In 1986, Mother Teresa visited Nicaragua and met with President Daniel Ortega. It was a cordial meeting, despite the Marxist leanings of the Sandinista revolutionary.
In a possibly apocryphal account of the discussion, Mgr John A Esseff, an American priest who served with the saint for decades, said Ortega began ridiculing US President Ronald Reagan.
Mgr Esseff told the Pennsylvania Times Leader: “She finally said to him – and this was in front of microphones with cameras rolling – ‘President Ortega, President Reagan really needs to be prayed for, doesn’t he? And so do you.”
A true tale or not, Ortega, now once again president 36 years later, has finally got his revenge. Earlier this month, the Missionaries of Charity were kicked out of Nicaragua by the autocratic leader who has concentrated power since crushing protests in 2018.
In footage, the Sisters can be seen walking across the border to Costa Rica, most of them elderly, one using a zimmer.
The event is the latest chapter in the Catholic Church’s complex history in Nicaragua.
A Catholic majority country, Nicaragua was ruled for most of the 19th and 20th century by autocrats, with the regular intervention of the United States.
By the 1970s, it was fioundering under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. His powerful family had ruled the country for decades and amassed great wealth.
The Church opposed his rule, particularly after international aid for victims of a devastating earthquake was stolen by the dictator and his cronies.
Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua began issuing letters highly critical of Somoza.
Meanwhile, laypersons and priests began to actively participate in revolution.
Gaspar García Laviana, a Spanish priest, became a guerrilla fighter, being killed in combat on the Costa Rican border. Others took a non-violent path. When the Sandinistas finally succeeded in over-throwing the dictator, several priests entered their government as ministers.
The hierarchy meanwhile had great reservations about the Sandinistas once they were in power and were fulsome in their criticism of their brother priests for taking government roles.
Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1982, amid a civil war between the Sandinistas and the US-funded Contras. He condemned the rebel priests for taking office in the government.
Ortega would be voted out of power in 1990, but he remained active in politics. In 2006, he was re-elected president and has overseen a repressive regime that has killed hundreds.
The Church has played a multifaceted role in supporting the demonstrators since 2018, facing persecution as a result. Parishes have on occasions been converted into shelters and hospitals for protesters.
The repression has forced Nicaraguans to fiee the country, with more than 40,000 of them arriving at the US border in the three months to May.
Isabel Sanchez, not her real name, a 26-year-old teacher from Nicaragua, said if you speak up against the government, your only option is either to leave or be incarcerated.
She said: “I’m not too religious right now. But I was born and raised Catholic. So culturally, I’m a Catholic. And a big thing that is happening right now is that the Catholic Church has taken a direct stance against the regime.”
She said the Church is being persecuted as a result, with priests being detained in their parishes and attacks on churches and religious figures who have spoken against the government.
Ms Sanchez said she hopes ‘things will eventually improve once the regime falls’ so she can ‘be an actor in the restructuring of educational institutions in the country’.
“As an educator who came from a privileged upbringing I feel it is my duty to multiply the opportunities I have been given to study in private schools and even leave the country for my university studies,” she said.
“However I do understand working in the public sector or third sector is not an option for me at the moment.”
She said large NGOs have been thrown out of the country and ‘prohibited from continuing their operations in Nicaragua’.
Speaking about the expulsion of the Mother Teresa Sisters, she said: “They were not allowed to continue their mission here.
“And thankfully, Costa Rica opened their arms to them, but it’s still very shocking that the government would go against this very prominent order, which does so much charity in the country.”
Sr Agnecita, one of the expelled sisters, explained what that charity work in- volved at the end of a welcome Mass in Costa Rica. She told a press conference that they ran a home for the elderly, a nursery and a soup kitchen.
“When we were expelled from Nicaragua, we were invaded by a deep pain of having to leave the most needy people and the Marian people,” she said.
“We want to express our gratitude to all those who never left us alone and were divine providence for us. We know that our spirit will always be with you Nicaragua.”
Daniel Harkins is a journalist, former editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer and contributing editor to The Scottish Catholic.