It was the spring of 1997 in Kolkata, then still known by its colonial name, Calcutta. Winds of change were also flowing in the Missionaries of Charity headquarters here. The Roman Catholic Congregation, founded by Mother Teresa, and with whom the institution had become synonymous, was electing its new superior general. The stakes were high as the elected would replace none other than the Mother herself.
After an eight-week selection process and closed-door vote by 132 senior nuns, Nirmala Joshi, a Hindu Brahmin from Nepal, was chosen. “The selection was unanimous, the Mother herself was present to bless the new superior general,” the then archbishop Henry D’Souza had said.
“Please don't call me Mother. I am not Mother Teresa, I am Sister Nirmala,” she had told journalists then. Throughout her tenure, she remained the devout follower of Mother Teresa, unwilling to come out of her shadow, but strong enough to grow the order and take its message to new areas.
Born in Ranchi in Duranda on 23 July, 1934, to a Brahmin soldier who came from Nepal, Nirmala Joshi joined the order at the age of 17 after converting from Hinduism and was baptised by Mother Teresa herself.
After joining the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Nirmala studied law at the insistence of Mother Teresa, who often took her along during her tours abroad. She became the first assistant to the Mother and head of the contemplative that was founded in 1979. Soon after, she became the first superior of any house to be opened outside India in Panama. The Mother's confidence in her abilities was evident when she asked Sister Nirmala to open their homes in Panama, New York and Kathmandu.
Sunita Kumar, spokesperson of Missionaries of Charity, describes her as sweet tempered and shy in public but iron-willed whenever a crisis came. “She did not divert into anything unnecessary, kept the institution the same as it was under the Mother but widened its horizons,” says Kumar, who had seen the nun from close quarter. In fact, she went on record denouncing abortion as the “greatest destroyer of peace”, a policy which the order still follows and is criticised for.
One of the most testing times during her tenure was when a nun, in one of the shelter homes, was accused of burning the hands of four children. “She did not try to hide anything, immediately accepted that the person had overstepped her limit and went to the police station to cooperate with the administration,” Kumar says.
Sister Nirmala had once compared her relationship with Mother Teresa to that of a mother and a child. “Mother would be very proud of her child as they meet in heaven, it will be a happy union,” adds Kumar.