March 6, 2013

Mother Teresa Wasn’t Really a “Saint?” ~ Thandiwe Ogbonna

Photo: Peter Lopez

New research debates the reality of the media depiction of the beloved altruist.

A study conducted by three Canadian researchers, to be published in the March issue of the journal Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, calls into question the favorable image of Mother Teresa portrayed by the media and the Catholic Church.

The researchers—Serge Larivée and Genevieve Chenard of the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychoeducation, and Carole Sénéchal of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education—consulted close to 300 documents concerning the life of Mother Teresa. Their findings are controversial.

Mother Teresa founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in 1950. The organization grew to over 500 missions located around the world by the time of her death, each providing aid to the poor and sick. But the researchers say, according to doctors who have visited the missions, conditions and care there are substandard. From an article on the study, “The doctors observed a significant lack of hygiene, even unfit conditions, as well as a shortage of actual care, inadequate food, and no painkillers.”

And surely, the organization does not lack funding. It has received millions of dollars in grants and donations. Which, if the research is correct, would raise the question, where has all the money gone? “During numerous floods in India or following the explosion of a pesticide plant in Bhopal, [Mother Teresa] offered numerous prayers and medallions of the Virgin Mary but no direct or monetary aid,” the article claims.

The three believe this to be a result of an odd notion of the value of suffering held by Mother Teresa. She has been quoted as saying, “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.” Of course, none are perfect in their beliefs, and whether this sentiment has led to improper handling of the Order’s resources, I cannot affirm, but the statement does seem a bit peculiar.

How could she manage to gain such an adoring public image, despite the alleged failures of the OMC? According to the researchers, a fateful meeting with the BBC journalist Malcom Muggeridge in 1968 changed everything. Sharing her Catholic values, he began to promote Mother Teresa using the media. This led to international travel and the garnering of several awards.

From her official bio, published by the Vatican:

“During the years of rapid growth the world began to turn its eyes towards Mother Teresa and the work she had started. Numerous awards, beginning with the Indian Padmashri Award in 1962 and notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, honoured her work, while an increasingly interested media began to follow her activities. She received both prizes and attention ‘for the glory of God and in the name of the poor.’

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time an iconic figure’s life has been distorted or glamorized by the media. If Muggeridge saw an opportunity to advance his own religious views, he may have played fast and loose with, or even ignored, the truth about Mother Teresa’s work for personal gain. Or, maybe he really did believe in the merits of her ministry and wanted to share it with the world.

Just two years after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the process of canonization was begun, although the Vatican usually requires a five-year waiting period. In 2002, her sainthood was confirmed, the researchers assert, in spite of doctors’ doubts about the miracle attributed to her. “What could be better than beatification followed by canonization of this model to revitalize the Church and inspire the faithful especially at a time when churches are empty and the Roman authority is in decline?” they ask in the article.

I must object to this as conjecture, with a lack of direct evidence to support it being provided in the article, but the question brings up an interesting point. If these claims are true, the Church is implicated in either an intentional dilution of the facts for its own benefit, or a failure to thoroughly investigate the life of a proposed saint.

In spite of the perceived inconsistencies between the true story and the portrayal of Mother Teresa’s life, the researchers do acknowledge one thing. From the article:

“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.”

I agree that Mother Teresa’s work has inspired many, but the issues raised here are hard to ignore. What is your take on these findings? Are the researchers correct in making these claims?

The full study is currently only available online for a fee (and sadly, only in French). Hopefully, it will be translated and made available to those who wish to make a more informed decision about the validity of its allegations.


Mother Teresa: anything but a saint…
Mother Teresa of Calcutta


An aspiring hoop dancer who dreams of flying, Thandiwe Ogbonna is a recently graduated, sometimes aggravated, partially animated and fully fascinated editor, who timidly ventures into the minefield of writing. You can visit her blog Musical Meditations and Magic Moments or find it on Facebook, or email her at [email protected].

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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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