NAKOR, INDIA — The story of her surprising cure has been carved and softened by years, but Monica Besra can still recite it by heart.
Besra, who is from a tribal community in eastern India, was so sick she could barely walk when nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa, helped her to a small prayer room one day in 1998.
She paused by a photo of the nun and suddenly felt a “blinding light” emanating from the portrait, and it passed through her body. Later, other nuns pressed a religious medal on her belly, swollen from a tumor, and prayed over Besra as she lay in bed.
She says she awoke at 1 a.m., her body feeling lighter, the tumor seemingly gone.
“I was so happy at that moment I wanted to tell everyone: I am cured,” Besra recalled Wednesday during an interview at her home.
In 2002, the Vatican certified Besra’s case as a “miracle,” the first milestone in the journey to sainthood for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Albanian nun who will be canonized Sunday at the Vatican.
Mother Teresa was considered a living saint by many believers during her lifetime, but Besra’s story has always been treated with skepticism in India because doctors and the state health minister debunked it at the time.
They have long maintained that Besra had been suffering from a cyst, not a cancerous tumor. The doctors have said she recovered after she received tuberculosis treatment for several months at a government hospital in Balurghat, about 270 miles north of the city where Mother Teresa spent decades ministering to the destitute and dying.
“I’ve said several times that she was cured by the treatment, and nothing has happened,” one of the doctors involved, Ranjan Mustafi, said in a brief telephone interview.
For the Catholic Church to declare someone a saint requires an investigation into that person’s life, faith and good works that can take years. Two “miracles” credited to prayers to the prospective saint must be recognized — one before the beatification rite, the penultimate phase of the process, the second before sainthood.
Catholic Bishop Salvatore Lobo, who chaired the local committee that investigated Besra’s case for the Vatican, said they repeatedly asked Mustafi and the two others to testify but they never appeared. Meanwhile, he said, several other doctors involved in her treatment confirmed Besra’s version of events. He declined to provide their names.
“She was very sick, and she had a tumor and that tumor was cured after the intercession of Mother Teresa,” he said. “That is what is believed, and those are the facts.”
Prabir Ghosh, the president of the Science and Rationalists’ Society of India, based in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, called the case “false” and said that encouraging stories of mystical healings could be detrimental to public health.
Mother Teresa — who was born in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia — came to India as a young nun and began working with the poor in the slums around Kolkata. She became known as the “saint of the gutters” for her work with the poor, orphaned children and the terminally ill.
She went on to found a religious order that has spread to more than 130 countries around the world, and in 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Near the end of her life, she traveled the globe as a staunch supporter of the Catholic Church’s position against abortion and contraception. She died in 1997 at age 87.
Besra, who says she is about 50 years old now, was flown by the Missionaries of Charity to attend Mother Teresa’s beatification in St. Peter’s Square in Rome in 2003, presided over by an ailing Pope John Paul II. She will not be attending Sunday’s canonization.
The Vatican later credited Mother Teresa with a second miracle when a Brazilian man recovered from a life-threatening bacterial infection of the brain after his wife prayed to the nun, paving the way for Sunday’s sainthood ceremony.
As evening fell Wednesday, Besra, her husband and members of her extended family gathered outside her modest concrete home as she recounted her story.
She is a slight woman with her hair wound in a bun who still wears a silver Mother Teresa medal around her neck. She says it’s the same medal the sisters once pressed against her distended belly.
The family had endured financial hardship and long separations during her protracted illness, so her husband, Selku Murmu, 60, said he was relieved when Besra recovered so quickly. Although he once told reporters he believed his wife recovered after medical treatment, he now says he was misquoted.
“It happened due to the blessings of Mother Teresa,” he said. “She prayed a long time to her. I went to many doctors and she was not getting well. After that day, she was cured.”
The couple, who own about three acres of rice paddy, have gotten a bit of support in the intervening years from the Missionaries of Charity, including assistance with school expenses for their five children. Last year, a local priest built a small green chapel opposite their home where the related families worship most Sundays. They all converted to Catholicism more than a decade ago.
Besra has been healthy since her illness and says she still doesn’t quite understand the significance of what the Catholic Church thinks happened to her.
“I can’t explain why I was chosen,” Besra said. “I’m normal — just like other people.”
Kalpana Pradhan contributed to this report.