First successor of Mother Teresa
(AsiaNews & L’Osservatore Romano) – Sister Nirmala Joshi, the first to lead the Missionaries of Charity after Mother Teresa, died on June 23rd in Calcutta. She was 81 years old. She had suffered from heart problems for the past few years. After a kidney failure, on Friday, June 19 the doctors wanted to hospitalize her to undergo dialysis. The nun, however, preferred to stay with her sisters. After a Mass celebrated by a Jesuit priest in the hospital, she was discharged. Her funeral was scheduled for 4pm (local time) on the 24th of June.
Her body was laid on June 23rd in the Church of St. John, before being transferred that evening to the Missionaries’ home in Tengra, a Calcutta suburb. On the following day the remains were taken to the headquarters of the Congregation, where the funeral will take place.
Sister Nirmala was born in 1934 in Ranchi, capital of Jharkanda, which at the time, was a part of the province of Bihar and Orissa under the British Empire. Her parents were from Nepal and her father was a British army officer, until India’s independence in 1947. Although her parents were Hindus, Nirmala was educated by Christian missionaries in Patna, capital of Bihar state.
In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano in 1998, Sister Nirmala explained how her original belief prepared her for the Catholic faith. “My parents were very devoted to the values of Hinduism,” she recalls. “For example chastity, fidelity in marriage, prayer, compassion, helping those in need, kindness and self-control. Like all Hindus, my family deeply loved the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. We children grew up following their example. I prayed to God with the names of Rama, Krishna and Shiva. Already as a small child I felt strongly moved to love the poor. The divinity I preferred was precisely Shiva and do you know why? I will tell you: Shiva became my favorite when I learned that he was not loved very much because of his very ugly appearance.”
She added, “I cherish within me the most beautiful values of Hinduism. I come from that religion, from that culture. My roots are there and I cannot, I must not, forget them. I believe that there is partial truth in the other religions, and therefore also in Hinduism. But only Christ is the truth.”
It was in a boarding school run by Christian missionaries that she heard for the first time “of a certain Jesus Christ.” She was seven at the time.
Later on, Nirmala enrolled in the faculty of law at the University of Patna and went to live in the hostel run by Catholic sisters. “A few days after my arrival I heard the sound of a bell. It was evening and when my room-mate, a Catholic medical student, heard it ringing, she knelt down and prayed in silence. I did not know then what the bell was for, but I was impressed by my friend’s act. At that moment Jesus touched my heart. I understood that he had been in me for a long time. I had never sought him, but he had sought me and had found me at last. I was 17 years old. It was then that Jesus began to speak to me personally and from that day I began to ask questions about Jesus, I began to read about him.”
“I wanted to go to Nepal to help the rebirth of my parent’s land,” Sr Nirmala recalls. “One day, I spoke to an American Jesuit about my desire, and he told me about Mother Teresa. In fact, he submitted my project to her. So one day Mother Teresa wrote to me: ‘I know you want to go to Nepal, but souls are the same in Nepal, in Bengal or in any other part of the world.’ And she added that I could join the Missionaries of Charity: ‘If you want to come unconditionally, come’. So I decided to go to Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa. She was like a second mother from the beginning. I opened my heart to her, with all the uncertainties of a young woman who wants to change the world. She listened to me, then she said: ‘You pray as though everything depended on God and you act as though everything depended on you.’”
Kusum (Nirmala’s original name) was baptized on 5 April 1958. On 24 May she joined the Missionaries of Charity with the name of Nirmala, which means “purity”.
A graduate in political science and after a period spent as a lawyer, she became one of the first sisters of the congregation to lead a foreign mission, when she was sent to Panama.
In 1976, Sister Nirmala started the contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity, of which she remained in charge until her election as successor to Mother Teresa in 1997, six months after the death of the founder.
Very shy and lover of the contemplative life, Sister Nirmala gave AsiaNews two exclusive interviews: the first on the occasion of the Synod on the Eucharist, the second on the occasion of the 10 anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa, chosen by AsiaNews as our patron.
January 26, 2009 (Republic Day, ed) the Indian government awarded her the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award of the country, for services rendered to the country.
Her term as superior general of the Missionaries of Charity ended March 25, 2009: she was succeeded by German Sister Mary Prema Pierick, who is still at the head of the congregation of Mother Teresa.