2007, I finally had the opportunity to leave my life behind and move to Calcutta, the epicenter of her world-famous order of nuns. I joined the ranks of thousands of volunteers who journey to the City of Joy every year, and I worked off and on with the sisters in various ways for seven years. As a teacher, I was assigned a position instructing boys at an orphanage for special needs children, which also provided basic medical care to anyone who asked for it.
I met Mother Teresa for the first time when I was 7 years old. She came to me in the form of a gifted Catholic prayer book, embossed gold and blue with the words “Come be my light.” Inside were prayer cards under plastic featuring airbrushed pictures of her, holding swaddled starving babies, or looking up at the heavens clutching a rosary. She seemed so holy and pure, different than the adults I knew. Different too, than my 7-year-old self, who stole candy from the 7-Eleven and never went to church.
I wanted to be like her, to rise above my utterly chaotic and abusive family life and be something different. Selfless. While other children dreamt of becoming astronauts or ballet dancers, I daydreamed about becoming a member of her order, the Missionaries of Charity. That dream did not fade. In fact, I almost joined several other religious orders in my 30s, but none measured up to my Mother Teresa daydreams.
What I didn’t know yet was that her order wouldn’t be as good as my daydreams, either.
The orphanage was located down a small, dank lane. On the morning I arrived, the lane was filled with people who were thin limbed, some hacking into bloody rags, legs and arms wrapped in bandages, the smell of festering sores ripe and overwhelming. As I entered the orphanage door, I was quickly grabbed by a nun, handed an apron, and told to help hand out medicines. I protested that I was a teacher and knew nothing about medical conditions. The nun simply pushed me out the side door, where a long table was set up as an impromptu dispensary. My job was to count pills and wrap them in small squares of newspaper, and while doing so I noted that many of the medicines were old and expired. The nun in charge was young. She spoke softly to the patients, unhurried and calm as she filled out a clipboard with methodic diligence. The patients waited silently as my hands searched among plastic bottles and bags of powders, measuring just enough medicine for one day.
By late morning, emergency cases were filtering into the makeshift clinic to the side of the dispensary, and I was asked if I fainted easily at the sight of blood. I answered that I thought I would not faint, and was moved into the clinic. Here, rows of broken school desks and plastic chairs lined each side of the room, and in every chair sat a waiting patient, with a leg or arm propped up on long benches. Each limb had an open wound, the sort of gash that smells like dead flesh. My job was to first treat the wound with antiseptic—no anesthetic—and then use tweezers to carefully pluck maggots out of each sore and drop them into a bucket. I can’t remember how many legs and arms I touched that morning. I only recall the squirming maggots in the plastic cracked bucket, the snap of new plastic gloves, the heat on my face from my mask, the way each person looked away from my silent questions. My mind churned with confusion: anger and fear, mixed together. Frustrated with myself that I did not have the skills to do the job, and angry that the people had to suffer and were not given medicine to help them with their pain.
The morning turned into afternoon, and finally there were no more arms or legs or maggots, but just empty chairs, and it was then that I finally heard the squeals, laughter, and howls of the children. Walking out into the corridor, I found myself suddenly surrounded by 40 or more boys, rocking, running, spinning, and laying on the ground. Pulled down by a blind teenager, I sat near him as he made guttural sounds and hit his head against the wall. The children touched my clothes, my feet, my face, some leaning in close and others promptly running away.
At first, I could see only their bodies. Some boys were folded, like paper bags doubled over. Other boys sat soft and doughy, propped up against the mint green walls. One boy lay on the ground in a puddle of urine, his limbs stiff and bent over his chest, broken. Another child crawled on cupped hands lacking fingers. Faces stretched tight across triangular skulls, eye sockets empty and only holes for noses. One mongoloid child with an enormous head and a tiny body was in a miniature straightjacket, and he stared at me with an expression that frightened me, wild and unruly.
I heard screams coming from a long walkway, and I went to see if someone was hurt. Instead I saw workers pushing a group of children into a room and locking the door. Through the grating I could see a half dozen boys in a basic cement stall, squat toilets lined up in rows. Suddenly one boy threw himself against the grating, his white albino skin smeared with excrement. I moved quickly from the scene and felt something on my hands. Looking down, I saw a teenaged boy scratching them, gnashing his teeth and laughing.
Hands bleeding, I ran to the front entrance to leave, but it was locked. A nun hurried out to unlock the door for me.
“Are you alright?” she asked. I was not alright. I asked her about the children locked in the toilet.
“Don’t judge us. Don’t judge us until you’ve been here for three months. Come back tomorrow.”
The orphanage was called Daya Dan. Many people have criticized this home for special needs children, and one of the most important voices for change was Donal MacIntyre, who worked undercover there in 2005. He reported inhumane treatment, including children being tied to beds, force fed, ill clothed, and malnourished. MacIntyre’s exposé opened the Missionaries of Charity and the orphanage to public scrutiny. It also brought to light the backwards ideas the order had practiced in caring for disabled children. For example, the sisters had defended tying up children as being both taken out of context and appropriate at times, “something that would not be done without a reason,” as well as “educational.”
I had read these accounts long before I arrived at Daya Dan. I’d also read glowing accounts by volunteers who talked about their love for the children and the positive experience Daya Dan had been for them, such as Denise Hudson’s account of her long-term volunteering.
I wanted to find the good, and so I went back to Daya Dan the next day. And the next day, and the day after that. My first day of working at the dispensary and the clinic was never repeated. Instead, I was given the job of teaching a few of the boys. Soon a few weeks had gone by, and I opened, somehow. Opened to the children, opened to the people lined up in the alleyway being more than their wounds, opened to ignoring the fetid smell of illness, opened to not seeing the urine and feces that occasionally ended up on the floor or on me. Opened to the meaning of the screams and sounds, which were actually calls of greeting, replacing words.
And it was in this wide-openness that I fell in love with those kids. I began to understand them. The wild-eyed boy in the straightjacket was pleading to have it taken off. The laughing hand scratcher could not talk and targeted hands of volunteers when he was frustrated. The bow-legged grinning boy needed something to spin each morning. The blind rocking boy would stop hitting his head against the wall if I sang to him.
he children themselves came from all sorts of backgrounds. Their life stories varied wildly from unknown to the darkest side of human nature. One boy was discovered on a pile of trash at age 2, barely alive and in need of surgery that would allow his body to process waste. Another was adopted from an orphanage for “normal” children, but returned after he got meningitis that left him with brain damage. Still another was simply left in the park by his family. Some were abandoned at the tomb of Mother Teresa or on the steps of the orphanage. One boy was found with his limbs broken by his mother, so that he could make a living as a beggar.
Volunteers showed up daily, sent over from Motherhouse, which served as living quarters, chapel, and command central for the sisters. After a daily mass, a free breakfast of white bread and bananas, and camaraderie, volunteers boarded buses and tuk tuk taxis for homes all over the city. Sometimes they came for just a day, and after four hours of doing laundry or changing beds, they posed for selfies with the children. Other times, they stayed for months, becoming part of a devoted community that was almost worshipful of the sisters, even cult-like. Many volunteers, like myself, not only returned year after year, but remained in contact with one another, a network.
Volunteers with some medical training or interest were immediately sent to the clinic or dispensary, while the rest of us spent time with the children or cleaned. Most volunteers did not have any special skills, and had to be trained how to do everything. The tasks were daunting: physical therapy with delicate children whose bodies could easily break, endless changing of diapers and bedding, feeding bodies that rejected food. Some volunteers became upset and frustrated by the inefficiency of what they had to do, paired with the sisters’ seeming lack of willingness to make modern improvements. Mother Teresa had established the order based on simplicity, so refrigerators, washing machines, hot water, modern equipment, and therapies were used only sporadically, if at all.
While the days of tying children to the beds were long since over, I often had to do things I was not comfortable with. I put a severely mentally disturbed child in a padlocked room to keep him from hurting himself and others. I watched helplessly as an epileptic child went crazy from seizures that were not properly monitored. Over and over, I taught children lessons they were not really capable of understanding. I spoon fed children that should have had feeding tubes. I kept children from having physical contact with each other or masturbating, due to the constant fear that they would be removed from the orphanage and sent to one of the men’s homes.
One morning I found myself having to put children in the cement bathroom stall. They pushed against me, some reaching into their pants and trying to smear my clothes with excrement. I barely managed to shut the door. By then I knew more of their story: They were blind, severely mentally disabled, deaf, and had never been potty trained. With 50 boys needing care all at the same time, the active ones who could not follow simple instructions had no other options. There were no personal attendants, no one-on-one caregivers. I had to constantly remind myself that if it were not for these nuns and this orphanage, the odds were that these children would be on the street or dead.
Afternoons were the golden time at the orphanage. The other volunteers were gone, and it was just a handful of workers, the boys, and myself. Sometimes, a musician would come and play music, and all the children would pile in the huge front room and rock in their own private worlds. Other times I’d blow up balloons, 50 or more, and they’d run wildly around, keeping them in the air. On Fridays, some of the nuns would join us for games, pushing the children in go-carts and trikes, habits askew, laughing like children themselves. Or I’d buy treats like fruit and cakes, and they’d messily gorge themselves on buttercream frosting and mangoes. Each afternoon I’d take one boy outside for a walk. Many of them had difficulty with mobility or dealing with unknowns, so we’d simply walk up and down the alleyway as neighbors gave us the sign of peace.
Despite my trepidation those first months, and all the negative press I had read, I fell in love at Daya Dan. I struggled sometimes with what I was asked to do, yet I saw the great effort put into dressing the children each day, keeping them clean, tutoring, therapy for the blind, organizing assemblies, activities, and outings. The difficult part for me was that the standards for treatment seemed antiquated. The children often crawled around on hands and knees rather than using the wheelchairs that filled a storage room. At feeding time, which was done badly, we used spoons to force feed mashed fruits and dhal to boys who had no swallowing reflex. We occasionally used straightjackets instead of behavioral therapy or medicines. The orphanage had no outdoor space where the children could run and play freely.
The sisters and I began to have relationships. Not friendships, but an understanding based on our mutual love of the children. The nuns were not allowed to have close friendships, and when a friendship began to bloom between myself and another nun, one of head nuns told me that such relationships were not permitted, for they “took away” from the love and concentrated devotion required in their order. I did not agree, but I respected the boundaries of the order and tried to support them however I could. The nuns never discussed with me how they felt about anything, as they were exceedingly private. Yet I could see they were more than an order of sisters—they were a culture, a tribe, and one that sometimes bordered on behavior the outside world might view as cult-like. Without the context of accepted religion, the order has often been described in cult terms, most notably in Christopher Hitchens’s study of the MC’s, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.
To become a Missionaries of Charity sister is a heavy task. The process takes nine years once a postulate is accepted as a candidate. Once the nine years are up and she has been accepted into the fold of the MC’s, she then commits to one of the most severely restricted orders in the world. A vow of simple and joyful poverty, a vow of obedience, a giving up of one’s personal freedoms and decision making, a vow of chastity, a separation from family and friends except on rare occasions, and the wearing of pronged chains around the waist for a short periods. She agrees to own few possessions, solely the items issued to her from the order: a few habits, the traditional white sari with blue trim, simple shoes such as flip flops or sandals, a sweater, a rosary, and a small cloth bag with a few essentials. And finally, she agrees to devote her life entirely to the cheerful service of other people, in whatever way is presented to her.
I could see that the order struggled with modernization. They had no contact with the outside world, no ability to see whether or not what they were doing could be improved. The orphanage nuns were dependent on the larger umbrella order, who gave them directives for every aspect of both their lives and the children’s lives. They were unable to use computers, make phone calls, or make decisions on their own. Once, when a spastic teenager was found to have a life threatening infection, they asked me to take him to a hospital along with a young nun. As we dragged the child from hospital to hospital, trying to find one that would accept him and do the surgery but not amputate his legs, it was I who had to give instructions and make phone calls, despite the fact that it took much longer due to a language barrier. The young nun had to stand by helplessly, watching the child crying in pain. The look on the nun’s face was one of abject sorrow, hardly reflective of Mother Teresa’s views on suffering as something which gives joy and should be accepted, as she explains in her private letters shared in Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.
One of the biggest problems the nuns seemed to face was that of money. They never seemed to have enough of it for the things that the orphanage needed, and despite the efforts of some of them to modernize the facility and include specialized areas for therapy, improve the lighting, and create a welcoming home-like environment, they were not allowed to carry money or make purchases. While they never asked me to buy things, they were dependent on volunteers buying the extras that made the children’s’ lives better: extra underwear, clothes, snacks, school supplies, and paying for outings, as well as bigger things, such as occasional repairs or building improvements.
Motherhouse provided the budget for only the children’s’ basic needs, and those needs did not include medical care that was not deemed “necessary.” The order did not pay for things that would improve the quality of life, extend life, or make life more comfortable. Therefore many children had diseases that caused them to suffer, or conditions that were treatable. Sometimes volunteers even paid for medical treatment, as was the case with the child found on the pile of refuse in the street who had been born without an anus. It was volunteers who paid for that surgery. Years after my first visit, when I wished to adopt a child from Daya Dan and discovered that he had an enlarged heart that needed immediate attention and surgery, I was told he would not get the surgery. It was not vital to his life, despite the fact that his oxygen was being cut off from his brain, causing brain damage and creating severe behavioral problems. This situation pained me, and although I saw that it deeply disturbed the sisters who knew about it, they did nothing to change it.
The question constantly arose in my mind: With so many volunteers coming to work for free, and often bringing gifts of clothes, money, and equipment—as well as the purported enormous cash donations that the Missionaries of Charity received each year— why could they not use those resources better? Why did they not pay for medical care?
The Missionaries of Charity is the largest organization of its kind in the world, yet its finances are not public. Mother Teresa herself agreed to share financial statements only when legally mandated to do so. Many believe that the money donated goes not to the poor served by the order, but to the Vatican coffers. While this is hearsay, there are no public figures on how much money the order receives, where it goes, or how it is divided among the homes and shelters they run.
omewhere between staying a few months and staying a year, I found myself no longer wanting to be a Missionary of Charity. I moved automatically through the streets of Calcutta to the orphanage, my only desire to be with the children I had come to love. At one point, the sisters were short staffed, and asked me to move into the orphanage. I slept in the physical therapy room each night, and was awakened by the sounds of the boys calling my name as soon as the sun came up.
Each morning, the view of the alley changed. Someone would always be waiting for food on the front step of the orphanage. Often crumpled, brown, hollow cheeked, yellow eyed. They would wait patiently for a plate of dhal and rice, and as soon as they had eaten and left, another person took their place. An endless procession. Sometimes it was interrupted by a child left for the sisters. Once, I found a tiny boy tied to the door knob, a long red string around his waist, clothes dirty, legs bowed, silent. Other times, a dead body would be in the street nearby in the morning, suffering finally over. But some things remained constant, unwavering: the clinic, full of people every time it was open. The same wounds on different limbs, the same maggots, the same antiseptic smell. The dispensary line always wrapped around the street, everyone waiting from early morning until well into the afternoon.
I watched children become ill and die, never sent to the hospital. Death, for the sisters, was not necessarily a bad thing; it simply marked the end of suffering. Sometimes I felt crazy at the futility of it all. I wished I could steal the children away and save them, but it was impractical. I knew no hospital would take them, and I’d risk losing the opportunity to volunteer with the children at all. Coming from a culture where life is extended as long as it can be, allowing a child to die—even a sickly one—felt utterly confusing. In the end, I held them as they coughed and sputtered and gasped, and told them that I loved them. It always ended the same way: They always asked if they could call me mother, and I always said yes. In the moment of death, there was an absence of me.
The reality was that most of these boys would either die at the orphanage or move to an adult facility, which would be much worse. Despite the fact that few volunteers were allowed to visit the homes for men, I was able to gain access several times to a men’s home run by Missionaries of Charity Brothers outside of Calcutta. The home was in the middle of an area rife with malaria, yet there were few mosquito nets and no medicines given, so many of the men were feverish and ill. The conditions were abhorrent: short staffed, severe punishments, hundreds of people restrained and tied to chairs and beds, ill fed, often crawling with lice and grouped together on plastic sheeting. The men were kept locked indoors most of the day, and were afraid to talk to me or complain. It was one of the most sorrowful and nightmarish places I’ve ever seen.
It was a constant battle to keep in mind that thriving was a luxury for these children and surviving meant learning the rules and not breaking them. This was one of the hardest things I have ever had to overcome—the understanding that I could not help everyone, and when offering help, I had to think about their place in the society they lived in. In this case, they had no place in society. Most of the boys would live the rest of their lives in homes of the Missionaries of Charity order, or with some similar order. They could not live outside an institutionalized setting, and the choices of such settings were few. Unwanted as boys, they would be even more unwanted as men.
I left the orphanage eventually, only to return many times over the years, for I felt I had left my soul with those boys. I stopped daydreaming about becoming a nun, as my experience of living with the sisters helped me to understand that it is not just a life of service one enters, but a complex and layered culture in itself. A culture that I don’t want to belong to and don’t agree with. I even stopped thinking about Mother Teresa as being pure and holy, for I saw that her humanness was what created her order and its rules—rules that will need to adapt to modern life and ideas if the Missionaries of Charity are going to continue to serve the poorest of the poor.
I’ve worked with the Missionaries of Charity sisters in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Bolivia, Bangladesh, France, England, and America. My experience in Calcutta does not stand alone. Poverty and the lack of human rights are universal. Disabled people and children are marginalized everywhere. Malnutrition, poor health care, and access to birth control choices affect women worldwide.
Most people I talk to about Mother Teresa either love her or hate her. Many of her views were upsetting and divisive, including those on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, birth control, women’s rights, the mentally ill, and politics. Also disturbing were her friendships with “dictators, criminals, and con men,” as well as the fact that her order is not serving the poorest of the poor with an emphasis on quality of life. It’s easy to call her and the sisters into question, and we should. We need to call for change.
But perhaps we should call ourselves into question, too.
Why do we allow the unwanted, the disenfranchised, and the individuals with the least economic value to be taken care of by institutions, many of which are religious?
If we believe institutions are necessary or better than individuals, why do we not have more secular institutions set up that welcome individuals willing to give up their lives to service collectively?
Why do we generally see devoting one’s life to serving the poor or needy as a religious calling and not a secular one?
Why are not more of us called into a life of service that is about meeting the needs of others rather than our own security? Not just a week or a year, but a lifetime?
How can being called into a lifetime of service end poverty and create rights for women, the disabled, and children?
These are the questions I ask myself every day. Although I realize I do not have a calling to be a nun, I still feel the pull of a vocation—the vocation of service. And despite what I’ve come to learn about Mother Teresa, it is the combination of seeing her image in a prayer book when I was 7, my Calcutta experiences, and my own desire to rise above my life story that continues to draw me toward that vocation. I still want to be a light of the world.
Photos courtesy of the author.