Mother Teresa Less Than a Saint for the Sick?

2013-03-03 12:17

Mother Teresa is often held up as an icon of altruism, selflessness, and caring for the sick and oppressed. Yet some researchers report they have proof that Mother Teresa was less than a saint when it came to helping others, and this finding may stir both anger and interest.

Did Mother Teresa help the sick?

Questions about how Mother Teresa, whose was born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, treated the sick and poor and managed the hundreds of millions of dollars she accumulated have been circulating quietly for years. While the authors of a new report shed light on these questions, one individual in particular had already laid some of the groundwork.

Author and journalist Christopher Hitchins looked into the types of care the sick and poor received in Mother Teresa’s facilities and questioned the huge sums of money she was given over the years. This included large sums from the Nobel Peace committee as well as numerous religious and secular institutions and organizations and wealthy individuals such as the notorious Duvalier family (Baby Doc) in Haiti and Charles Keating (of the infamous savings and loan scandal).

When Mother Teresa was asked about her wealth during an interview, she pointed out that she had opened nunneries and convents in 120 countries. Yet apparently all that money did not improve the facilities or the care they were supposed to provide.

In an article that appeared in Free Inquiry magazine, Hitchins explained that “the care facilities are grotesquely simple: rudimentary, unscientific, miles behind any modern conception of what medical science is supposed to do.” Hitchins noted in a Slate article that “the primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been” and that “she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself.”

Now a new analysis of Mother Teresa and her work with the sick and poor has been penned by Serge Larivee and Genevieve Chenard of the University of Montreal and Carole Senechal of the University of Ottawa. The investigators reviewed more than 280 documents, which represented 96 percent of the published work on Mother Teresa and the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded.

Mother Teresa had a unique perspective of the people she said she served. “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,” was her response to criticism of her work. Did Mother Teresa provide adequate health and medical care for the sick and poor?

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The investigators reported that physicians who visited her facilities “observed a significant lack of hygiene, even unfit conditions, as well as a shortage of actual care, inadequate food, and no painkillers.” In addition, Hitchens noted that numerous volunteers who went to her facilities in Calcutta “came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the ‘Missionaries of Charity.’”

If Mother Teresa received hundreds of millions of dollars, where did they go? The authors of the new report point out that while Mother Teresa freely offered her prayers and medallions of the Virgin Mary for people in need, including people who suffered devastation after serious floods in India, she held onto her cash. She never allowed an audit of her funds, and most of her bank accounts were kept secret.

Others have criticized Mother Teresa’s work with the ill and poor. Dr. Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, described the services offered by Mother Teresa’s facilities as “haphazard” and pointed out a lack of physicians and professional medical care.

A former Missionary of Charity member for 11 years, Colette Livermore, exposed some of the problems in her book Hope Endures: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning.

In the book, Livermore wrote that “I had given all I had to live Mother Teresa’s ideal of ‘serving Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor’ but had left her order in 1984 disillusioned and far short of wholeness. My youthful belief and ideals had not withstood the realities of that life.”

Positive side of the Mother Teresa myth
The stories and myths surrounding Mother Teresa’s life and her work and the subsequent efforts to make her a saint may leave people with many questions and doubts in their minds about what this woman truly accomplished for the ill, poor, and dying. Despite evidence that Mother Teresa’s life was not saint material, the Canadian authors do note a positive side of the myth.

Larivee pointed out that “It is likely that she has inspired many humanitarian workers whose actions have truly relieved the suffering of the destitute and addressed the causes of poverty and isolation without being extolled by the media.” If for no other reason, this may be the lasting legacy of Mother Teresa, although there will be many people who don’t agree.

Cherry, Matt. Christopher Hitchins on Mother Theresa (interview). Secular Humanism, from Free Inquiry magazine, vol. 16(4)
Fox R. Mother Theresa’s care for the dying. Lancet 1994 Sep 17; 344(8925): 807-8
Hitchins, Christopher. Mommie dearest. Slate. October 20, 2003
Larivee S et al. Les cotes tenebreaux de Mere Teresa [Dark dimensions of Mother Teresa]. Studies in Religion 2013 Jan 15. Doi: 10.1177/0008429812469894
Livermore, Colette. Hope Endures. Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning. Free Press, 2008. Prologue

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Updated July 16, 2014



I have personally witnessed and testify to the selfless and unmatched love Missionaries of Charity have displayed working with mentally disabled orphan children in Armenia. In 1988 Armenia's northern part was rocked by a strong earthquake leaving more than 20,000 dead. Within weeks Mother Teresa traveled to Armenia establishing a care center near the city of Spitak, which for many years operated in mobile homes. In 2003 I visited there after an American friend (Ph.D in Music) visited them and recommended me to visit as well. I was struck by the unparallelled love and care these young sisters were giving to more than 40 mentally disabled orphan kids. I would go against my consciousness to say anything less than great about these sister. To this day I remember the true, selfless love and enthusiasm they were putting in their care for these children. I knew I was not that strong, as probably the author of this book, to do the same. These sisters, who came from different parts of the world, explained that they do this without seeking any reward in this world. Their eyes were toward the Kingdom of Heaven and toward the true love of Jesus, two concepts so foreign to the overwhelming majority of people, including those who are called to serve Him.
I sincerely appreciate your comments and your perspective. It is important for individuals to hear both sides of any story, and the new report from the University of Montreal represents one such perspective. I expected this article to draw some debate because it introduces a side to the story that many people may not have heard. Perhaps this article from the University of Montreal will spark some individuals to explore the topic further. Thank you for your comments and the additional information you have provided.
Thank you Deborah.
Researchers have failed to realize the ground reality and that's the reason for accusation. Mother Teresa's facility was not a posh, super specialty hospital. It was an asylum for lepers and homeless patients. Patients themselves were not clean and in rags. You cannot expect ultra-modern treatment in that infrastructure. These researchers who cannot stoop even to touch such a patient or to accommodate these stinking patients should not throw mud on Teresa after her death.
Are they trying to say that leaving these people to suffer and die on the streets would be more noble than providing them "simple, rudimentary,unscientific, miles behind any modern conception care facilities".... If she just gave them some food, and nothing else it would still be more than what all of these researches together did for them.
Dory. Thank you for your comment. In my opinion, the information provided by the authors of the study is not saying that it would have been better to let these people suffer and die or that Mother Teresa should not have given them food. While she did provide many benefits for people in need, there appears to have been a less than saintly side to her as well. She was human and humans have flaws. At the same time, there are many other people in the world who do "saintly" deeds for others and they are never recognized for their actions, nor do they seek the attention. So perhaps elevating Mother Teresa to the level of "saint" is the real question. There are likely many "saints" among us.