Sr. Nirmala Joshi of the Missionaries of Charity

Author: Giampaolo Mattei


We are 'little pencils' in God's hand

Giampaolo Mattei

A pencil stub lies on a little wooden table in the passage outside the chapel of the "Gift of Mary" House in the Vatican. In an age dominated by "virtual reality" that pencil could symbolize the secret of a very concrete "network of charity". In fact, for the 4,000 Missionaries of Charity, the pencil - a humble and simple tool - recalls the very meaning of their vocation of serving the poorest of the poor in whom they recognize Christ. They clearly remember Mother Teresa's words: "I am only a little pencil in God's hand". It was precisely a pencil which a Missionary of Charity brought to the altar during the Offertory on the day of Mother Teresa's funeral, celebrated in Calcutta on 13 September 1997. "That was a sister's idea, in order to honour Mother who loved to describe herself as 'God's pencil'. Jesus has so many pencils. He uses one as long as it lasts, then he takes another and yet another. We are all pencils of God that get worn down, we are only the 'temporary' pencils that God uses to write the history of charity". It is Sr Mary Nirmala Joshi who is speaking. She is 64 years old and since 13 March 1997 has been Superior General of the Congregation founded in 1950 by Mother Teresa. She is the first "pencil" after their foundress to outline the itinerary of the Missionaries of Charity.

Sr Nirmala was recently at the Vatican attending the Special Assembly for Asia of the Synod of Bishops. She stayed at the "Gift of Mary" House where the sisters with the white saris edged in blue opened a centre for the poor in May 1988 in response to the invitation of John Paul II who inaugurated it and has visited it several times.

The world came to know her through her tender gesture

The world became acquainted with Sr Nirmala six months after her election as Superior General through her small gesture of tenderness at Mother Teresa's funeral: descending from the altar, after bringing the chalice during the Offertory, she stroked her hand for the last time. Then she joined her own hands as a sign of prayer and, with a bowed head, returned to her place. The world then recognized her when they noticed her walking alone through the streets of Calcutta, a few metres behind Mother Teresa's body.

Mother Teresa said of her on the day of her election, "If God could find someone little like me, that means he can find someone even smaller".

Sr Nirmala, who does not want to be called "Mother", is a woman of few and very simple words. With her, one does not run into complicated reasoning. It seems as though she does not need words, so she uses them sparingly as if she were forced to do so. Yet she has the fresh voice of a young girl.

Who is Sr Nirmala? She does not like to talk about her past. "It is not important", she says. She remembers what Mother Teresa repeated to journalists who requested interviews with her: "Do not write about me, write about God and if you really must write, also go and offer a smile and a caress to anyone who is suffering".

Eldest of 10 children, a daughter of Hindu parents

Sitting on a humble chair in front of a little wooden desk, Sr Nirmala leafs through the issues of L'Osservatore Romano published just after the death of Mother Teresa. She reads attentively and is moved, as she is whenever she thinks of "her" Mother Teresa. "Thank you" she says softly, with a smile. It is precisely the caring attention and love that our paper put into the pages devoted to Mother Teresa which helped Sr Nirmala overcome her natural reluctance to tell her personal story and thoughts in a long interview. Her birth name is Kusum which means "flower". She was born in 1934 in Duranda, not far from Ranchi, in the State of the Bihar, into a wealthy Hindu family, natives of Nepal who belonged to the first and highest caste, the Brahmins. Her father was an officer in the army. Her mother was occupied primarily with bringing up 10 children: eight girls and two boys. Kusum is the eldest.

"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 favourite when I learned that he was not loved very much because of his very ugly appearance".

She does not reject the education she received from her family: "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".

At the age of seven she heard "the name of Jesus"

At the age of seven, little Kusum's parents enrolled her in a boarding school run by Christian missionaries. It was there that she heard for the first time "of a certain Jesus Christ".

When she was nine, she went happily with her family to the festivities in honour of Shiva - "Shiva Ratri" - because he was her favourite divinity. Caught up in playing with her friends she found herself in the courtyard of the Catholic Church in Duranda, where she saw a great white statue with outstretched arms. "I ran away so fast, I was so scared", she remembers smiling. "Then I gained courage and slowly, slowly returned, a step at a time. I found out it was the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From that day on, coming out of school, I always made a detour on the way home just to see that image which fascinated me".

After obtaining her diploma, Kusum 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".

But it was not an immediate conversion. Six and a half years of doubts and "struggles" followed, says Sr Nirmala. First of all she had the problem of telling her family about it. Then came the fear of losing the affection and security which her fascination with Hinduism had given her. But Kusum had to reckon with Jesus who gave her no rest and with her desire to serve the poor. A "combination" which could only lead to meeting Mother Teresa.

Meeting Mother Teresa, her "second mother"

"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'. Do you want to know what happened? Well, it is not hard to guess: you see me here in the Vatican, wearing the sari of the Missionaries of Charity of whom I am Superior General. In a word, on that day at the age of 17, I surrendered to Jesus who had been following me for so long and decided to stay with Mother Teresa".


Kusum was baptized on 5 April 1958. On 24 May she joined the Missionaries of Charity with the name of Nirmala, which means "purity".

"Thanks be to God that today I am a Catholic religious", she says. "It is purely by the grace of God that I converted to Christ. But at first it was not easy. I felt homesick for my family and was tormented by the idea of not having time off to go home for a while. I unburdened myself to Mother Teresa. At those times, Mother Teresa supported me. She was my strength. She taught me to ask God for help and to pray. Once she said to me: 'Do not think now of your whole life, but try to live day by day'. Thus very slowly, with her, I found the serenity I was seeking and needed".

The experience of family detachment was certainly more tragic for Mother Teresa. The senseless communist regime which oppressed her Albania systematically prevented her from meeting her mother, Drana, and her sister, Age.

It was not easy for Sr Nirmala's parents to accept their daughter's decision to become a Catholic religious: in India it is an unthinkable rebellion, especially in a Brahmin family. "At first my parents did not like the idea", she confides. "Two years later, they accepted my decision and were happy about my vocation. My youngest sister who became an apostolic Carmelite, called Sr Marie Therese, indirectly helped to convince them. When my father and mother fell ill, my sister returned to look after them, surprising them because, although she had converted to Catholicism and had become a sister, they saw the Hindu ideal of self-sacrifice and service from the heart fulfilled in her".

Joshi the lawyer at the service of the poor

We asked her to talk about her vocation. "Before speaking of my vocation", she replied, "I would like to talk about my faith. As I said, I heard the name of Jesus for the first time at the age of seven in a school run by Christian missionaries, and then at the age of about 10 they again told me the story of Jesus. But I was not looking for him, I was content to be a Hindu. My parents and also my grandparents had brought me up as a good Hindu and I never thought of changing religion. Let me tell you about something that happened. When I was in the seventh grade, I found a copy of the New Testament in my house. Curious, I opened it at random and read these words of Jesus: 'Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart'. I immediately thought that Jesus was very proud because he was praising himself. So I closed the book and decided not to look at it again. Later on, while I was at high school, an argument on which was the best religion arose between my cousins, who were all Hindus, and myself. I had just finished studying the history of the Protestant Reformation and therefore stated whatever I knew against Catholicism and ended by saying that Hinduism is the best religion. My cousins on the other hand stood up for Catholicism. In that period, I certainly did not think that I would become a Catholic. Soon afterwards, my father enrolled me at the Patna Women's College, which was run by sisters, God evidently had a special plan for me".

However, her conversion and her meeting with Mother Teresa left little time to study. She therefore left the university. "Mother Teresa did not know that I had studied to be a lawyer", she recalls. "When she realized this, after my first religious profession in 1961 she sent me to study law at the University of Calcutta. She said that in this way I could provide free legal aid to the poor". When she obtained her degree, Joshi, the lawyer, never exercised her profession. "it is true, but I chose a more exalted law, that of love" she says. Her sound juridical training was very important for the Missionaries of Charity.

A contemplative in the heart of the world

Sr Nirmala comes from the "contemplative branch" of the Congregation, but one should not be confused. "All the Missionaries of Charity are contemplatives otherwise we could not put up with the sacrifices of such a poor life" she explains. "But we are not cloistered sisters. We are contemplatives in the world. The difference between the two branches is that the contemplatives have more hours of prayer, while the active have more hours of service to the poor". The contemplatives spend 12 hours a day in adoration of the Eucharist and in addition, at least two hours of service to the poor. We asked her if, as Superior General, she misses a more contemplative life. "Today I miss the solitude of prayer with Jesus and silence", she replies. "Our service to the poorest of the poor is proof of our love for Jesus in the Eucharist, for this Jesus called Mother Teresa and all the Missionaries of Charity to quench the thirst of souls in living our life as Missionaries of Charity with justice, in poverty and obedience, meeting him in our service to the poorest of the poor, with prayer and with contemplation. The Jesus we adore in the Eucharist is that Jesus we serve in the poorest of the poor. Our mission consists in proclaiming to everyone Jesus in the Eucharist and in our service to the poorest of the poor. If we did not have the Eucharist in our life, serving the poor would have no meaning. It would only be social work, but we are called to be contemplatives in the heart of the world because in serving the poorest of the poor we are serving Jesus".

The spirituality of St Therese of Lisieux

Mother Teresa was also deeply touched by the call to contemplation to such an extent that she chose Teresa as her religious name in honour of St Therese of Lisieux, the little Carmelite Patroness of Missions who was recently proclaimed Doctor of the Church. "It is true", says Sr Nirmala, "she chose her name for love of the 'Little Flower', Therese of Lisieux. Mother Teresa followed her spirituality consisting in loving Jesus with total trust, abandoning oneself to him with joy, in loving him in small things, in remaining little, so that he can use us freely to do his work. The 'Little Flower', Therese of Lisieux, is our Patroness".

The life of the Missionaries of Charity is interwoven with the spirituality of St Therese of Lisieux. Mother Teresa has handed down this "spiritual passion" to Sr Nirmala who succeeded her on 13 March 1997 when the Chapter of the Missionaries of Charity, meeting in Calcutta, elected her Superior General. It was an important election: Sr Nirmala is the first religious to succeed to the office of the foundress, Mother Teresa. She was not one of the "favourites" or rather, to be more explicit, she was not as well known among the religious of the congregation: Sr Nirmala is the first religious to succeeded to the office of the foundress, Mother Teresa. She was not one of the "favourites" or rather, to be more explicit, she was not as well known among the religious of the congregation as, for example, Sr Frederick Lewis, Sr Priscilla Bonk, Sr Priscilla Lewis, Sr Agnese Das (a former pupil of Mother Teresa and the first to join the congregation), Sr Camilla Pereira, Sr Dorothy Francis, Sr Shanti De Souza. One newspaper, in presenting the Chapter, wrote that a certain Sr Nirmala, "absolutely unknown outside the congregation" and "whose surname is not even known", was also present. Yet the 44 regional superiors and delegates elected in every area of the congregation's activities chose her; although she belonged to the "contemplative branch", she was among the six sisters who opened the first house outside India in Venezuela in 1965, and has carried out her mission on the American continent, in Europe and in Calcutta.

Thirteen months of service as Superior General is too short a time to make an exact assessment. However, we asked Sr Nirmala for a first impression: "If I think of myself I am frightened, but if I look at God, at his love and entrust myself to his prayer, I think I will manage it. When I was given the office of Superior General I realized the enormous responsibility. I would not be sincere if I were to say that I do not feel the burden, but I also know that Jesus will be able to help me. It was very important that for six months Mother Teresa was beside me with her advice and her physical presence. Now I feel her beside me in prayer. The concerns and anxieties belong to my human nothingness, I entrust them to God and he takes them and relieves me, as a parent does with his little child. And then I am not alone". It was the poor of Calcutta who originally encouraged her. "Do not be afraid, we are beside you", they said to her.

Asking her what she remembers about Mother Teresa makes her tremble. She clasps her hands and gazes up to heaven. "Everything" she says with a smile. "I remember Mother all the time. I remember how she was in the last days. I remember the day when she was laid in state in the Church of St Thomas in Calcutta. I remember the day of the funeral and the people's overwhelming love for her. I do not want to mention any specific episode, just her continuous unconditional love for all persons. Those who met her can bear witness to it".

The moving remembrance of Mother Teresa

"And then I think of her humility. I remember it always, it is always in my heart. I remember that Mother Teresa's eyes looked beyond this world. Mother Teresa surrendered in an absolutely radical way to God's will, and God used her as an instrument of his love. This is the great mystery of God and it is also the mystery of our vocation. 'I am thirsty'. Jesus' words on the Cross explain Mother Teresa's life and our choice. We must quench the thirst Jesus continues to have for the poor". These words are spoken with feeling. After a brief silence, she adds: "Jesus even called me from afar, from a family that was not Christian, to make me, with implacable gentleness, understand his thirst and to quench it".

An authentic service to the suffering

Some have criticized Mother Teresa saying that she could have done more to combat the causes of poverty in the world. "The alleviation of the poverty of man is already a remedy to the cause of poverty itself", Sr Nirmala answers. "The fact of being able to help the poorest of the poor, to serve these people, is already a way of eliminating poverty because we offer the possibility of sharing poverty. In fact, poverty is due, in many cases, to selfishness and ignorance: people do not know how or do not want to share anything with others. Whereas working with us offers the possibility of sharing".

The day after Mother Teresa's death some hasty and superficial commentators asked Sr Nirmala if it would not be appropriate to make some modifications to the congregation's harsh rule. The religious' answer is clear: "Our rule seems harsh to those who do not live it. For those who accept it freely and generously, it is easy to adopt it joyfully. It is the radical choice of the Gospel. It the Gospel is 'harsh', our rule is also 'harsh'" And she adds: "Evangelization, for example in my India, will come from the witness to the holiness of those who profess their faith in Christ. Our Mother's life and her work have been extremely important and have had a very great effect in bringing the knowledge and love of Jesus to the Indians, as they have seen Jesus in Mother and in the work that she did".

With a smile even on the streets of a Roman suburb

But this "secret" of evangelization is not only valid in India. During his Pastoral Visit to the Roman Parish of St Stephen Protomartyr in Tor Fiscale on Sunday, 26 April, John Paul II reminded the faithful of Mother Teresa who, in 1968, opened the first European house of the congregation in that suburban district. She had been asked to do so by Paul VI who had visited that suburb in 1966.

John Paul II told the Christian community of Tor Fiscale to devote themselves to the City Mission in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 with the spirit of charity taught by Mother Teresa. What should Romans do to carry out a City Mission of charity? "They should have regard for the poorest of the poor, in their own families, in their own neighborhoods, and share what they have with those in need", Sr Nirmala replies.

Rome knows so much poverty, both spiritual and material. "It is up to us to approach every poor person", she says. What is so amazing about the Missionaries of Charity is not only what they do but that they do it with a smile. "This," she confides, "is God's gift, because the burden is his, therefore we can smile. It is natural. And we will continue to open as many houses as the Lord will allow us, according to the vocations we receive. I shall take advantage of this interview to ask those who read it to pray that we will have many vocations, so that we can open new houses where they are needed. Indeed, we have many requests from Bishops all over the world".

The "legacy" of Mother Teresa for Sr Nirmala is a Crucifix and a Rosary. Two indispensable and most effective "tools" with which to serve the poor everywhere. Sr Nirmala, like every Missionary of Charity, takes them everywhere with her. It matters little whether these two objects actually belonged to Mother Teresa. We are overcome by curiosity, but Sr Nirmala's expression makes us understand that a most highly esteemed Guest is waiting for her. She stands up, and greets us by raising her joined hands to her forehead. She smiles. She goes towards the chapel, takes off her sandals and kneels before the Tabernacle.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 August 1998, pp. 4-5

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
P.O. Box 777
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5380