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In Belfast, Mother Teresa ran up against enemies in the Church, leading to a dramatic departure

As the Catholic Church prepares to make Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint tomorrow, Martin O'Brien recalls how influential church figures made her leave Northern Ireland during some of the worst days of the Troubles

Published 03/09/2016

Mother Teresa meets Diana, Princess of Wales, in February 1992. Photo: PA Wire
Mother Teresa meets Diana, Princess of Wales, in February 1992. Photo: PA Wire
Shining light: Mother Teresa visits Corrymela, Co Antrim
Welcome back: the Missionaries of Charity on a return to Belfast

The multitude of pilgrims arriving in Rome for tomorrow's canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be nothing - in terms of numbers - to the countless millions of people throughout the world who were and are still being touched by the diminutive Albanian nun who became, arguably, the greatest humanitarian figure of the 20th century.

Pope Francis will proclaim Mother Teresa a saint, having recognised a second miracle that has been attributed to her which is said to be the healing of a Brazilian man with brain tumours in 2008.

Over a period of half a century until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa became known around the globe as an apostle of "the poorest of the poor".

She began her ministry in the slums of Calcutta where she recovered discarded babies from dustbins and tended those with leprosy before extending her mission of mercy worldwide.

In her time Blessed Mother Teresa, with her wizened face and distinctive white sari with its three blue stripes, received widespread international acclaim.

When Pope St John Paul raised her to the rank of Blessed in 2003, he said: "I am personally grateful to this courageous woman whom I have always felt beside me… an icon of the Good Samaritan, (who) went everywhere to serve Christ in the poorest of the poor. Not even conflict and war could stand in her way."

Her 124 awards included the Nobel Peace Prize, the Order of Merit (an exclusive personal award from the Queen), the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Templeton Prize and even the Gold Medal of the Soviet Peace Committee.

Time Magazine named her as one of the most influential figures of the century.

World figures, such as the Queen, met her in India or received her - from Reagan in the White House to Thatcher in Downing Street.

Princess Diana, another iconic woman of our time, became a good friend and met the then seriously ill Mother Teresa for the last time in her aid centre in the Bronx, New York, just weeks before they both died within days of each other.

Mother Teresa was almost universally admired with President Reagan's description of her as "a heroine of our times" summing up the views of the great majority.

However, she did have her critics, most notably the atheist commentator the late Christopher Hitchens.

Critics cited her steadfast opposition to abortion and contraception, issues around the quality of her medical facilities, her supposed love of and promotion of suffering and her willingness, perhaps borne of naivety, to receive financial support and an honour from the Haitian dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier.

By 2015, the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity which Mother Teresa founded in 1950 had 5,150 sisters serving in 758 houses in 139 countries, including centres in Armagh, (where there are four MC sisters), Dublin (where she began her training as a Loreto sister in the late 1920s) and London as well as many others places in these islands such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Cork, Sligo and Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.

Conspicuously absent from that list is Belfast where the soon to be St Mother Teresa established a house for four of her Sisters at the height of the Troubles - at 123 Springhill Avenue in Ballymurphy. The house opened in early November 1971 and closed with her controversial and sudden departure and that of her Sisters, which was announced on September 23, 1973.

Therein hangs a sorry tale that brings no credit to those senior figures in the Catholic Church in this city, now like her gone to their maker, whose actions or inaction and above all, their attitude, ensured that Mother Teresa felt she had no option but to pull out just at a time when, amid the violence and social deprivation, people were arguably most in need of her support.

The house carried a name plate entitled 'Missionaries of Charity'.

This rankled with senior clergy who reckoned that Belfast was not in need of foreign missionaries and that missionary traffic should be in the other direction.

Her leaving sparked much anger among ordinary Catholics in Ballymurphy and local community leaders had to intervene to protect the home of Canon Padraig Murphy, the parish priest.

He was a powerful and controlling figure in the Church in Belfast, who had correctly discerned that he would be blamed for her departure and he died in 1992 without ever speaking publicly about the controversy.

To the Canon's consternation Mother Teresa gave him just 24 hours' notice of her sisters' departure and when he protested she gave an extra day's grace.

Although Canon Murphy was never reconciled to the Missionaries of Charity on his patch he would have wished to have managed their departure, avoided blame and bought time to install Irish sisters in the parish, which did happen later.

A friend and colleague of his, Archdeacon Kevin Donnelly, once told me in an Irish Catholic interview that Canon Murphy believed that Irish sisters could "lift" the people in Ballymurphy and "give them a status that they would never get with Mother Teresa's nuns".

Mystery, rumour and half-truth have surrounded Mother Teresa's departure from Belfast for decades.

But in recent years, some of the fog of ignorance around her exit has lifted with the making of the riveting BBC Northern Ireland TV documentary, Mother Teresa 123 Springhill Avenue, aired in April 2011 to mark the 40th anniversary of her arrival in Belfast.

The film, which is now available on YouTube, was made for the BBC by the independent company Triplevision whose founder and director Eamonn Devlin assembled testimonies from a wide range of figures who knew Mother Teresa or her sisters in Belfast or were close to the ground in Ballymurphy at the time.

One contributor, Gerry Gribbon, said: "Canon Murphy would have seen her as a wee foreigner coming in here and telling him what to do."

Devlin's prescience in making the documentary is underlined by the fact that some of the key contributors have since died, including Sr Eileen Sweeney, a Holy Child sister, who revealed that she found a torn up letter by Mother Teresa, (which she subsequently lost) supporting the view that she was forced out of Belfast, as reported by this newspaper at the time of the broadcast.

Another contributor, Mrs Brigid McKeown, a co-worker with the Missionaries of Charity in Belfast, said that Mother Teresa had spoken to her privately about her departure on condition that she would never divulge the content of their conversation.

"I just couldn't believe it. Mother said, 'Sit down Brigid' and she told me quite a lot. I will never want to say what happened, never, no way."

Apparently becoming emotional, she added: "I said I will carry it to my grave."

Mrs McKeown, who is now in her early nineties, declined to be interviewed for this article.

However, retired Belfast priest, Fr Des Wilson, (91), who played an important role in Mother Teresa's arrival in Ballymurphy where he was a curate at the time - and where he still lives - expanded on his testimony to the TV programme.

Fr Wilson detailed for the first time in public the circumstances of Mother Teresa's arrival and refuted any claim, as made by a defender of Canon Murphy in the programme, that she came without the permission of the Church authorities here, the parish priest and Bishop William Philbin of Down and Connor.

He explained that Mother Teresa had at a conference in London expressed to the Rev Roger D Greeves, a Methodist minister, an interest in opening a house on the peace line in Belfast and that Greeves, whom he knew, had sought his opinion.

"I told him that a house on the peace line could strengthen the simple impression that this is a fight between Catholics and Protestants, which it is not and when he asked me if this meant I thought she shouldn't come I said not at all and I suggested that she come over and see the place for herself, attend Mass with the people and make up her own mind."

Then, in accordance with the very formal hierarchical structure of the Church in Down and Connor and elsewhere at the time, whereby a mere curate would rarely ever communicate personally with a bishop, Fr Wilson informed his parish priest, Fr Patrick McAlea and he said: "Surely, why not?"

Fr McAlea was in failing health and died just over a year later and was replaced by Canon Murphy.

Fr Wilson recalls Mother Teresa arriving at Corpus Christi Church in Ballymurphy for Sunday Mass which he celebrated and her receiving an incredibly warm reception. "At the end of Mass people simply took hold of her and brought her around the houses and she disappeared for a couple of hours."

"She returned to say that she had already arranged an appointment that very afternoon with Bishop Philbin and to our surprise she came back from that to say that she had his permission to set up a house in Ballymurphy."

Fr Wilson recalls that due to the wholehearted co-operation of a host of local denominations, including Quakers, Methodists and Presbyterians as well as Catholics, two houses were quickly found to give Mother Teresa's sisters a base, including a house that had been earmarked for himself. When I put it to Fr Wilson that Bishop Philbin - an erstwhile stranger from Co Mayo who knew little about the North prior to his arrival - would have found attractive the idea of accommodating an internationally acclaimed humanitarian in his troubled diocese he gives an interesting reply.

He says: "I think you are putting your finger on it. I believe Philbin came with the intention of producing a good result in a difficult situation and was content to have Mother Teresa's sisters here. But under the influence of senior clergy on whom he depended for advice, he took their advice and allowed them to put the pressure on (the Sisters to go)."

Fr Wilson says Canon Murphy, who succeeded Fr McAlea as parish priest of Ballymurphy, "belonged to a group of priest, senior clergy, who had an influence over Bishop Philbin which I think was inordinate and damaging".

It is evident Bishop Philbin was not strong enough to keep Mother Teresa in Belfast.

In his memoir The Way I See It (Beyond The Pale, 2005) Fr Wilson wrote: "In spite of the welcome they got, Mother Teresa's sisters had to leave Belfast but it was not by their own choice, and we tried to keep them. There was an underlying racism among some influential high clergy, and of these a few talked of foreign religious in terms of one-meal curries and not-too-demanding hygiene."

Today he goes further, recalling how on learning of Mother Teresa's sudden decision to leave Belfast, while on a visit to San Sebastian in Spain's Basque country, he phoned her, pleading with her to stay for six months, using the argument that the Church and the bishops, to whom she was so loyal, would be blamed for her going.

Canon Murphy, fearing that he and the Bishop would be blamed for her departure, had also used a similar argument, without success. Mother Teresa was by common consent a determined woman who knew her mind.

She was not for turning.

"I told her that if the people were convinced after that time that she was going to help people in greater need elsewhere they would accept," he says.

"But her words to me were that there were 30 or 32 dioceses in the world asking for her sisters and why should they stay where they are not wanted?

"I remember those words; I will never forget those words to me on the phone."

Mother Teresa, a loyal daughter of the Church, did not want to cause the Church embarrassment. She issued a carefully worded statement stating that it was her decision to leave.

She said: "I need the Sisters for places where their presence is very necessary…no one has forced me. We have nothing to do with the rumours saying we have been forced to go."

Fr Des Wilson probably sums up the circumstances of Mother Teresa's leaving Belfast most accurately.

"Mother Teresa was put in a situation where she had really no alternative but to leave Ballymurphy. It reminds one of constructive dismissal in employment tribunal cases."

The television pictures from Rome tomorrow will be watched around the world. Those in Ballymurphy who still remember that time well over 40 years ago when St Mother Teresa came among them may be watching with more interest than most.

  • Martin O'Brien is a freelance journalist, communications consultant and former BBCNI award-winning producer

The making of a modern saint

Canonisation in the Catholic Church is the decree by which the Pope declares a person to be a saint.

Then the name of the person is inscribed in the Canon or Catalogue of Saints and may receive public veneration.

The veneration of saints, persons believed to be in Heaven on account of their exceptional faith and good deeds, began with the honouring of martyrs killed during the persecutions by the Roman authorities in the second century.

The names of these holy persons were entered in a list or canon, an official record kept by the local church. By the 10th century canonisation was regulated by Rome and the first formal canonisation by the Holy See took place in 993 AD when Pope John XV recognised St. Ulric of Augsburg.

The procedure used today is based on that introduced by Pope Urban VIII in the seventeenth century involving lengthy investigations into a candidate’s merits and subsequent findings of miracles.

Pope John Paul II streamlined the process in 1983 by removing the requirement of a “devil’s advocate” who would argue before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints why a person should not be canonised. He canonised 482 persons, more than all his predecessors put together.

Candidates first receive the title Servant of God, then Venerable and after a miracle cure is recognised, Blessed, the penultimate stage.

A second miracle is normally required for sainthood but this — as in the case of John XXIII — may be waived by the Pope who has the final say.

Those canonised may be invoked in the public prayers of the Church, have churches dedicated in their honour, are assigned a feast day and have their relics publicly venerated.

A Cause for Sainthood cannot be opened until five years after death but this has been waived twice, by John Paul II in the case of Mother Teresa and by Benedict XVI in the case John Paul II.

The key moments in a remarkable life

1910: Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia, in former Yugoslavia, an ethnic Albanian.

1928: Becomes a postulant with the Loreto nuns in Dublin.

1929: Arrives in Calcutta and teaches in a school from 1931-48.

1946: Receives “call within a call” to help “poorest of the poor” on a train journey.

1950: Gets permission from Pope to establish the Missionaries of Charity.

1969 Powerful TV documentary by Malcolm Muggeridge.

1971: Establishes a house in Belfast which closes controversially in two years.

1979: Awarded Nobel Peace Prize.

1985: Addresses U.N. General Assembly.

1997: Dies in Calcutta.

2003: Declared Blessed by Pope St John Paul II.

2016: Canonised a saint by Pope Francis.

Belfast Telegraph

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