Sister Nirmala Joshi (1934-2015)

Service with a smile

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Sister Nirmala (right) with Mothe Teresa, a file photograph. Photo: PTI

Sister Nirmala's Joshi body at The Mother House, Kolkata, on June 24. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

With the Dalai Lama in Kolkata in 2001. Photo: AFP

Sister Nirmala (1934-2015), who passed away on June 23, was a true inheritor of all that Mother Teresa stood for.

On June 23 this year, Kolkata lost a very dear friend with the death of Sister Nirmala, the nun who succeeded Mother Teresa as the head of the Missionaries of Charity, the Roman Catholic Latin Rite organisation founded by Mother Teresa in 1950 and headquartered in Kolkata. She was 81 years old.

Sister Nirmala was a true inheritor of Mother Teresa’s mantle. Not only did she carry forward Mother Teresa’s legacy of humanitarianism and charity, she was also instrumental in spreading the reach of the Missionaries of Charity all over the world. When she took over the reins of the organisation in 1997, the Missionaries of Charity had 605 homes in 123 countries. In the 12 years that Sister Nirmala served at the helm, the organisation’s spread increased to 720 homes in 145 countries. She also started the “Contemplative” branch of the Missionaries of Charity in 1976 and remained its head until 1997, when she was elected Superior General of the institution.

Extending his condolences to the Missionaries of Charity, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Sister Nirmala’s life was devoted to service, caring for the poor and underprivileged.” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “Sister Nirmala’s devotion and untiring work will always remain an inspiration to all of us…. Entire humanity has lost a friend.”

Born Kusum Joshi on July 23, 1934 in Ranchi in a Brahmin family that originally hailed from Nepal, Sister Nirmala was the eldest of 10 children. After completing her schooling in Jharkhand (then a part of Bihar), she went on to get a master’s degree in political science and a degree in law. “I practise the highest law in the highest court, the law of charity in the court in heaven, pleading for the poorest of the poor,” she once said in an interview.

In 1958, at the age of 24, she converted to Christianity and joined the Missionaries of Charity and was one of the earliest disciples of Mother Teresa. She worked and travelled extensively among the poor, both in the country and abroad. In fact, she used to supervise the functioning of the different centres of the Missionaries of Charity in Europe, South America and the United States.

In March 1997, Mother Teresa stepped down as head of the Missionaries of Charity on grounds of failing health, and Sister Nirmala was elected Superior General on March 13, just six months before the death of Mother Teresa. It was a daunting task to step into the shoes of the Nobel laureate, who had become a symbol of charity and selfless service all over the world. But Sister Nirmala soon showed that she was indeed the right person for the position and, under her leadership, the organisation expanded further.

“She was as focussed in her duties as Mother Teresa was, and was never distracted or diverted from her path. She worked tirelessly for the poor and always with a smile on her face. She will not only be remembered for her commitment to her work but also for the warm and affectionate person that she was,” Sunita Kumar, the official spokesperson for the Missionaries of Charity, who was known to be close to both Mother Teresa and Sister Nirmala, told Frontline.

Though physically frail and constitutionally not very strong, she nevertheless made up for it with an indefatigable spirit and will. In the two six-year terms that she served as the head of the organisation from 1997 to 2009, she personally monitored each and every aspect of its functioning. When she was re-elected for a third term, she was forced to turn down the responsibility as her health would not permit it. “However great the pressure may have been for her, she never lost her cheerful disposition, her sense of humour and her gentle manner. She would never see herself as taking Mother’s place, but merely continuing with her work,” said Sunita Kumar.

Her devotion to Mother Teresa was such that after being elected Superior General, she refused to take the title of “Mother”, insisting that there was only one Mother in the organisation, the founder of the order herself. Sister Mary Prema Pierick, who was elected Superior General after Sister Nirmala in 2009, said on the latter’s passing away: “She gave us the spirit of Mother Teresa and she continued her work in a very beautiful, peaceful and uniting way.”

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