Working at Mother Teresa's House of the Pure Heart

By Smith, R. C. | Contemporary Review, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Working at Mother Teresa's House of the Pure Heart


Smith, R. C., Contemporary Review


NIRMAL Hriday, the House of the Pure Heart, is the proper name for Mother Teresa's home for the dying in Calcutta. It is in the heart of the slums, and next door to the temple to the goddess Kali, the destroyer, which is served by four hundred priests, and for which it was at one time a rest home for pilgrims. It was lent to her provisionally at first after her campaign to find somewhere where people could die with dignity instead of on the streets. Initially there was some opposition -- it was, after all, a Christian foundation at the centre of one of Hinduism's holy places -- but after she had cared for one of the priests as he died from tuberculosis that opposition gradually vanished.

By the time I went there, in October 1979, it was an accepted part of the city. Mother Teresa's main concern, as always, was for the 'poorest of the poor', and these were brought by the police, by ambulance, and by passers-by -- men and women for whom no place could be found in any hospital.

I had served in the Indian army in the war in Assam and Burma, so the country and the people were not strange to me, but I was to see a very different Calcutta from the part which I had known when on leave. I had arranged to stay with the Oxford Mission, an Anglican order a few miles outside of the city. Having got there, and been made immediately welcome, the next thing was to find Mother Teresa herself. The whole journey had been a matter of faith, because I had never had a reply to my letters saying that I was coming. (I found later that this was typical -- 'If they want to come, they will come'.) I had not realised that she had just been awarded the Nobel prize, so it was a shock to find her surrounded by a news team from the American NBC. I was made the excuse for her to end her interview, and had my first experience of newsreel cameras trained on me. There were to be others, including the Toronto Star, and a team making a documentary for Time-Life. The price they all paid was a meal at one of the luxury hotels -- a contrast to the simple fare at the Oxford Mission and with the Missionaries of Charity.

After a brief talk with Mother Teresa, I went to the home for the dying. I had read Malcolm Muggeridge's book, so it was not the shock it might otherwise have been. The main door opens into the men's ward -- a large room with concrete platforms running almost the whole length on both sides on which between fifty and sixty patients lay on mattresses. At the top end of the room was another platform with a table, a cupboard for medicines and another for notes and stationary. This was sister's 'office'. A side door led into a central area where there was a sterilising room, the mortuary, and where the food was cooked. There was also a space for some of the nuns who were not dealing with the patients to roll bandages, prepare dressings and so on. Another side door led into the women's ward, which was the duplicate of the men's, and with about the same number of patients. The water supply is variable, so there is a large storage tank on the roof. Power cuts were a regular feature of almost every day, and working without the lights and fans was difficult and uncomfortable.

The nun who had been in charge for some years, Sister Luke, was a tall, kindly woman with the ability to be calm at all times. She greeted me with 'Oh good -- I've been praying for a doctor, and you've come. I'm going on retreat, and you'll be in charge'. There was a moment when I thought about the next flight home, but the prospect of telling Mother Teresa that I was running away was even more daunting. So I set to work.

For some reason there were more acute cases in the men's ward than in the women's, so that most of my time was spent there. The patients in both wards really were the poorest of the poor, many of them never having known any home other than a few square feet of pavement. Their diseases were those which would have been expected from their environment -- tuberculosis and malnutrition -- but of a severity for which nothing had prepared me. …

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