What's Mother Teresa Got to Do with It?

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Domestic bliss has fled the household of Seiku Murmu and his wife Monica Besra — and it's all Mother Teresa's fault. Monica is a celebrity in the small village of Dangram, 460 miles northeast of Calcutta, because she is the beneficiary of what many Catholics believe is the first posthumous miracle of Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity. On Sept. 5, 1998, the first anniversary of the nun's death, Monica was suffering abdominal pain caused, she believed, by a tumor. But the purported tumor vanished when Monica applied a medallion with an image of the late Albanian nun to the site of her pain. In August 2001, Monica's miracle was supplied to the Vatican as part of the fast-tracking of Mother Teresa's canonization. Two weeks ago, the Vatican recognized the 1998 miracle, beginning the process of Mother Teresa's beatification, a major step toward sainthood.

All this irritates Monica's husband Seiku. "It is much ado about nothing," he says. "My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle." He is peeved at his wife's fame, in part because the press is constantly at his doorstep. "I want to stop this jamboree, people coming with cameras every few hours or so." He concedes that the locket is part of the story of Monica's ordeal but says no one should suppose there was a cause-and-effect relationship between it and the cure. "My wife did feel less pain one night when she used the locket, but her pain had been coming and going. Then she went to the doctors, and they cured her." Monica still believes in the miracle but admits that she did go to see doctors at the state-run Balurghat Hospital. "I took the medicines they gave me, but," she insists, "the locket gave me complete relief from the pain."


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Dr. Tarun Kumar Biswas and Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who treated Monica over several months, say their patient indeed had a lump in her abdomen, but it was not a full-grown tumor. "She responded to our treatment steadily," says Mustafi. Monica's medical records contain sonograms, prescriptions and physicians' notes that could conceivably help prove whether science or the icon worked the cure. But the records are missing. Monica says Sister Betta of the Missionaries of Charity took them away two years ago. "It's all with her," says Monica. A call to Sister Betta, who has been reassigned to another post of the Charity, produced a "no comment." Balurghat Hospital officials say the Catholic order has been pressuring them to say Monica's cure was miraculous. Calls to the office of Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa's successor as head of the order, produced no comment as well.

The vacuum created by that silence is being filled by conspiracy theorists who see the Missionaries of Charity overeagerly producing proof that their founder is within the gates of heaven. That chorus is amplified by vociferous debunkers, among them Prabir Ghosh, head of the Science and Rationalist Association of India. Ghosh, who is based in Calcutta, has deflated the claims of many of India's self-proclaimed Hindu holy men and miracle workers. He doesn't believe that Mother Teresa's miracle should be exempt from scrutiny. He says he has no complaint "if she is declared a saint for all the great work she has done among poor people. But," he adds, "she is not capable of any miracle. It is indeed an insult to Mother Teresa to make her sainthood dependent on some stupid miracles." Ghosh tells Time that he will shut down his association and turn over its 2 million rupees ($40,000) to the Catholic order if the sisters will put the medallion to the test and have it cure another tumor.

Back in the village of Dangram, Seiku Murmu and Monica Besra sit at home and try to live with their legacy from Mother Teresa. Seiku grumbles, "This miracle is a hoax." His honor is at stake, he says, so he has to make it clear where he stands with the facts. "We are not liars." Monica quietly tends to her five children and does not appear to take issue with his use of the first person plural. All she knows is that she has been healed.