Mother Teresa: Human Frailties and Godliness
A journalist remembers an unforgettable exchange with Mother Teresa 27 years ago.
A journalist remembers an unforgettable exchange with Mother Teresa 27 years ago.(Photo: Reuters)

Mother Teresa: Human Frailties and Godliness

(Mother Teresa had her human frailties but a life of prayer and service, and most importantly, an inherent Godliness catapulted her to the league of saints. A journalist remembers an unforgettable exchange 28 years ago. This article was originally published in 2016 and has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark her birth anniversary.)

It was the February of 1990. I was a Kolkata-based senior correspondent of the now defunct but arguably the finest magazine of its time, The Illustrated Weekly of India. I had been asked to do a cover story on Mother Teresa and the order that she had founded, the Missionaries of Charity.

Two weeks of intensive research gave readers an in-depth look into the working of the order – how the Superior General was elected, the responsibilities of the six councillors who headed the congregation, and keeping in mind Mother’s frail health, who would succeed her in managing this worldwide organisation.

One of the priests who held regular prayer services at Mother House – the headquarters of the order – had kindly lent me a copy of the Constitution of the Missionaries of Charity, which he had helped to frame. Access to this would have been difficult in the normal course. This gave the readers and me an understanding of the rigorous training young women went through for eight-and-a-half years when they decided to give up the material world for a life of prayer and service. Special periods of renewal are arranged after ‘ten years of perpetual or spiritual vows’.

(Photo Courtesy: Payal Mohanka/Illustrated Weekly of India)

Novitiates would shave their hair as Mother believed that it symbolised vanity. With two sets of clothes and bare minimum possessions, these young women willingly embraced a life of austerity.

My sources had shared details of life within the four walls of Mother House. Mother believed in manual work and had a dislike for fans and microphones. The priest conducting Mass would be drenched in sweat, his vocal chords would compete with the blaring traffic on AJC Bose Road in central Calcutta but Mother would not relent.

Through the Registrar of Societies where the Missionaries of Charity was registered I accessed the financial reports of the organisation which were not in public domain. At that time, the order was probably the largest account holder in Grindlays Bank.

Sadly Mother was unable to grant an interview so I spoke to almost a dozen individuals who worked closely with the sisters.

Mother Teresa holds nine-month-old Christina Ott from Switzerland.
Mother Teresa holds nine-month-old Christina Ott from Switzerland.
(Photo: Reuters)

When the magazine hit the stands, certain people around Mother Teresa disapproved of a magazine delving deep into what they perceived as their personal space. I began receiving anonymous calls. They saw this piece of journalism as ‘the work of the devil’. Initially, I was perplexed by the tone and the manner of those at the other end of the line. A few days later I received a call from Mother Teresa asking me to come and meet her.

Within an hour I was at Mother House. I was nervous but still not sure what had upset them. In a few months I was expecting my first child. My husband accompanied me for moral support.

We were escorted to the first floor by a young nun. She asked us to wait outside the office and within a few minutes a frail figure clad in the famous blue-bordered white sari stepped out. Mother had a determined look on her face and a hugely powerful presence.

Mother took my hand, squeezed it gently and said, “Why did you do this, girl?”

Choking with emotion, my eyes welling up, I muttered, “What did I do, Mother?”

Her face softened as she stared at me. I was emboldened to ask, “Have you read the article Mother? The cover of the magazine says ‘Something Beautiful for God’. I haven’t written a word against you.”

How could I? When as a Calcuttan I was familiar with the work her sisters were doing: rehabilitating abandoned orphans and nursing the broken bodies of dying destitutes.

Mother confessed she had not read the article.

Hers was a life of prayer and service. I hadn’t expected her to go through a ten-page article.

File picture of Mother Teresa blessing a sick child.
File picture of Mother Teresa blessing a sick child.
(Photo: Reuters)

She did ask who had divulged all the information to me. I said I had spoken to a wide cross-section of people.

Mother asked me to wait. She returned a moment later with two miniature medallions with the figure of Our Lady of Lourdes, a Roman Catholic title for Virgin Mary, engraved on it. She gave me one and the other to my husband.

Those who were annoyed with the unveiling of life within Mother House had convinced her some deep wrong had been done. It truly hadn’t.

Mother’s compassionate gaze convinced me I had just done my job as a journalist. There was something saintly about her.

Mother had her human frailties I realised but the life she had chosen of intense prayer and service to the poorest of the poor had elevated her to a saint.

Thirteen years later in 2003 when Mother was beatified, I made a documentary encapsulating the essence of her work, ‘From Saint to Sainthood’.

Those familiar with her work, including myself, knew all along what the Vatican is now formalising.

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