There’s a new book out about Mother Teresa by a nun who’s time with the Sisters of Charity was not the virtuous life many envision. Colette Livermore spent 11 years devoted to the poor in India with the order.
In the book Hope Endures Livermore details some of the darker sides of life within the Sisters of Charity.
Livermore gave up a scholarship to study medicine to devote her life to serving God in India. She now lives in New South Wales.
The Courier Mail meet up with the nun turned author and asked her why she choose to become a nun.
“When I was a kid, the Biafran famine was in the news. Kids were dying on the television set in front of you. I thought to myself that this couldn’t be right and then I saw a Mother Teresa film and thought: ‘That’s the way to go! Get out there and do something!’ I was very naive. I didn’t appreciate the implications,” she says.
Livermore learned that the media persona of Mother Teresa differed from the real life woman. According to the nun Mother Teresa required her charges to give up their brain, will and everything. She required total surrender of the person.
Livermore recalls her new life at a tender 18 years old with the order. A new novitate, she dealt with huge changes in her life and world view.
Once you’re within that sort of organization, it’s hard to get your bearings. You’re off balance because Mother Teresa is a saintly person and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and all that sort of thing so you think that if you disagree with things, there must be something wrong with you rather than the organisation.
“We did our training and then I was sent to the Gulf province of New Guinea without any warning or preparation and nearly died of cerebral malaria.
“I was there for a few years and then transferred to Manila and worked in a garbage dump looking after people with tuberculosis. I wasn’t even trained to the level of a barefoot doctor.”
Livermore was sent to Calcutta from Manila. Once there she tried and failed to leave the order. She was told that her wanting to leave the order was because of the devil. The order does not allow for radio, newspapers or even conversing with friends. There was little contact even with the young woman’s own family.
She fought against Mother Teresa about helping the sick children on holy days. The practice was not allowed.
A ruling was made that on this recollection day, this day of prayer, children were not to be admitted to the Home for the Children.
“This really sick child came in with stick arms, breathing really fast and dehydrated and I was told he couldn’t stay. I had this internal conflict and eventually the child was admitted but only after I’d had a big fight.
“These sorts of things happened time and time again because there was this rigid obedience and timetable, so I wrote to Calcutta and said: ‘This can’t be right.’
She claims that Mother Teresa said that she should be able to watch the death of a child if she was asked to. That ideal came from the fact that the Virgin Mother watched her son, Jesus die on the cross. Livermore countered the wizened woman with, ‘That’s against the gospel’ and they said that even the devil could quote scripture.”
According to Livermore Mother Teresa was plagued by her own spiritually and that took her to some dark places. She talked of her own inner emptiness and misery.
The young woman’s own mother had been upset when her daughter joined the order. Livermore didn’t tell her mother of her trials during this time period.
“My family wasn’t aware because you weren’t supposed to tell anyone. It was a secret.
“Mum was disappointed I’d thrown away the chance to do medicine because our family struggled. My father had left us and she was struggling to support four kids and for her eldest to take off was hard.”
Livermore finally wrote Mother Teresa telling her she could no longer cope with living in the order at the age of 30. The Mother Superior told her it was the devil trying to rob her of her vocation.
Livermore now says that Mother Teresa’s one sightedness on obedience over compassion was a mistake.
“That’s not something that’s widely known and not part of what the media says about her. It was dictatorial. I should have got out sooner,” she says, shaking her head.
Since leaving the order Livermore has completed her medical degree and has worked in Timor, the Northern Territory, the Congo, Sudan and Darfur. She is no longer Catholic. Her personal faith suffered so much that she now describes herself as agnostic.
In the end Livermore blames only herself for the time she spent in Calcutta.
“After all,” she says, smiling, “no one handcuffed me. It was my own silly choice. My mother told me I was a drongo but once I was in there, I couldn’t get free.
“That’s part of the reason I wrote the book – to tell religious people not to give up that inner compass that they have. You can’t live your life with all these excluding rules.”