'For Us, She Was Always A Saint': Kolkata Prepares For Mother Teresa's Canonisation

As Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee prepares to go to Rome for the September 4 canonisation ceremony, Kolkata makes arrangements at Mother House.

Credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Below the surface of the business-as-usual bustle at the Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity where Mother Teresa is buried, there is an undercurrent of ‘joy’ and excitement about the formal canonisation on September 4, by Pope Francis in Rome. To celebrate the event, the only departure from the usual routines of devotion around Mother Teresa’s Feast Day on September 5, are plans for installing two large screens so that the residents and visitors of Mother House can watch the live telecast of the canonisation ceremony.

“For us, she was always a saint,” a sister of the Missionaries of Charity said, refusing to disclose her name. This was exactly what the Gnanachelvan family from London believed about the globally acclaimed nun; she was already a saint, long before her formal induction into the Catholic sainthood. The family flew into Kolkata and only realised on board the aircraft that their visit coincided with the canonisation.

The visit to Kolkata was meant to be a pilgrimage to visit the house where Mother Teresa lived and the Ramakrishna Mission, Siva Gnanachelvan and his wife, Koneswary said. The entire family, with vermillion marks on their foreheads, had come from London to Kolkata, en route to Chennai to pay their respects. Clad in a classic silk gold-bordered mundu, with the angavastram tied around his waist, Gnanachelvan said “We knew about Mother Teresa. She was not a normal human being. What she did was extraordinary; her compassion, her love, her work for the poor and the sick.” What made her exceptional and beyond the ordinary was her work for and among the poor, the family felt.

“Other saints, there are so many of them, allow only the rich to touch them; Mother Teresa touched the poor,” Gnanchelvan explained. His wife was so overwhelmed by the experience that she had tears in her eyes as she spoke about Mother Teresa.

While the Roman Catholic church has been preparing for months for the canonisation ceremony, Kolkata in its usual slap-dash fashion, got round to celebrating the event only on the morning of September 2. Even as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her entourage prepared to fly to Rome, the government and the municipal corporation belatedly began negotiations with the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity to make Mother House the hub for a public congregation to celebrate the canonisation. The plan is to install giant screens outside the nondescript building so that the crowds can stand and watch the live telecast from Rome.

Inside the austere and utilitarian Mother House, it is easy to believe that the serenity of its surroundings have never been touched by controversy. With visitors like Gnanchelvan and family, a woman covered in a burkha, a junior officer from the provident fund commissioner’s office talking to the nuns about the imminent visit of his boss from New Delhi, the non-denominational appeal of Mother Teresa, as a spiritual tour de force, is indisputable.

The dress code of the Missionaries of Charity, the blue bordered white sari, was designed to minimise the alien-ness of the Catholic order from the people it served. That did not however make the Missionaries of Charity anything other than a specifically Roman Catholic religious congregation. Whether that made Mother Teresa into a ‘Hell’s Angel’ as the documentary by Christopher Hitchens concluded or a “fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud” as he wrote after her rushed beatification by Pope John Paul II in 2003, is an open question.

Mother Teresa set up the Missionaries of Charity in 1950, after receiving permission from Rome to do so. The Roman Catholic church allowed her to adopt the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience but did not permit Mother Teresa to opt for extreme poverty and her then desire to own nothing. In its place, the Vatican allowed the Missionaries of Charity to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” This was explained years ago, by the late Monsignor Eric Barber, who once served as priest to the Missionaries of Charity.

Born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu in 1910 to an Albanian family in what is now the Republic of Macedonia, Mother Teresa arrived in India in 1929. She originally belonged to the congregation that is popularly known as the Sisters of Loreto and lived at its convent in Entally, Kolkata. She lived there till 1948, when she was permitted by the Roman Catholic church to live outside and independently begin her work for the poor, along with twelve others, mostly her pupils, thereby initiating the first steps towards establishing the Missionaries of Charity. In recognition of the association with Loreto, students from the school Loreto House in Kolkata, will be part of the procession on September 4.

The Missionaries of Charity was officially established in 1950, on the top floor of a house in Creek Lane with a congregation of 26 sisters. Every account of Mother Teresa’s life begins with how she found her calling to serve the poor when she saw the poverty and the suffering of people who lived beyond the walls of the Entally convent. Her bid to leave the Loreto order and work for the poorest of the poor was not without conflict. Years ago, recalling this Monsignor Barber said that the church took time to give Mother Teresa permission to leave and set up on her own, because it did not want to sanction a project that would peter out.

The legend of Mother Teresa’s service to the poor includes her rescue of the sick and the destitute from the streets of Kolkata, her work with abandoned and sick children, her work with lepers and the dying. The first home she set up for the dying and the destitute was Nirmal Hriday, near Kolkata’s landmark Kalighat temple, and it is still there.

Her work with the dying and the destitute has been controversial with grim accounts of the quality of care that is provided. Among other things, the levels of hygiene and medical services has been criticised by Hemley Gonzalez, who described it as a “scene out of a World War II concentration camp.”

To receive the church’s formal recognition as a saint, miracles are essential as evidence that the deceased is in heaven and is able to intercede with god. The first miracle attributed to Mother Teresa was the miraculous disappearance of Monica Besra’s abdominal tumour. A tribal from South Dinajpur, her tumour disappeared after a medallion of Mother Teresa was tied around her stomach. The Pope recognised the miracle in 2002. The second miracle was of another tumour miraculously disappearing, as reported by a man in Brazil.

Canonisation requires at least two miracles to be confirmed and for consultations with doubters. There is nothing explicit about what role the saint may have played in spreading the faith, but it is understood within the church that proselytising is a mission that must be undertaken. The question is, did Mother Teresa do so? Much is said about how she was respectful of different faiths and how this was strictly upheld, especially in ensuring that the last rites of people who died were performed in accordance to their faith. This does not rule out the possibility that the Missionaries of Charity in general and Mother Teresa in particular, did proselytise.

Her mission, however, was not brainwashing the Hindu mind, a charge made against her by Yogi Adityanath of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The fact is that people of all faiths were devotees of Mother Teresa, when she was alive and even now, after her death.

The fast tracked canonisation of Mother Teresa in less than 20 years since her death in 1997 is part of the surge in creating saints by the Vatican, which started with Pope John Paul II, who canonised around 500 saints and continues now with Pope Francis. In her lifetime, Mother Teresa was universally known as the Saint of the Gutters. The Nobel Peace Prize recognised her work among the poorest and the most vulnerable.

This canonisation, which spreads the message of the evils of poverty, is entirely in line with Pope Francis’s explicit call for a different world order. It makes of Mother Teresa a messiah, which she never claimed to be, because her mission was to serve the poor, not change things to remove poverty. Yet her elevation to sainthood serves the Pope’s purpose: “Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home” of drawing attention to what becomes of the poor after greed for money presides.

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