Painting Featuring Mother Teresa and Margaret Sanger Fires Up Town Over Freedoms of Speech and Religion

"Women of Purpose" by Robin Morris at Trumbull Library
"Women of Purpose" by Robin Morris at Trumbull Library
Trumbull, CT

A painting on display in Trumbull, Connecticut, that depicts an image of Mother Teresa with Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and abortion proponent Gloria Steinem has been the subject of much controversy over issues of freedom of speech and religion.

The painting by Robin Morris is titled Women of Purpose and, according to the CT Post is part of the “Great Minds” exhibit owned by Trumbull residents Dr. Richard Resnick and his wife. The exhibit has been on display since October.

Women of Purpose features the image of Mother Teresa, who is one step from canonization as a saint, holding one end of a banner which proclaims, “Onward We March,” while Sanger is depicted holding the other end. Besides Steinem, other women portrayed in the painting include Abigail Adams, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and Betty Friedan.

At the end of February, the Order of the Missionaries of Charity—founded by Mother Teresa—filed a copyright complaint with the town. Local Catholics expressed concerns about the painting as well, as did Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Roman Catholic diocese of Bridgeport.

Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst subsequently ordered the painting to be removed from the town library, citing the lack of an agreement between the library and Resnick that would hold the town harmless in the event of a complaint or damage to the collection. Resnick reportedly also referred to Herbst as “un-American” for violating free speech in removal of the painting.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also sent a letter to Herbst stating that removal of the painting constituted a First Amendment issue “given the speciousness of any copyright concerns.” According to the ACLU, “the First Amendment protects ‘fictional or semi-fictional’ work against all statutory and common-law infringement claims.”

Herbst, however, said Town Attorney Robert Nicola advised removal of all 33 paintings in the “Great Minds Collection,” if Resnick and Herbst did not agree on what responsibilities the town has regarding the collection. Resnick’s attorney, Bruce Elstein, said removal of the collection would cause problems for the town.

In a letter to Nicola, Elstein cited a state law he said proves the library board has control over its own buildings, and board chairwoman Jeannine Stauder reported the library board had not been aware of Herbst’s decision to remove the painting until after the fact.

“If First Selectman Herbst acts contrary to the wishes of the board of trustees, he does so in violation of law and subjecting himself personally and the town to liability,” Elstein wrote.

The town then sent Elstein an agreement that would hold the town harmless if the paintings were damaged in any way and also hold Resnick responsible for insuring the collection, estimated to be worth between $231,000 and $330,000. When the town discovered, however, that Resnick did not have insurance, it offered to insure the property under its own policy.

Elstein, nevertheless, returned the agreement that covered only copyright infringement and said Resnick should not be held responsible if the paintings were damaged while in the care of the library.

“The town agreement is now trying to revise history,” Elstein said. “It’s changing the nature of the loan made to the library. They’re asking him to take on liability much greater than the stated reason they wanted this agreement, which was the copyright infringement.”

“To me, there’s something deeper here,” Nicola said. “It makes no sense to me.”

When Resnick then submitted an agreement indemnifying the town if a copyright lawsuit was filed, the painting went back on display on March 6.

Just five days later, however, on March 11, the portrait was reportedly defaced by an unknown woman.

According to the Post, two teens in the library allegedly saw an unidentified woman scribble over the image of Sanger’s face on the painting while the library board was meeting in a nearby conference room, discussing the status of the painting and hearing many speakers express their opposition to its display.

During the meeting, town attorney Dennis Kokenos advised the library board to adopt a policy for art exhibits requiring an indemnification agreement that would cover damages, theft, and vandalism. Though Resnick would not sign such an agreement, Kokenos and Elstein agreed to create an alternate agreement to “broaden the indemnity to some extent.”

In the midst of this discussion, however, Herbst announced to the board that the painting had been defaced. Since the town already had the collection covered under its own policy, Kokenos said the damage should be covered. Herbst and the town’s police chief said they would find the person responsible and hold her accountable.

“Free speech does not allow for the destruction of private property,” Herbst said.

Resnick, according to the Post, later said he does not intend to seek damages or press charges against the suspect—should one be arrested. Additionally, he said he does not intend to repair the damage to the $10,000 painting.

“When I heard of this Wednesday night, I was saddened but not necessarily surprised because of the emotional rhetoric it created,” he said “I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it can be repaired. But for now the damage adds to the discussion. It’s important for people to think about what the painting really represents…so it will stay as it is.”

George Meagher, Trumbull resident and a Catholic who expressed concerns about the display of the painting, condemned the vandalism of the painting as an inappropriate way to handle the debate about it.

During the meeting, the library board and town officials heard many complaints about the portrait.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate,” said Dr. Sheelah Brown. “I didn’t expect any Catholic persecution in Trumbull. I don’t think we need to provoke discussion that’s offensive to a large part of the community.”

Several speakers pointed to Sanger as a racist and eugenicist who wanted to eliminate African-Americans, with little concern about unborn children.

“Just like Hitler, she believed in purifying the human race,” said Madelyn Meagher.

Others said Mother Teresa would never have shared a platform with Sanger or some of the other women in the painting, such as Steinem.

According to National Catholic Register, Father Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, said he was offended by the painting.

“Mother Teresa should not be imaged marching in solidarity with Margaret Sanger and hung in a public setting,” said Gannon. “It betrays Mother Teresa [to show her] marching in solidarity with Margaret Sanger, who believed in forced sterilization and was a eugenicist.”

He added that the office of Mother Teresa’s order—the Missionaries of Charity—that oversees the authorization of her image, “respectfully but straightforwardly asked the image to be taken down because it is not representative of who Mother Teresa is.”

A similar action was reportedly taken by the order in 2007, when Sister Nirmala, the superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, had asked the Hillary Clinton campaign to remove a photo of Clinton with Mother Teresa from a video for her 2008 presidential campaign. The Clinton campaign subsequently agreed to remove it.