If you look at any given list of the ‘best people to ever live’, it’s a safe bet that Mother Teresa is probably on there. She’s hailed as the pinnacle of human kindness, and was not long ago declared a saint in front of huge crowds of the Vatican. But does she deserve the world’s love and admiration?
Born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa was an Albanian-Indian Roman catholic nun and missionary. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Noble Peace Price. Most of us were probably taught that she was a kind spirited missionary who aided the sick and organized charity work; but what most people are not aware of is that Teresa was a controversial figure even while she was still alive. She was both praised and criticized for her anti-abortion views, and she was criticized for the abysmal sanitary conditions in the houses for the dying she run (despite $72 million in annual donations to her facility). From an early age, Anjeze was fascinated by the lives of missionaries and by age 12 she had made up her mind that she would one day join them. She left home in 1928 at the age of 18 to join the sisters of Loretto, then proceeded to teach at Saint Teresa’s school- a schoolhouse near her convent. In 1946, among the horror of Hindu-Muslim violence, Teresa experienced what she later described as ‘the call within the call’… She said, “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
Joined by a group of young women, they laid the foundations of a new religious community helping the poorest of the poor, and in 1950 Teresa received Vatican permission to start the congregation that would become the missionaries of charity.What began as a small congregation in Calcutta with a mere 13 members had grown to more than 4000 sisters running orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centers around the world by 1997. But while Mother Teresa did do more than most people to organize aid for the poor, she was involved in some very shady business practices…
Teresa’s clinics received millions of dollars in donations yet their conditions were appalling. There was a disturbing shortage of medical care, systematic diagnostics and necessary nutrition as well as a decided lack of painkillers. Teresa once told a cancer patient that pain means Jesus is near you and that suffering is an opportunity to share in the passion of Christ. Teresa said that she compared suffering to kisses from Jesus, to which the patient replied, “Please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.”
One of Teresa’s most outspoken critics was Christopher Hitchens, an English journalist, literally critic and anti theist, who wrote the extended essay The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. In one article he wrote, “Mother Teresa was not a friend to the poor; she was a friend to poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” He went on to accuse her of hypocrisy for opting to receive advanced Western treatment for her heart condition, when she routinely denied even painkillers to her patients.
Hitchens was called by the Vatican as a witness to give evidence against Teresa’s canonization process, and during that time Hitchens had the opportunity to speak to Teresa. He reported, “It was by talking to her that I discovered, and she assured me, that she wasn’t working to alleviate poverty. She was working to expand the number of Catholics. She said ‘I’m not a social worker. I don’t do it for this reason. I do it for Christ. I do it for the Church.'”
In keeping with her seemingly masochistic tendencies, on several occasions Teresa only offered prayers and medallions of the Virgin Mary to victims of natural disasters in India rather than actual aid monetary or otherwise. A former volunteer at Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s favorite home, claimed “needles were washed in cold water and reused,” in spite of a widespread of AIDS. Also, according to Forbes, soiled and infected clothes were washed by hand and reused… But of course, the Vatican never let’s the truth get in the way of a good story.
Teresa also had some rather dubious political contacts, and she’s accused of accepting a financial grant from the Duvalier dictatorship (whose rule she praised in return) which is deemed responsible for the murders of over 30,000 Haitians between 1957-1986. She is also known for taking misappropriated money from Charles Keating, the greatest fraud in American history.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Mother Teresa’s charitable foundations raised hundreds of millions of dollars during her lifetime but much of that money appears to have vanished into several secret bank accounts that the nun kept. This is the money that was supposed to fund proper care for the poor and the sick. A 1991 investigation by a German news magazine called Stern revealed that only 7% of the money at that time was actually used for charity. In 2008, former Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Nirmala, told the media Mother Teresa’s charity received “countless” donations each year, but she wouldn’t get specific about what it was used for. The most likely explanation is that Teresa, over the course of her life, siphoned millions of dollars out of her charities and into the coffers of the Roman Catholic church. As we saw before, her allegiance was not with the sick but with the church.
Mother Teresa did more to spread Catholicism than many others, however, it was at the expense of the health, comfort and humanity of her patients. Her hospitals became known as houses of the dying where she and her sisters would baptize the ailing without their consent or understanding. According to a close companion of Mother Teresa’s, Father Maasburg, Mother Teresa and her nuns would sneakily baptize Hindus and Muslims on their deathbed. They were out to make converts, not save lives. If someone got a roof over their head in the process, well that was great PR. She also opposed abortion and birth control in one of the most cripplingly overpopulated countries on earth, thereby ensuring the viscous cycle of poverty continued. Calcutta had been projected in bad light to the world- by none other than Mother Teresa- Gutters of Calcutta and Black Holes of Calcutta were frequent in her vocabulary.
All this being said, Teresa’s legacy was not all bad, as one of her critics said, “If the extraordinary image of Mother Teresa conveyed in the collective imagination has encouraged humanitarian initiatives that are genuinely engaged with those crushed by poverty, we can only rejoice. 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.”