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Sister Nirmala Recalled as Living the Beatitudes

Missionaries of Charity pay final respects to Sister Nirmala

Anto Akkara

Anto Akkara - published on 06/30/15

Mother Teresa's successor laid to rest

KOLKATA, India—Sister Nirmala Joshi lived the Sermon on the Mount, the archbishop of Calcutta said at the funeral for the successor of Mother Teresa of Kolkata.

"Her life was her message. She practiced the Sermon on the Mount with love and served the poorest of the poor," Archbishop Thomas D’Souza said in a homily. "Sister Nirmala was a symbol of patience, compassionate and ever-enduring love."

Sister Nirmala,who headed the Missionaries of Charity for 12 years and died June 23, played a unique role in the "post-Mother" period, the archbishop said in an interview.

"There were a lot of fears and anxieties about the future of the MC congregation after the Mother. Sister Nirmala ensured a smooth transition of the MCs and took them forward without any hiccup," said Archbishop D’Souza

At the beginning of the funeral, Sister Nicole, a senior member of the congregation, said that Sister Nirmala’s presence "radiated gentleness. Sister sent us to the school of nursery of love."

Quoting Sister Nirmala’s own words, "My vocation is mercy," Sister Nicole pointed out that the former superior rushed to areas of natural calamities and conflicts worldwide and displayed a "prophetic role for the suffering Christians of Orissa … spending several days with them." She referred to a brutal persecurtion of thousands of Christians in the jungles of Kandhamal in India in 2008.

The secret of Sister Nirmala’s success was being "blessed with a listening heart and intelligence," according to a statement from the Missionaries of Charity. She "generously shared with everyone the fruit of her contemplation in her gentleness, kindness, simplicity and joyfulness," said the statement. "She was sought as a guide by the sisters and the people who trusted in her advice."

"Nobody could guess Sister Nirmala, a Hindu convert, would be so efficient in her leadership of the MCs," said Archbishop D’Souza. "God chooses special people at critical times. It’s providence. Looking back, that’s all that I can say now."

Born Kusum Joshi on July 23, 1934, in Ranchi in eastern India, she was the eldest of 10 children in an ethnic Nepali Brahmin family. Her father, Mahananda Joshi, was in the military service. Kusum (a name meaning "flower") had the first experience of "God’s call" while in college at the age of 17.

"Sister Nirmala was strongly moved from her early childhood to love God and His poor," according to the congregation’s statement. "While at Patna Women’s College in 1951, she had a deep interior experience of Jesus, who captured her heart. From that moment onward, she had a deep desire to know Him and follow Him."

After completing her MA in political science in Patna, Kusum went to Kolkata. She was baptized during the Easter vigil of 1958. Mother Teresa gave her the name Nirmala, meaning "pure."

One of the few nuns who have pursued studies after joining the congregation, Sister Nirmala took a law degree and supervised the work of congregation’s houses in Europe and the United States. Besides heading the MC contemplative wing, which she cofounded with Mother Teresa in 1976, the diminutive nun, armed with a disarming smile, accompanied Mother Teresa on several trips abroad. 

On March 13, 1997, six months before Mother Teresa’s death, Sister Nirmala was elected Superior General. It was Mother Teresa who made the choice of her successor public by introducing her from the balcony of the spartan motherhouse in Kolkata.

Though re-elected to head the congregation for a third term in 2009, Sister Nirmala declined due to old age and ill health.

In an interview with this correspondent in September 2006 at the motherhouse, Sister Nirmala spelled out what she had been trying to do: “We are trying to improve our prayer and work, and continue in the path the Mother has shown us. God has helped us in this."

"Little acts of love have the power to touch the most hardened hearts and generate love in return. We have been able to remain faithful so far to the vision of our Mother,” Sister Nirmala said.

The number of Missionaries of Charity homes had gone up steadily from 594 in 1997 to 766, while the number of nuns has increased from over 4,000 at the time of Mother Teresa’s death to 5,001 by the end of 2009. The congregation now has 768 houses with 5160 nuns.

Even after she declined a third term, Sister Nirmala remained active in the service of the congregation amid her life of prayer in the contemplative branch. She completed writing a formation program before a kidney ailment worsened after Easter, Sister Nicole said.

"Sister Nirmala expressed a desire to return home from hospital. On June 19, her condition turned worse and she slipped into a coma on the 21st. She went home to Jesus at 12.05 am (June 23)," Sister Nicole said.

The funeral service, presided over by Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, archbishop of Ranchi, was preceded by an unprecedented "civic homage" at the motherhouse chapel with the body of Sister Nirmala in the middle.

"Sister Nirmala’s death is a loss not only for Kolkata but for the whole world," said Mamata Bannerji, a Hindu and chief minister of West Bengal state, where Kolkata is the capital. "We have lost a loving and compassionate mother. She always cared for the poor people. Physically, we have lost her, but she will be with us. Sister Nirmala cannot die."

Bannerji stayed for the three hour funeral and stood in silence when the coffin was taken from the motherhouse in a flower-decked hearse. Burial was at the cemetery of St. John’s church, a mile away, where Sister Nirmala had been baptized almost 60 years earlier.

Bannerji was not alone among government officials extoling the nun’s virtues. Soon after the Missionaries of Charity announced the death of Mother Teresa’s successor, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to social media.

"Sister Nirmala’s life was devoted to service, caring for the poor & underprivileged. Saddened by her demise. May her soul rest in peace," the Hindu prime minister tweeted.

Anto Akkara
 is based in New Delhi, India.

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