There was a picture of her on the wall. A portrait. She looked like a saint. The artist had painted a soft golden glow around her head; as if she were an angel. I didn’t know who she was, but it was a comfort, to walk into somewhere so unfamiliar and feel watched over by this wholesome, grinning grandmother-figure.
Eleven years old, three months away from leaving primary education, I was one of just four people from my whole year group that would be transferring to the local Catholic school instead of following my friends into state-controlled teaching. On my first day, I was the only person who didn’t know what the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ was, or how to move my hands when they told us to do the ‘sign of the cross’.
There are few more familiar images of my early Catholic education than the face of Mother Teresa. In her holiness as a woman, and our worship of her, she seemed second only to that of the ‘Virgin’ Mary. That she hadn’t already been declared a saint seemed almost more bizarre than her canonisation does now. I grappled with this misinformation for a long time after leaving school. The teachers there had cared about our education, had cared about us ahead of any religious biases. In classes, we debated faith, philosophy, we questioned the bible and we questioned the church, but we never dissented from the narrative that Mother Teresa was the modern image of sanctity and righteousness.
Mother Teresa dedicated her life to eradicating poverty. She gave up the 20th century world of materialism to help the destitute and diseased, often risking her own life on the front lines of her missionary work. She said sweet things like “peace begins with a smile”. By the time of her death in 1997, she had won the Nobel Peace Prize and was operating 517 missions in 100 different countries. Or at least, that is the official line created by 35 years of aggressive campaigning by the Church to make Mother Teresa the poster of modern Catholicism.
Missionary work in itself is a branch outgrowing the roots of an ancient tree of intolerance and discrimination. Often white, often rich individuals dedicate their lives to enshrining themselves in cultures that they know nothing about. It’s no coincidence that the main efforts of these delegations have been focused for the past few centuries on largely non-white countries. The church labels them as barbaric and languages, traditions, ancestry, culture is destroyed at the touch of a hand, in a matter of years. In the time of the crusades, this was done by a violent force, but the manipulative nature of emotional blackmail that missionaries use today is no more moral. Our fascination with figures like Mother Teresa, white men and women who are applauded for their work ‘saving’ people in non-white areas makes it blatantly clear just how entrenched white supremacy still is in our collectivity.
And let’s make it extra clear; Mother Teresa was motivated almost wholly by ministry. She publicly bragged about coercing vulnerable people into conversions on their deathbeds. Her staunch views on women’s bodies were made clear when she declared abortion ‘the biggest destroyer’ of ‘love and peace’ — a speech she received a standing ovation. Two people who refused to stand for her in that moment were President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, his wife. She was a loud critic of contraception and divorce laws, and spent most of her life campaigning in country after country against women’s rights. Whilst she claimed to believe that these issues were the enemies of those she was supposedly trying to help — or, convert — she was happy to dissent where it concerned her rich, white friends, such as Princess Diana, for whom she lent her public support after her divorce from Prince Charles.
Even when it came to her work with the children she is so well known for ‘supporting’, her aid was so dangerously lacking it bordered on negligent. Her Christianity harboured an obsession with suffering and death that influenced her care more than her desire to help ever would. She saw the struggle of those in poverty as admirable, she envied it, she thought it brought them closer to God. She likened their suffering to Christ on the cross and, in the worst years, she encouraged and condoned it; even within her ‘hospitals’ and ‘orphanages’. This abuse was especially rife in India, where she had risen to fame. Qualified doctors who visited her institutions were appalled at their conditions. Medical care was administered by volunteers with no medical training, hygiene was substandard, needles were reused until they became blunt, pain management was non-existent and staff were not able to make distinctions between those who were dying, and those who had curable illnesses.
In the 1950s, Mother Teresa helped found a ‘home for the dying’, where “people who lived like animals” could come to “die like angels”. She told those in pain that they were being “kissed by Jesus”, yet on her own deathbed was happy to accept the very best medical care on offer to her. One reporter who went undercover in one of her Kolkata homes described the conditions as “squalid” with nothing on the walls but pictures of their “mother” and attendants that laughed at children who had soiled themselves after being tied to beds all day. There was no dignity in the supposed care of these white-robed nuns.
The Church made sure there were plenty of pictures of her holding these children, though. She claimed that God had told her to help the poor whilst living amongst them, but in the peak of her career she spent very little time in Kolkata — the city she has become so synonymous with. She was jetted off to country after country; one day rallying against divorce laws in Ireland, the next being photographed with victims of natural and industrial disasters; none of which saw any share of the millions of pounds of funding her charity was receiving at the time. Mother Teresa claimed her mission was wholly apolitical, but on reaching the heights of fame, she spent most of her time directly intervening in political affairs across the globe.
Some of her loudest critics are from Kolkata themselves. Unlike her, they were born and raised there. Despite being connected with the city, she barely spoke any Bengali. The cultural and intellectual life of the area was completely neglected in its work, those around her were assimilated into western Christianity. She spent very little time with the masses, instead preferring the company of India’s rich and influential. This much is acknowledged, even by her own spiritual minister. Mother Teresa is not only the face of what the Church hopes to be ‘modern’ Catholicism, but, in the words of historian Vijay Prashad “the quintessential image of the white woman in the colonies, working to save the dark bodies from their own temptations and failures”.
To this day, money continues to be an issue with the ‘Missionaries of Charity’ that Mother Teresa established in 1950. They refused to publish their accounts in India, where it is required by law. When asked to do the same in Germany, they responded that it was “none of their business”. A former sister put the annual figures of the organisation’s income at around $50 million in New York alone, but there is little evidence of any expenditures. Locally, services largely rely on donations and the appalling state of care in Mother Teresa’s time makes it clear that very little money makes it back to those they are helping, and new missions set up across the world are expected to become self-sufficient. Her charity received money from known-fraudsters, and when they were convicted in a criminal court, she tried to use her large personal influence to change the outcome of the trial. Sources suggest that the majority of money she received was sent straight to the Vatican bank; an institution few will believe in more dire need of assistance than India’s most vulnerable citizens.
However, it may explain why she was able to make so many friends in high places. Often shown photographed with Princess Diana, the Clintons and Pope John Paul II, very few touch on her close relationship with the Duvalier regime in Haiti. The Duvalier family lived in luxury whilst many in the country suffered in poverty, they tortured and murdered political rivals, and were involved in the underground trading of drugs and body parts. Their brutal regime was no secret at the time, but all Mother Teresa had to say was that they were full of love. In her home country of Albania, she laid flowers on the grave of former Communist dictator, Enva Hoxha. Despite her international fame, when Mother Teresa died in Kolkata few people — rich or poor — came to visit her body, left in her room for two days until moved by her fellow missionaries. Only around 100 non-missionaries or government officials attended her state led funeral; it would seem that her relationship with the city that made her so famous was even then more strained than the Church would like us to believe.
There have been plenty of resources denouncing the memory of Mother Teresa, and they are incredibly important in this time of unquestioned celebration. Believing that you are helping those you harm will never be enough of an excuse. Mother Teresa may not have been one of the most evil people to have walked this earth, but she was no saint. Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was a very real, very flawed human being who often doubted her faith and failed those she aimed to assist. It is time to move beyond the glorification of white supremacy and colonialist guilt, and canonisation of Mother Teresa exemplifies the Catholic Church’s refusal to move into the modern world.