Did Mother Teresa really perform a miracle?


The case of Monika Besra

Seiku emerged from his home and we got in the car. He pulled a small Mother Teresa medallion from his shirt and began to chant. It appeared he had not disowned the miracle after all. He is praying to Mother that the journey goes well, my interpreter said. ‘Since his wife was cured he prays any time and anywhere to Mother. He says that if he does not do this then evil will happen to him and everything will be destroyed – his family, his happiness and everything.’

Buoyed by this utilitarian approach to faith, we passed out of the village, leaving behind the shrine to Morol, and pressed deeper into the countryside. Grey clouds were banking in the sky and now the first drops of rain began to fall on the windscreen. After an hour’s drive we came to a tiny hamlet of neat mud houses with thatched and corrugated iron roofs. Dressed in a vivid orange sari, Monika Besra came out of one of the houses. She was unusually tall for a tribal woman, graceful and composed, with an air of palpable serenity about her.

A crowd had gathered. Apparently unembarrassed by the attention, Besra led the way to the house of her sister Kanchan – almost identical to Besra’s own. We sat on a camp-bed, under the eaves of a roof, the rain drumming above our heads. A hen pecked its way across the yard, trailed by a brood of chicks. I felt as if I had entered the Middle Ages, a universe away from the complexities of theological debate and Papal deliberation. Besra began to tell her story, speaking in a quiet, unhurried fashion, leaving no detail unmentioned.

In 1997, she said, she had fallen ill with fever, headache and vomiting. She had been given medicine, but it hadn’t worked. She had visited doctors, been referred to hospitals, and diagnosed as suffering from TB meningitis. Treatment had apparently been spasmodic, dependent on what her husband could afford to pay. In May 1998, she was admitted to the MoC home in Patiram. It didn’t cost anything. ‘The days were passing by,’ Besra said. ‘I was getting iller and iller.’ Until that point, she had never heard of Mother Teresa. By now she was experiencing acute pains in her stomach, and a swelling was beginning to appear. ‘I was almost senseless with the pain.’

Besra’s medical notes record that on May 30 she was taken by sisters of the MoC to Balurghat District Hospital, where she was admitted to the TB ward. She was discharged after one week. On June 11 she was readmitted to the emergency ward of the same hospital, under the care of Dr Tarun Biswas. Confirming the diagnosis of TB meningitis, he gave her a referral letter to two Calcutta hospitals. On June 15 she was discharged, with medication, and returned to the MoC home at Patiram. But over the next six weeks her condition continued to deteriorate.

‘The headache and the fever subsided, but the tumour was getting bigger. It was getting so big, I looked as if I was five or six months pregnant. I couldn’t stand up straight. I could not eat. I was vomiting everything – even water and medicine, everything. Like this the days were passing.’

On August 6 she was once again taken to Balurghat hospital where she was examined by a gynaecologist, Dr Ranjan Mustaphi. In his notes, under provisional diagnosis he wrote: ‘Ovarian tumour? Pregnancy?’ He recommended an ultrasound which was performed two days later. This revealed a large cystic lesion in the lower abdomen and pelvis, suggestive of an ovarian cyst.

On August 31 Besra was examined by Dr Gautam Mukherjee at the North Bengal Medical College Hospital. He noted that she had been taking anti-TB drugs since June, and that the ovarian tumour was ‘a lump of about 24 weeks [pregnancy] size’. He described her general condition as ‘poor’.

It was decided to perform a laparotomy (to open the abdomen and investigate the cyst) but not for another three months. Besra’s condition, it seemed, was too precarious for her to undergo even this straightforward procedure. ‘The doctors said I may not survive if I was administered anaesthetic at this time. I was told to go back to the Patiram home and come again after building myself up.’ She returned to Patiram, she said, expecting to die.

September 5 was the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death. The day was observed by constant prayers in the chapel. At 8am Besra was asked by the Sisters if she would be joining the prayers. ‘At first I thought I was so ill and weak that I couldn’t, but then I thought, no, I will go. Two attendants helped me to the chapel. And as soon as I entered I felt a beam of light coming out of the photograph of Mother. It came out from that photograph and into my heart. I became nervous. I became hot and I didn’t feel well. I told the attendants to let me sit so I could rest, but I did not tell them what had happened.’ Eventually, she returned to her bed. ‘I was feeling different. I felt my mind had changed.’

At 5pm two sisters of the order, Sister M Bartholomea, the Sister Superior, and Sister Ann Sevika, came to her bedside. ‘They said they wanted to tie a medallion with Mother’s blessing around my waist. They did this with a black cord, and then they prayed, and I began to feel better. The sisters didn’t know what had happened to me in the chapel; they just prayed over me because it was the anniversary of Mother’s death.’

Sister M Bartholomea gave her own account of this moment to the inquiry. ‘We laid our hands on [Monika’s] stomach… I prayed silently in my heart: “Mother, today is your death anniversary. You love all the people in our homes. Now Monika is sick, so please heal her.” Then we prayed out loud nine Memorares, because Mother loved this prayer very much. I looked at Monika’s face. It was looking relaxed and she was sleeping. We kept silence for a while and moved out to the convent.’

‘Until then I couldn’t sleep because of the pain,’ Besra told me. ‘But that night I fell straight asleep. At around one o’clock I got up. I felt like I had to go to the toilet. And I found that the tumour was not there. It had been so big and so painful and it was absolutely not there.

‘Holding the wall, I went to the loo. I came back and slept for a while. Then, again I woke up. I woke up Samira, the patient in the next bed. I told her what had happened in the chapel in the morning. I asked her, should I tell the Sisters about what has happened or not. Samira said it would be better to tell them in the morning. So that’s what I did.’

Besra paused. The rain had stopped. I noticed that she was wearing a small medallion around her neck. Was this the one that the Sisters had placed over the tumour, I asked. No, she replied. She had worn that one around her neck, but then the chain wore thin and she lost the medallion in a pond. This was another one. She shrugged.

Did she believe that she had received a miracle from Mother? She nodded. ‘I had taken lots of medicines but I was not cured. But when the Sisters prayed, in the morning the tumour was not there. Then my belief grew towards Mother, that she had done this.’ And why did she think Mother chose her for this miracle? She paused, for so long that I thought she had not understood the question. At last she replied, ‘I cannot answer that.’

Listening to Besra, I felt as if I was a witness to something strange and extraordinary. I had no doubt the story she told me was the truth. But was it a miracle? Her case quickly became a delicate political issue. In support of Mother Teresa’s Cause, Father Kolodiejchuk solicited copies of Besra’s medical reports and statements from doctors involved in her treatment, and from other medical experts. She had been treated by government doctors. The state government of West Bengal is Communist. Christian missionary work is traditionally regarded with some ambivalence. For doctors to be seen to be endorsing ‘miracles’ was not necessarily a wise move.

‘The problem emerged when it suddenly came out that [Besra’s story] was accepted by the Pope as a miracle,’ Archbishop D’Souza told me. ‘Then the doctors were all asked, did you certify a miracle? How do you certify a miracle? And they all said, we didn’t certify it as a miracle; we don’t believe in God, we don’t believe in miracles.’

I telephoned Dr Biswas, who had prescribed Besra with drugs for TB meningitis in June 1998. Besra, he said, might claim that her cure was the result of a miracle. ‘But in our opinion it was due to the treatment of the tuberculosis, not miraculous belief.’

But a tumour was diagnosed by ultrasound. Could TB cause such a tumour? ‘It may.’

And could treatment for TB lead to the disappearance of such a tumour in eight hours? ‘It is impossible.’

So was he saying Besra was lying? ‘She is lying. We think this. It is not possible to believe in miracles.’

However, Besra’s description of the tumour’s sudden disappearance is further borne out by Samira Tudu (her bedside neighbour), Martha Handsa (a helper) and Sister M Rosamina, all of whom testified that they had seen her looking perfectly well on the morning of September 6, had felt her stomach, and could find no sign of a lump or tumour.

Sister Ann Sevika, who had prayed over Besra, told me how she, too, found her in good health the next morning. ‘That day, all the patients were talking, saying Monika is all right! I went to see her and she no more had great pain or sickness. Then I checked her stomach and it was normal, not hard like before, and there was no lump there.’

When I contacted Dr Mustaphi, who had initially diagnosed an ovarian tumour, he told me that he now thought the origin of the mass was tuberculosis. ‘So most probably it was a tubercular mass, or pelvic mass that responded to antitubercular drugs.’ Four weeks after the ‘miracle’, Besra was taken back to see Dr Mustaphi. He told her it was no longer necessary for her to have a laparotomy. He next saw her in May 1999, when an ultrasound revealed no sign of the tumour.

Three months later, in August 1999, Besra was examined once more, at the Woodland Hospital in Calcutta by a consultant surgeon and neurologist, Dr Mohan Seal. He confirmed that the tumour had totally vanished. After studying her case notes, Dr Seal testified that he could offer no medical explanation for her cure. ‘To say this is a miracle is technically difficult for us [as doctors],’ he told me. ‘But I will say that to the best of my knowledge as a doctor this case is inexplicable, and I stand by that.’

The final verdict – at least for the purposes of beatification – fell to the medical committee of the Congregation for the Causes for the Saints. This committee, made up of five doctors, has been chaired for the past 20 years by Professor Raffaele Cortesini, the head of surgery and transplantation at Rome University Medical School. In that time Cortesini has investigated more than 700 purported miracles, some 300 of which he has ruled as authentic, including innumerable tumours and recovery from brain death.

The case of Monika Besra, he told me, was among the most convincing he had ever seen. After examining the medical records and witness statements, and consulting with various medical authorities ‘for several months’, Cortesini concluded that Besra’s case fulfilled all the conditions of the inexplicable: ‘suddenness, completeness and long-term stability’.

 ‘The patient was very critical,’ he said. ‘If the doctors couldn’t even perform a laparotomy she must have been in a very bad state. In real terms, she was sent back to the Mother Teresa home to die. And yet she recovered.’

The exact nature of the tumour – whether it was an ovarian cyst, carcinoma or a tubercular lesion – was not at issue, Professor Cortesini told me. Without a surgical specimen it would be impossible to draw a firm conclusion about the diagnosis. The central point of the case was the sudden and complete recovery.

Anti-tubercular drugs, he said, could not account for the sudden disappearance of the tumour in the time-frame described. And, ‘If the cyst had burst, the abdomen would have been filled with fluid; she would have developed peritonitis and a very adverse reaction. But the abdomen was not full of fluid. The mass disappeared overnight. She was completely cured. This was the crucial point.’ So was Cortesini convinced it was a miracle? ‘Surely. In all my life I have studied so many cases. When you have all the criteria fulfilled then you are sure.’


Excerpt taken from


Written by Mick Brown

2 September 2016 • 1:39pm



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