In Depth

Who was Mother Teresa? Saint or sadist

On the anniversary of the Catholic saint’s birth, her legacy is more complex than ever

Mother Teresa, who was born 118 years ago this week, remains a controversial figure more than 20 years after her death.

Once almost universally revered as a paragon of Christian charity, her legacy is now far less clear-cut.

Who was Mother Teresa?

Born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu on 26 August 1910 in what is now Macedonia, Teresa became a nun at the age of 18, having spent much of her childhood convinced she felt a “call” from God to commit herself to a religious life.

In 1950, she travelled to Kolkata (then Calcutta) in India after receiving what she described as the “call within a call”.

There, she set up the Missionaries of Charity order, along with 12 followers, to help the poor and destitute of the city. The order now has hundreds of thousands of employees and volunteers. It runs 758 homes, hospices and shelters in 139 countries around the world.

In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. She died in 1997 and was canonised as a saint 19 years after – a remarkably quick turnaround by Vatican standards.

Why is Mother Teresa so controversial?

In 2016, she was canonised by Pope Francis – but not without fierce controversy. Detractors called her a fraud whose actions exacerbated rather than relieved the suffering of the poor.

Outsiders visiting her Kolkata hospitals reported “grossly inadequate medical care was given to the sick and dying, syringes were reused without sterilisation, pain relief was non-existent or negligible and conditions were unhygienic”, reports The Guardian.

Some critics suggested that Mother Teresa’s hospitals and hospices were not only ineffective at relieving suffering, but deliberately so.

Journalist Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a book criticising the “cult” of Mother Teresa, quoted her 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.”

Her hardline opposition to contraception and abortion have also attracted criticism for further exacerbating the misery of the poor.

Meanwhile, Teresa herself became a global celebrity and spent much of her time travelling around the world in a private plane to meet political leaders.

Hemley Gonzalez, who volunteered for the order ten years after Teresa’s death, wrote that the nun’s head had been turned by “hordes of sycophants”.

Mother Teresa is also accused of misallocating millions of pounds donated by well-wishers around the world, investing money in the Vatican Bank rather than spending it on improving the lives of the poor.

That decision should be viewed in context, says Medium’s Anthony Galli. The elderly nun “wasn’t spending it on a shopping spree” but thought it was better to fund the Church to further its proselytising mission.

Alleviating misery on earth “wasn’t of great importance” within that ideology, he writes. “The goal was to get as many people in the door as possible, i.e. the church door and then heaven’s door.”

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