Sister Nirmala Joshi was born in Ranchi in 1934, in a Brahmin family that emigrated from Nepal. She converted from Hinduism to Christianity at age 24, and followed in the footsteps of the woman who helped her discover Christ.
She was one of the first Missionaries of Charity who founded houses of the congregation abroad, in Panama. Later, she headed missions in Europe and the United States. When Mother Teresa founded the contemplative branch in 1976, she entrusted its direction to Sister Nirmala.
In March 1997, six months before the founder’s death, Sister Nirmala was elected to succeed Mother Teresa in the leadership of the Missionaries of Charity.
Q: How did you meet Mother Teresa?
Sister Nirmala: It was March of 1958. I knocked on the door and a sister came out to see me. I told her I wanted to talk with Mother Teresa. Looking at Mother, the first thing that impressed me were her eyes. I thought: “This person does not belong on earth; she belongs in heaven.”
Q: What does Mother Teresa’s beatification mean for you?
Sister Nirmala: It is the confirmation that the life she lived has been approved by God and that she is worthy of being raised to the altar of the blessed. Moreover, it is a source of inspiration for all of us: Like Mother, we too can be saints; we can all be saints. We have someone on high we can look to, whose virtues are worthy of imitation.
Q: Mother Teresa called you “the advocate of the poor,” as you have a law degree.
Sister Nirmala: It was Mother Teresa who told me to study law. When I arrived in Calcutta, I had not finished my university studies. I needed to specialize.
Following my profession, my first vows, Mother Teresa told me to study jurisprudence. Although I got my degree, I have not practiced. One day I asked Mother: “Why did you make me study law?” She answered: “You wanted to study law, but you came here to see me and you have given up your studies. I have restored to you that which you gave up.”
She also said to me: “You are practicing the law you studied, but not in men’s courts, but in the Supreme Court of God, heaven, applying the supreme law: charity. Thus, by defending the cause of the poorest of the poor before the Lord, you apply the law.”
Q: You have headed the contemplative branch of the congregation. According to you, what is the difference between contemplation and action?
Sister Nirmala: Action is the fruit of contemplation. When we are united to the Lord in contemplation, we receive that light and love that we need and that we can use to serve others.
Q: What has remained engraved in you of the last moments of Mother Teresa’s life?
Sister Nirmala: When Mother Teresa was struggling with death, I went to see her in her room, and she said to me: “I cannot breathe!” Then, I asked for help and cried out to the other sisters: “Mother cannot breathe!” They came and I left the room.
Then, when I returned, Mother looked at me with an imploring look, as though saying to me: “Save me!” It was like an imploring. Do you understand? I thought: “The first thing that impressed me were her eyes, her look.” It was the last time that our looks crossed while she was alive.
Q: Do you remember a particular episode of the day of her funeral?
Sister Nirmala: Not an episode but the whole event. The way it attracted peoples from every nation, culture and social level. She had died, but she was more alive than ever. She brought together all those people! It was something beautiful.
I was also very much impressed by the people of Calcutta. The crowds kept passing by, passing by … at the end, when we returned to the motherhouse, the people following the funeral cortege cried out: “Mother Teresa, you are immortal! We will never forget you!” It was very moving.
Q: Did Mother Teresa suggest anything to you when entrusting the leadership of the congregation to you?
Sister Nirmala: No, nothing in particular. Her constant advice was: “Cultivate intimacy with God; cultivate your holiness, and love one another.”
Q: What is the difference between being a superior of the congregation while Mother Teresa was alive and now?
Sister Nirmala: Obviously, if Mother Teresa were still alive physically with us it would be easier, I could always count on her.
At the same time, although she is no longer physically with us, we all have the certainty of her presence among us.
It is no longer a physical but a spiritual presence; we can take recourse to her again, ask her to help us resolve problems. In a certain sense, she can help us more now than before.