In a remote tribal village, 400 kilometres north of Kolkata, the locals have a new church. The bright green building is the same colour as the lush rice crops that surround the village.
There are no priests or pews; the parishioners sit on the floor for the Sunday service. Two men beat small drums and a couple of literate villagers read from well-thumbed bibles. A small photo of Mother Teresa has been placed at the front of the church and smoke from burning incense wafts before the image of the late nun.
Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity built the church last year, a gift to the village that helped elevate the late Catholic nun to sainthood.
The Vatican requires proof of two miracles after a potential saint has died and the village of Nakor in West Bengal delivered up one of them. It came courtesy of a woman called Monica Besra.
Back in 1997, Ms Besra was suffering from constant fevers and chronic abdominal pain. Over the course of a year, she says she saw a dozen doctors. The family was forced to sell land to pay the medical bills. Ms Besra said nobody gave her a diagnosis although a technician who did an ultrasound on her abdomen told her she was seriously ill.
In 1998, on the anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, Ms Besra was in a home in West Bengal run by the Missionaries of Charity. She was in so much pain she couldn’t walk.
“A nun came to me and said, ‘today, is a special day. I want to give you a pendant'. It had a picture of Mother Teresa. She put it on my abdomen, tied to a string that she wrapped around my belly,” said Ms Besra.
“How in this era of modern medical science can the Pope promote faith healing?”
The sisters also placed a photo of Mother Teresa beside the bed. The tribal woman was not a Christian, but they encouraged her to pray to the late nun. She prayed long and hard into the night. Ms Besra said she eventually drifted off to sleep and woke around 1am to discover the lump in her abdomen was gone.
“I sat up all night, I was so happy. In the morning I told everyone. They all came and touched my belly and they saw there was no lump.”
The Catholic Church in West Bengal had a potential miracle to investigate.
The man who led the investigation was Bishop Salvadore Lobo, a man who believes miracles are possible, “but only for those who have faith and trust in God”.
“God is powerful, I believe, and therefore when we pray with total surrender, as Mother would say, God listens to your prayers and grants you favours.”
Bishop Lobo’s four-member team worked for nine months and decided that God had decided to grant Monica Besra a favour. He said they interviewed 35 witnesses for between 10 minutes and four hours, before presenting their findings to the Vatican.
Bishop Lobo would not tell SBS whether any of the 35 witnesses disputed the suggestion there had been a miracle.
“It is difficult to say at this moment,” he said. “There are certain things which we are bound by secrecy of the job. I had to take an oath at that time to say details of that would not be revealed.”
What has been revealed is that key witnesses were not interviewed as part of the process.
One of them is Dr Ranjan Mustafi, a gynaecologist who treated Ms Besra. He told SBS his patient didn’t have an abdominal tumour, but a cyst caused by tuberculosis that disappeared after she was prescribed the right medicine.
Mother Teresa waves to a crowd of onlookers after receiving a visit from Princess Diana Wednesday, June 18, 1997, in New York. Source: AAP
Bishop Lobo said he had sent three letters, through government channels, to Dr Mustafi inviting him to appear before the inquiry. Dr Mustafi said he never received the invitation; the bishop never knocked on his door.
The Indian Science and Rationalists’ Association has long campaigned against the Catholic Church attributing miracles to potential saints. The group admires the work of Mother Teresa, but insists that talk of miracle cures is an insult to her memory.
“How in this era of modern medical science can the Pope promote faith healing?” asked the group’s spokesman, Arindam Bhattacharya. “Isn’t he trying to turn the clock back to the medieval period?
“If Mother Teresa’s conferred sainthood for her miraculous work then millions of people here who are already drowning in superstition will go in for faith healing," he said.
“Suppose a poor person is suffering from an ailment and believes it can be cured through a miracle and ultimately the patient dies - who will take the responsibility, Pope Francis or the Missionaries of Charity? It amounts to murder. I state categorically: it amounts to murder.”
Monica Besra is unaware of the debate that rages around her recovery. In her village, the people are happy for any kind of help – miracle or medical.
Nakor is a poor place where the locals are focused on survival, the quality of the rice crops and the jute harvest.
The village is a bone-jarring 12-hour drive from Kolkata, and in recent weeks journalists have been making the arduous trip despite its remote location.
On the day SBS visited, two Indian journalists who had followed the story for years were muttering between themselves, complaining that Ms Besra always gave the same answers, as though reciting a script.
Whether that’s the case or not, Ms Besra believes that Mother Teresa doesn’t need to be canonised in Rome tomorrow.
In her eyes, the Catholic nun is already a saint, a woman with the power to change lives in profound ways.