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Tonsuring head, self-flogging daily, not allowed to take bath: Ex-Nuns reveal how Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity worked like a ‘cult’

The Missionaries of Charity proscribed nuns and sisters from having friendships. They were forbidden from indulging in "luxuries" such as cleaning themselves and taking a shower.

For years, Mother Teresa has been accused of being a fraud. Her problematic history of following primitive health practices and her evangelical zeal to convert the weak and the vulnerable into the Christian fold were long cited by her critics to call out the unwarranted adulation that was showered on her.

Christopher Hitchens, an English-American socio-political critic, and public intellectual, was one of the staunch critics of Mother Teresa and had described her organization as a ‘cult’ that promoted suffering and did not help those in need. Last Tuesday, a new podcast titled  “The Turning: The Sisters Who Left,” was released that aimed to explore the assertion made by Hitchens years ago.

In the latest podcast, women who submitted themselves to the service of Mother Teresa and dedicated their entire lives to her Missionaries of Charity have spilled the beans about the closed Catholic congregation. It is, perhaps, for the first time, that the members of Missionaries of Charity(MC) have laid bare in public what it was to lead a life inside the closed walls of Mother Teresa’s Charity.

From providing ‘military training’ to ‘isolating’ nuns from the rest of the world to the daily routine of ‘self flogging’, forcing them to wear spiked chains pointing inwards to not allowing them to take bath, ex-sisters have blown the lid off the wicked practices that continued inside the Missionaries of Charity, making it a cult organisation.

secret rituals

The podcast starts with the account of one Marry Johnson, who spent 20 years in Mother Teresa’s organisation before retiring through official channels in 1997. “One cannot always know where to make the distinction between religion and cult,” Johnson remarked.

The podcast lends heavily from the memoir of Johnson, which includes her experiences working as a sister at the Missionaries of Charity. Johnson mentions that the Catholic congregation, a closed society, had scandalous ceremonies and secret rituals, including tonsuring the hairs of new recruits and burning them, characteristics that are usually associated with cults.

According to Mary, all the new recruits are hustled into taking the vow of poverty, chastity, subservience, unwavering and complete devotion to the service of the poorest of the poor. The Missionaries of Charity proscribed nuns and sisters from having friendships. They were forbidden from indulging in “luxuries” such as cleaning themselves and taking a shower.

Sisters were also prohibited from receiving phone calls from their family members, except in emergency circumstances. They were not even free to visit their own home. The Missionaries allowed them to visit their home only once every 10 years.

“I think Mother Teresa took everything to its most radical conclusion. All the contact with my family had been severed off. I used to get homesick a lot,” Mary recounts in the podcast.

Mother Teresa’s congregation proscribed nuns from building friendship, taking a shower

Mary tells Mother Teresa was a stickler for maintaining the vow of chastity. She was so obsessed with swearing her allegiance to celibacy that it bordered on paranoia, says Mary, adding that Mother Teresa was fanatically passed that on to everybody else, ultimately resulting in the ban on touching each other and limited physical contact with people they cared for.

Mother Teresa also held a dim view of fostering camaraderie and building friendship within her charity group. Sisters were repeatedly warned against growing closer friendship bond with each other. If anyone saw a sister getting kind of closer to one sister than to another, they would immediately be called out on it.

The rules against indulging in luxury were so rigorous that even bathing was considered a decadent exercise. Mary realised this pretty early on when she took a quick cold shower, making sure that she does not break poverty by switching on the hot water faucet. However, she had no inkling that she was expected to wash with just a tin can of water. When she caught by a sister for using a shower instead of a tin can, she was subjected to harassment.

Mary had signed up for the service in the Catholic family in 1977. Shortly after initiation in the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa led a ritual that saw her hair cut off to the point that she was almost tonsured, then thrown in the fire as the sisters sang a chant.  

Sisters of Mother Teresa’s order were forced to flog themselves daily

Shedding light on another ritual, Mary said as a part of ‘the discipline’ sisters were expected to flog themselves with a sheath of knotted cords every evening in the form of penance. Except for Sundays or big feasts days, sisters and nuns had to daily beat themselves with the cord. It started off with 15 strokes and increased progressively, Mary remembers. At the time when she became a professed sister, she would have to flog herself 50 times daily.

“Beating yourself every day is a stark reminder that you are a sinner, taking away any sort of pride. You are someone who needs to beat yourself,” Mary said.

Mary also hinted that such circumstances would have inevitably led some of the sisters to derive sadomasochistic and erotic pleasure from their own beating. “I think a lot of things do get twisted or can potentially get twisted around when all the sexual energy and drive has to be repressed or diverted. I would not be surprised if nuns and sisters were deriving sadomasochistic pleasure from their own flogging,” Mary said.

Escaping the Missionaries of Charity was extremely difficult. Nuns were required to go out ‘two by two’ and were never allowed to just walk out. One could not have walked five to six paces on its own before being stopped by somebody, Mary said.

Mary admits after she left the MC, she found herself questioning the very assumptions, including her belief about God, that was taught at the convent for so many years.

Missionaries of Charity isolated and brainwashed sisters: Ex-nun

Another nun Ex-nun Colette Livermore had similar experiences to share about her service for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. She alleged that the charity isolated the nuns and sisters and institutionally brainwashed them.

In the podcast, she reminisced an incident where her superiors held back letters from her family as a ‘sacrifice’. This meant she missed one of the letters from her mother informing her about the medical ailment of one of her brothers, who was critically ill and had slim chances of survival. When her mother called the convent, Colette was allowed to take the call but she was denied permission to visit the hospital.

Kelli Dunham, who began her training in the same convent as Mary in 1994, said the idea behind the training at the Missionaries of Charity is just like military training to break you down into nothing. “In those days, the ultimate goal it seemed was to make you feel as lonely as possible so that you would only depend on God,” Kelli said.

Kelli said the training was like a ‘boot camp’ where sisters were expected to exhibit absolute adherence to rules she struggled to observe strict conformity to the extreme ‘life of poverty’.

Mother Teresa: A not so sacred saint

Born in Skopje (then a part of the Ottoman Empire), the Albanian nun followed the Roman Catholic sect of Christianity. After a few years of living in the Ottoman Empire, she moved to Ireland and subsequently to India (where she breathed her last in Calcutta) in 1997. 

Mother Teresa became a nurse at the age of 16 by joining the Loreto Abbey in Ireland. Two years later, she was given the name Sister Teresa. In 1929, she moved to Calcutta(Kolkata), where she became a teacher and, 15 years on, headmistress at a convent school. In 1946, she founded the Missionaries of Charity, which was officially established as a religious congregation in 1950.

For years, the mainstream media painted Mother Teresa as a benevolent leader indulging in helping the poor and the weak. It was only decades later that the Missionaries of Charity was exposed for his egregious practices. Several authors, intellectuals, who studied and came to know about the religious congregation flagged their dubious practices. The congregation was accused of forcefully converting people on the pretext of “social service”. Many foreign media outlets such as Huffington Post, New York Times and Washington Post have highlighted the pitiful conditions of the “hospitals” and “orphanages” run by this missionaries. 

After years of living in fear for criticizing the ‘Mother’, Dr Aroup Chatterjee finally opened up to The New York Times about the disgusting reality of “hospitals” run by the missionaries. According to Dr Chatterjee, he found a ‘cult of suffering’ in the hospitals run by the missionaries. He saw children screaming in agony as they were tied to their beds by the missionaries, and dying patients crying out of misery as they were given no relief other than Aspirin to reduce the pain. 

A report published in the Washington Post revealed that patients who were dying in the hospital run by the missionaries were forced to convert to Christianity before their death. In 1994, Christopher Hitchens and Journalist Tariq Ali released a documentary film called ‘Hell’s Angels’ which brought the disgusting reality of Teresa’s organizations out in public.  

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Jinit Jain
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