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Canonization Of Mother Teresa Brings Up Calcuttans' Complex Views Of Her Legacy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mother Teresa will be sainted at the Vatican tomorrow. But in Calcutta - now called Kolkata - people will watch and debate. As NPR's Julie McCarthy discovered, many Calcuttans hold varied and complicated views of Mother Teresa.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The sisters at Mother House, where Teresa's mortal remains are entombed, rejoice in her imminent sainthood.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

MCCARTHY: They rise and kneel at morning Mass, their signature white and blue saris flowing. These Mother Teresa acolytes have taken a vow of poverty and whole-hearted free service to the poorest of the poor. The Missionaries of Charity tend to children with disabilities, the homeless, the addicted, the diseased and the dying.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

MCCARTHY: Cups are cleared after tea and snacks at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying and Destitute. Founded in 1952 - her first facility. In a large hall smelling of disinfectant, frail men dressed in green scrubs sit on benches and beds looking vacant.

Women are in a separate ward. There are about a hundred residents, says Sister Nicole, who supervises their care. And most of them are Hindu. For generations, she says, Hindus have come here in their final days to die in the shadow of Kali, the Hindu goddess whose temple is next door.

Thirty-nine years a missionary of charity, Sister Nicole serenely contemplates the legacy of Mother Teresa.

SISTER NICOLE: Most people say, we always knew Mother was a saint, even when she was alive.

MCCARTHY: Mother Teresa herself insisted she was not a social worker or a nurse or a doctor. Her motivation was religious.

SISTER NICOLE: She was the person extremely close to God. For her, everything was Jesus.

MCCARTHY: The tiny nun's decades of service were idealized as she became fixed in the world's consciousness as the saint of the gutters.

But she's also been severely criticized, most prominently by the late British writer Christopher Hitchens, who argued that Mother Teresa's true agenda was to convert the people she helped to Christianity and that her belief in the virtue of a suffering led her to withhold anything but the most rudimentary medical care.

Writer and Calcuttan Ruchir Joshi says it's not conversions that bother him but Mother Teresa's failure to use her indisputable clout to go beyond what he calls a self-serving cycle.

RUCHIR JOSHI: There are poor. You treat them. Your brownie points accumulate. You tell the world that you're doing this great work. There was no looking at systematic poverty alleviation or any kind of, you know - it suited them for the streets to be filled with poor and to be picking poor people off the streets.

MCCARTHY: Calcutta-born physician Aroup Chatterjee has written a book titled "Mother Teresa: The Untold Story" that, among other things, takes issue with the nun's strict positions on contraception and abortion, which is legal in India.

AROUP CHATTERJEE: Principally, she was an ideologue - medieval ideologue - who taught that abortion had to be banned at any cost. And any means could serve to achieve that end. That was her.

MCCARTHY: In accepting the Nobel Prize, Mother Teresa called abortion the greatest destroyer of peace today and said the countries where it is legal are the poorest nations. Critics say that the Catholic icon's doctrinal approach was in direct conflict with India's very real population problem.

Yet it is precisely her conservative outlook that is said to have endeared her to the late Pope John Paul II and put her on the fast track to sainthood. But Ruchir Joshi says those values have kept her Missionaries of Charity out of sync with the needs of the city, where the challenges for the poor have intensified.

JOSHI: There is a far more violent reality now that is a far more brutal, brittle kind of society in which you're poor. But as an institution working in the city, they should have developed and grown into something. It's not what they do. They don't care.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

MCCARTHY: Photographer Kounteya Sinha disagrees as he walks the lanes of a bustling Calcutta neighborhood.

KOUNTEYA SINHA: Mother Teresa actually cared about the city in her way at her time.

MCCARTHY: Sinha travels to Rome with Project Sainthood, a wandering exhibition of his photographs of Calcutta that aims to invite Mother Teresa's distant admirers to come experience this historic metropolis firsthand.

SINHA: This is where she worked. This is where the world came to know her. This is where every fan of Mother Teresa and every critic was born.

MCCARTHY: In celebrating Teresa, Sinha wants the world to also have a wider view of the city that he says made her who she came to be. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.