Northern Ireland

Mother Teresa 'rejected by NI Catholic hierarchy'

Mother Teresa with children Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption Mother Teresa moved to Ballymurphy on 2 October 1971

In 1971, Mother Teresa was something of an international celebrity, revered around the world for her work with the poor.

So when a call came through to west Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson that she was keen to move to the city, his delight was surpassed only by his disbelief.

It came from his friend, Methodist clergyman the Reverend Roger Greeves, who had met Mother Teresa at a conference in London.

"He told me that she expressed great interest in the situation in Northern Ireland and said she wanted to do something to help," said Fr Wilson.

Although thrilled by the news, Fr Wilson had some concerns about her proposal to set up home on a peace line.

Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity were well received by the west Belfast community

His fear was not just for the nuns' safety - he felt their presence on one of the many borders that separated Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods could represent a simplification of the Troubles.

"I worried that if they set up on an interface, it could strengthen this notion that the conflict was about Protestants and Catholics warring with each other, as opposed to what it was really about, which was bad governance and inequality."

At the time, the reconciliation group Pace (Protestant and Catholic Encounter), which Fr Wilson helped establish, was being lambasted by DUP leader Ian Paisley, and he did not want the nuns' presence to be seen as provocative to unionists.

Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption Sewing, cooking and literacy were among the classes offered by the nuns at their Springhill Avenue house

Mother Teresa arrived in Ballymurphy on 2 October 1971. Her attendance at Sunday mass the following day was a source of huge excitement in the parish of Corpus Christi.

"She got a standing ovation and then the congregation just swarmed around her," said Fr Wilson.

Later that day, Mother Teresa met the Bishop of Down and Connor William Philbin to discuss her plans.

"He was very taken by her and gave her his blessing.

"We were astonished and delighted in equal measure - we never expected that the bishop would offer his approval so quickly."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mother Teresa with Pope John Paul II in Kolkata (Calcutta)

Further surprise came when Mother Teresa chose to live in Ballymurphy - an estate which had been marred by horrific violence only two months previously.

In August 1971, a Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight were among 11 people killed by the Parachute Regiment in what became known as the Ballymurphy massacre.

"You have to understand, this was the estate everyone wanted out of," said Fr Wilson. "And then along came this renowned, celebrated person doing the exact opposite."

Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption Children of Ballymurphy displaying their creations alongside 'Mother Teresa's Sisters' as they were known

Two houses on Springhill Avenue were provided for the Missionaries of Charity sisters, which Mother Teresa founded in 1950, and people set about making the properties as welcoming a space as possible.

"The houses were a wreck but they were done up very quickly," said Fr Wilson.

"The nuns lived in one of the houses, and the other was used as a place for the community to come and learn new skills."

Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption The celebrated nun and her Missionaries of Charity sisters formed strong bonds with clergy from other denominations

From the beginning, the nuns were known simply as "Mother Teresa's Sisters".

Fr Wilson said the work of the makeshift convent lifted the morale of the community.

"It wasn't what was done that was important but that something was being done - somebody out there believed in the people of Ballymurphy," he said.

"The young people gathered in the sisters' house and sang and worked. Some learned to read and write."

Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption Adults and children gathered in the sisters' house to work, play, sing and learn

The convent was also one of the few places in the area with a working phone, and often anxious mothers would arrive to make desperate enquiries about the non-arrival of social welfare payments or news about imprisoned family members.

But despite winning the hearts of the people, the nuns failed to gain the support of some senior clergy in the Catholic Church.

Fr Wilson suggested some in the Church did not want Belfast to be seen as a "charity case".

"From their perspective, missionaries were sent by us to other countries - we didn't need missionaries coming here. There was a perception that they brought shame on us because their presence suggested we couldn't deal with our own problems."

Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption The nuns, in their unfamiliar habits, were a somewhat strange sight on the streets of Ballymurphy

Although resilient at the beginning, as time went on, the nuns' treatment by the Church became harder to bear.

"It became quite personal and very hurtful in the end," said Fr Wilson.

"Eventually, in the autumn of 1973, I was preparing for a trip to Lourdes and Sister Frederick [one of the Missionaries of Charity nuns] told me that by the time I got back, they would be gone.

"I couldn't believe it."

"I suppose it would be described as constructive dismissal today - they went of their own free will but only because their lives were made so difficult."

The Catholic Church denied they had forced Mother Teresa and the other nuns to leave and said the Sisters of Charity had left of their own free will.

Image copyright Springhill Community Centre
Image caption The Missionaries of Charity Sisters returned to Ballymurphy in 2010 for the dedication of a sculpture in recognition of their work

Fr Wilson pleaded with Mother Teresa and the sisters to change their minds but to no avail.

"She said: 'Des, there are 32 other dioceses who are asking us for help, who need us to come. We can't continue to stay in a place where we're not wanted."

But their presence in west Belfast left a lasting legacy.

A month after they left, a petition was drawn up by parishioners and circulated around Ballymurphy.

It called for a new approach to the administration of the parish, including the establishment of a parish council with a say in the election of the new priest and on all matters affecting the local community.

And Mother Teresa never forgot Ballymurphy.

Writing in July 1981, she said: "This brings my prayer and gratitude for all you did for our sisters when in Belfast.

"My prayer is and was very close to you all this time. I still pray that you may grow in the likeness of Christ through love and compassion, and so become an instrument of peace."

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