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Mother Teresa's legacy is under a cloud


Prince Mathews Thomas, Forbes India
Aug 07, 2010 at 01:45pm IST

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They call her the 'Angel of Mercy'. She was compassion incarnate; she didn't think twice before touching a leper on the road or cleaning a festering wound on an unfortunate soul. She was equally at ease breaking bread with the homeless at Nirmal Hriday or standing toe-to-toe with world leaders exhorting them to do good. She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in faraway Albania a 100 years ago on August 26. The world knows her as Mother Teresa. Social workers all around the world have drawn inspiration from her work and commitment to her cause. Yet, today in her centennial year, her legacy has lost its shine and is in disrepair.

When one pays a visit to Mother House, the heart of the 58-year-old Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, one doesn't see anything out of the ordinary. Sisters in the well recognised blue-bordered white saris go about their work. Locals come in ones and twos, bow in front of a statue of the woman they fondly call Maa and go inside the small chapel where her body has been resting for 13 years. In the chapel a group of sisters are kneeling, singing hymns. Located in one of the lanes of Taltala, home to lower class workers in west Kolkata, it is calm and pious, a world away from the cacophony outside on the busy A.J.C. Bose road.

But the cacophony is threatening to spill inside the Missionaries. Followers and volunteers are questioning the quality of service given in the care centres. They feel the Missionaries' care centres are allergic to using modern-day therapy and technology to care for the inhabitants. Often untrained volunteers are given tasks that would normally require one to be trained in medicine and therapy. Missionaries has always kept change at bay. But in a world where it is very difficult to hide behind secrecy, the number of disillusioned followers is increasing. Missionaries doesn't keep a tab on the financial transactions that take place. No one other than the sisters knows where the money that is donated is spent. Donations continue to pour in but people are asking for transparency on how the money is being used.

Mother Teresa's legacy is under a cloud

Today in her centennial year, her legacy has lost its shine and is in disrepair.

The discord is most pronounced in the first home that Mother Teresa set up in 1952 — Nirmal Hriday, the Home for Dying Destitutes. A former rest house for followers from the nearby temple of Goddess Kali, the Home is a perfect picture for the work that Missionaries is known for. Disabled, disfigured and homeless men and women, many of whom are living their last days, find shelter here. It presently has 99 inmates, served by six sisters and dozens of volunteers, mostly young foreigners. The poor are bathed, clothed and fed until they recover and leave, or die. "Over the years, 86,170 people have been admitted. Of which 34,815 died," says Sister Glenda, the head of Nirmal Hriday. It was Mother's favourite home.

It is the kind of work that inspired Hemley Gonzalez, who lived on the other side of the world in Miami, United States. A migrant from Cuba, Gonzalez had grown up in a poor neighbourhood and was inspired after reading a biography of Mother Teresa. "I wanted to come to India and serve in Kalighat (the place where Nirmal Hriday is situated)," he recounts over the phone. Gonzales, who runs a real estate business in Miami, reached Kolkata in December 2008 and stayed for two months.

"I was shocked to see the negligence. Needles were washed in cold water and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates. There were people who had chance to live if given proper care," says Hemley. He narrates incidents of an untrained volunteer wrongly feeding a paralysed inmate, who choked to his death; and another where an infected toe of an inmate was cut without anesthesia. "I have decided to go back to Kolkata to start a charity that will be called 'Responsible Charity.' Each donation will be made public and professional medical help will be given," says Hemley, who now runs a campaign on Facebook called 'Stop Missionaries of Charity,' and has over 2,000 members.

"We should remember that Mother Teresa was clear that Missionaries of Charity was not operating a hospital. The homes are to serve the poor and give them the basic needs," says Sunita Kumar, wife of former India Davis Cup coach Naresh Kumar and one who has been working with Missionaries' sisters for over four decades.

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