At first blush, Mother Teresa seems a natural pick for a stamp. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient spent decades serving the diseased and destitute in Calcutta, India. Already, dozens of other nations have rendered her in stamps. In many countries, “Mother Teresa” is a household name — for many, a virtual synonym for virtue.
But the Mother Teresa stamp, which was issued on September 5, 2010, has not been without its challenges.
To earn the honor of being on a stamp, a subject must meet specific selection criteria as interpreted by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC). The first of the criteria is a strong preference for “American or American-related” subjects — which generally excludes non-American citizens from consideration.
Born in Albania and never a resident of the United States, Mother Teresa seems to fail this test. However, a 1996 act of Congress granted her honorary U.S. citizenship. Only seven people, including Mother Teresa, have been so honored; six of them have been commemorated on U.S. postage.
Another of CSAC’s stated criteria has captured even more attention: “Stamps shall not be issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.”
Following the announcement of the Mother Teresa stamp, groups such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation objected to the Postal Service’s seeming violation of its own guidelines.
“We received numerous letters saying that we should not be doing religious stamps,” says Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development. “But we are honoring her for her humanitarian work, not for being a member of a religious order.”
After all, McCaffrey asks, to what extent should religious inspiration disqualify an otherwise worthy subject?
Over the years, many religious figures have been depicted on stamps in recognition of their contributions to society, independent of their personal motivations or beliefs. Stamp honorees have included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for leading the struggle for civil rights, Father Edward Joseph Flanagan for his work with delinquent and homeless boys, and Padre Félix Varela for his advocacy for the immigrant poor.
Still, the signs of protest for Mother Teresa were stronger than with most stamps. And the obstacles didn’t stop there.
As art director Derry Noyes began investigating the visual support for the project, she discovered that the existing portraits of Mother Teresa were uniformly sobering — hardly surprising, considering the circumstances of poverty in which she worked for decades.
Noyes did find a consistent exception: Mother Teresa with children. “When she engaged with children," Noyes says, "there was a brightness in her face that you just didn’t see in other situations.”
First attempts at a stamp design showed her with children, but they didn’t work within the size constraints. Finally, Noyes found a photograph of Mother Teresa with a broad smile, which served as a starting point for artist, Thomas Blackshear II.
“People may buy the stamp because they believe in Mother Teresa’s work, but you also want an attractive stamp,” Noyes says. “And that’s where Thomas Blackshear came through — his illustration captured her warmth and her humanity.”
This warmth and humanity that inspired millions, many times regardless of religious affiliation, has garnered support in the face of opposition. In fact, the positive responses to the announcement of a Mother Teresa stamp outnumbered the critical comments by more than two to one — which speaks volumes.
“Most people don’t write to support a stamp decision,” McCaffrey points out. “They have to be passionate about it to write us.”
Indeed, Mother Teresa was a natural pick for a stamp — displaying a commitment to serve that has inspired millions around the world, from every nation, culture, and creed.
Mother Teresa is a registered trademark of the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center. All rights reserved.
Photograph of Mother Teresa © Mary Ellen Mark