Mother Teresa: the 'demon' saint

Posted on Monday 10th February 2014

The late Mother Teresa, one of the world’s highest-profile religious figures, was accused of being mad, vain, evil, and also of having an inappropriate relationship with a priest who was her spiritual director, according to newly published research from the University of Birmingham.

In an article published in the International Journal of Public Theology, Birmingham sociologist Dr Gëzim Alpion explores some of the reasons behind the hostile treatment the Albanian-born missionary received as a member of the Loreto order in Calcutta from the moment she announced in 1946 that she wanted to be an independent nun.

Dr Alpion says: ‘In my previous research, especially in the 2007 monograph ‘Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?’, I have argued that Mother Teresa was discriminated against in Loreto because of her ethnicity as well as for daring to tell her Irish superiors that she could no longer stay in an order whose main purpose was the education of the daughters of rich people. In setting up her own Missionaries of Charity order in 1950 Mother Teresa emerged as a religion revolutionary who had a vision on what was expected of Christian missionaries in post-independence India.’ 

The publication of Mother Teresa’s private writings in 2000, 2001 and especially in 2007 and 2010, provided a new wealth of information which, according to Dr Alpion, is of interest to scholars from a variety of academic disciplines such as sociology, missiology, theology, psychology, celebrity studies, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, race and ethnicity studies, etc. For this study Dr Alpion has conducted interviews also with a number of Mother Teresa’s relatives.

In Dr Alpion’s words, ‘the visionary Mother Teresa becomes a more complex and down to earth individual as a result of what we now know about the woman behind the public nun. 

‘The new literature allows us to have a much better idea about the intensity of and some of the reasons behind the hostility she faced from Loreto as well as other orders in Calcutta in the late 1940s and for several decades thereafter. The vitriol against Mother Teresa is indeed disturbing: she was accused of being mad, vain, evil, and also of having an inappropriate relationship with a priest who was her spiritual director’.

Concentrating on the work of scholars like Max Weber and Jürgen Moltmann, in this article Dr Alpion assesses the hostile attitude towards Mother Teresa from a sociological and public theology perspective. The difficult time Mother Teresa had prior to and after leaving Loreto, concludes Dr Alpion, is of interest for two reasons. ‘Firstly, it is indicative of the kind of hostile treatment reserved for charismatic revolutionary leaders in religion as much as in politics. Secondly, it proves further that Mother Teresa went to India not only to serve Jesus, as I have claimed in my previous research, but equally important to find this elusive spiritual father-figure, towards whom, as a child, she developed a strong attachment after the unexpected death of her biological father.’

In this study Dr Alpion contends for the first time that while Mother Teresa was not in the business of offering absolution, ‘she obviously thought that it was her obligation to take care of the poor without ignoring the rich’. 

This article, which claims that with her faith in action, the charismatic Mother Teresa paved the way for public religion today, is part of Dr Alpion’s lengthy research project on the famous nun’s spiritual darkness which will result in several peer-reviewed journal articles and a monograph in which he explores the role of religion in postmodernity.

For more information please contact Jenni Ameghino, Press Office, University of Birmingham, +44 (0)121 415 8134. Mobile: +44 (0)7768 924156. 

Notes to editors

  • Dr Gëzim Alpion holds a BA from Cairo University and a PhD from the University of Durham, UK. Currently Lecturer in Sociology, at the University of Birmingham, Dr Alpion is a member of the Weber Study Group of the British Sociological Association and an editorial board member and reviewer for a range of peer-reviewed journals including ‘Celebrity Studies’ (Routledge). 
  • Dr Alpion’s main publications to date include: ‘Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?’ (Routledge 2007; Routledge India 2008; Salerno Editrice 2008), and ‘Encounters with Civilizations: From Alexander the Great to Mother Teresa’, (Transaction Publications 2011). His next book on Mother Teresa will be published in 2014.
  • Some of the peer-reviewed journals that have published Dr Alpion’s article and reviews include: ‘International Journal of Public Theology’, ‘Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses’ Journal, ‘Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies’, ‘The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute’, ‘Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans’, ‘Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations Journal’, ‘The Review of Communication Journal’, ‘Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies’ and ‘Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies’.
  • Dr Alpion has written features on British, Balkan, Middle Eastern and Indian politics, culture and identity for ‘The Guardian’, ‘The Middle East Times’, ‘The Birmingham Post’, ‘The Huddersfield Daily Examiner’, and ‘The Hürriyet Daily News’ in Istanbul.
  • Dr Alpion has delivered lectures and talks at numerous international conferences and universities in the UK (University of Oxford, London School of Economics, University College London) as well as in Albania, Australia (Universities of Melbourne and Deakin), Canada (McGill University), China (Shanghai University), Finland (Universities of Helsinki and Turku), Germany, India (University of Delhi, and St Xavier’s College, Kolkata), Italy (Universita Pontificia Salesiana, Rome), Kosova (University of Prishtina), Macedonia (State University of Tetova), Russia (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow), South Africa (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) and the USA (AAASS Convention in Washington DC, New York University, and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)).
  • Dr Gëzim Alpion, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, Tel: +44 (0)787 651 2001