It’s about 1pm on a muggy August afternoon in Kolkata, as a young girl from Japan knocks hesitantly at the door of 54A AJC Bose Road in the city’s central quarters. Popularly known as Mother House, the building that was Mother Teresa’s residence from the 1950s till her death in 1997, and where she was buried after her death, attracts many visitors daily from across the world – pilgrims as well as volunteers, like the young girl from Japan, keen to work with the Mission. It is also the global headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity (MC), started by Mother Teresa in 1950. The Vatican is set to Canonise Mother on September 4, but for those whose lives she touched, and changed for the better, the selfless nun was always a saint.
“Many press people used to ask her and me, what will happen to Missionaries of Charity after her. And she used to say it will grow further and that the same work and care will carry on,” recalls Missionaries of Charity spokesperson and Mother Teresa’s long-time associate, Sunita Kumar. “Missionaries of Charity has grown tremendously (since her death) and at an enormous speed. I think she (Mother Teresa) is working from up there,” she says
From 605 homes in 120-125 countries when Mother Teresa died, the Missionaries of Charity today has 745 homes in 135-140 countries. There are 200 novices currently attached to the MC and over 6,000 sisters. Then there are the chapters of MC Brothers and Fathers, says Kumar. “After Mother passed away, people from across the world who had been donating to MC came to Calcutta and assured Sister Nirmala (the superior after Mother Teresa) that they were still with the cause,” says Kumar.
The early years
It was in 1946 that Mother Teresa, at that time a nun with the Loreto congregation, experienced what she later described as “the call within the call” to leave the convent and live and work among the poor and the destitute. In 1948 she left Loreto and in 1950 received permission from the Vatican to start the congregation that would become Missionaries of Charity. “In those early days when she was founding small communities, the Jesuit Fathers were a great help to her. She had her own spiritual fathers among the Jesuit fathers of St Xavier’s,” informs Father Felix Raj, principal, St Xavier’s College Kolkata. Years before it was a visit of a Jesuit priest from Calcutta to her school in Europe that had inspired a young Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu to take the veil and choose to come to India when she grew up. In 1966 a Jesuit priest, Father Andrew, joined the fledgling congregation of the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, started by Mother Teresa in 1963, and took over the guidance of the congregation.
The relationship with the Jesuits and especially the St Xavier’s family has continued even after Mother’s death, says Father Felix Raj. The same is true of Mother’s and the Missionaries’ relationship with Loreto. “We were complementary. When she would bring children from the streets, Entally Convnt was open for them and many of the boarders were from Mother Teresa’s,” says Sister Bernadette and Sister Eithne, of Loreto Convent. Another Loreto sister adds, “Even today MC sisters bring children to our schools”.
In Mother’s Footsteps
Almost everything is as Mother left it. At Nirmal Hriday in Kolkata’s Kalighat area, the first MC centre opened by Mother Teresa, sisters and volunteers work in tandem on a Sunday morning. Devotional music plays in the background. One volunteer gives the male inmates a shave, another distributes tea and biscuits. The number of volunteers has tripled in the years since Mother’s death, says Kumar. Many are from abroad. A Sister at Nirmal Hriday points to the volunteer who is giving a shave to the male inmates and says, “He has been coming for years.”
Some sisters are busy dressing wounds. There were 54 male and 48 women inmates at Nirmal Hriday when HT visited the facility earlier this month. “Most of them have been picked up from stations and streets. When they come in, they have big wounds, often maggot-infested. After they have been bathed and cleaned and given primary nursing, they undergo a medical examination to check whether they have any serious ailments. Those found to be suffering from tuberculosis are shifted to our facility in Baruipur, those infected with HIV are moved to the facility in Tangra. There is another shelter for leprosy patients. Others with severe health issues are shifted to hospitals or given specialised medical care here. We have cancer and burn patients among the present inmates,” explains a Sister.
Almost at all homes the system of work followed is the same. Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, a shelter for children in Kolkata, the second home started by Mother, has two wings, one for normal children and the other for those with special needs. There were 33 children with special needs living there at the time of the HT visit. “The oldest child is 15, the youngest three years old,” says one Sister. Most of the children were playing with volunteers or the paid staff. Many of the games involved degrees of physiotherapy to help them overcome their handicap. “Physiotherapists come thrice a week to train the staff. We have school for the visually impaired on the campus. Teachers come and give classes to children with special needs. They are not sent out to school because they have severe handicaps,” she explains.
In the other wing, the staff is feeding and playing with the infants, two of whom were being fed through tubes since they had problem eating normally. A group of toddlers run out to make their way to the kindergarten school on the campus. Another group is being taught nursery rhymes inside. “Most of the children are severely malnourished when they are brought in. Care and nourishment is what they most require,” says a Sister. It’s not a permanent shelter and children leave once they are well enough to do so, she says. Also unlike in the initial years when the sisters would pick up orphans from the streets and take care of them at the shelter, now the children have to come in through the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). “If the volunteers or Sisters do find a child who needs care, we have to first inform the CWC. Legalities are very strict now,” says the Sister.
A Feel of Home
The same adherence to legalities can be seen at the facilities for the grown-ups. At Prem Dan, another shelter for the old and the destitute, a Sister informs that every time they take in a new inmate they have to inform the police. “Most of them are old and infirm. Some have lost the mental stability or their memories. After receiving care here, if they are able to tell us anything about their families, we try to reconnect them, but at times the families don’t want them back,” she says. At the time of HT’s visit, there were 197 male and over 140 women inmates being cared for at Prem Daan. One of the inmates Teresa Fernandes’s life has come a full circle at Missionaries of Charity. She had got married at Shishu Bhavan, to an orphan who had been brought up there. Now after the death of her husband and children, in the twilight of her life, with no one to take care of her, she is back at Missionaries of Charity.
At Nirmal Hriday and Prem Daan, the women are dressed in identical maxis, their hair shaved off, or cut brutally short, possibly for ease of care. A young inmate at Prem Daan repeatedly requests this journalist to write him a gate pass. A life of freedom beckons him, even when it is one too hard for him to bear. In most cases the Sisters are reluctant to let journalists interact with inmates, “since they are often not in a condition to talk coherently”, they say.
“The Sisters are working in very difficult circumstances. The challenge is they are running homes for the dying and destitute, for children, very difficult to handle these people, they are running homes for the mentally retarded, for TB patients, for cancer patients. This type of works is not easy to do. It needs personal commitment. It needs spiritual strength,” says Father Felix Raj.
In Choppy Waters
While the dedication of the Sisters and the work done by the MC is widely appreciated, the years have not been without some rough riding. After Mother Teresa’s death, during Sister Nirmala’s time, there were allegations of physical abuse in the children’s home. “There was a Sister who had accidentally hurt a boy. The boy had been stealing in the home. The case went to court. Sister Nirmala told the judge yes, my Sister has made this mistake in a temper. The spoon she was holding was hot, it touched the child’s hand, it’s not that she did it intentionally,” explains Kumar. More recently, the MC was in the eye of a controversy when it closed its adoption centres last year. Speculation was rife as to whether the decision was taken because the guidelines allowed single individuals and those with alternate sexuality to adopt children, or because according to the latest guidelines prospective parents were allowed to choose from four to six children. That decision saddened even some of the staunchest supporters of the MC. “Without going into the politics of it, I must say that I was sad when that decision was taken,” says Mother Teresa’s long-time associate and biographer, former chief election commissioner of India Navin B Chawla. “During Mother’s time also there was an allegation that these children were being sent to Switzerland for medical experimentation. So when I was writing the book I visited many of these families who had adopted these children with special needs. And I was able to see the beautiful life that had. Most of the families had adopted more than one of these children. And few Indian families want to adopt children with special needs. So I am sad that these children will not have that opportunity now,” says Chawla.
By and large though, the ethos of the MC remains the same as in Mother’s time. “Mother groomed her sisters in her way, her style, they have grown like that. It’s like a mother teaching her children,” says Kumar. There is no denying, however, that Mother Teresa left a gap when she breathed her last on September 5, 1997. As Father Felix Raj says, “She had charisma, she drew people. Every sister may not have that.”