How Sister Nirmala didn't let Mother Teresa's legacy overshadow her

She embodied the coming together of a religious life of contemplation and active service.

 |  5-minute read |   25-06-2015
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Sister Nirmala died in Kolkata on June 22, 2015. She was elected superior general of the Missionaries of Charity (MC) in March 1997, a few months before Mother Teresa died. She headed the congregation till early 2009, after which Sister Mary Prema took over as the superior general.

People who love Kolkata frequently assert that the city has a heart. This heart is superbly demonstrated in the work of several Christian institutions that have made their home in the city. Christian institutions - Catholic and Protestant - define the city in many different ways. Can you imagine a Calcutta without St John's Church, St Paul's Cathedral, St Xavier's College (and the school!), Loreto House, the two La Martinere schools, St John's Diocesan School, Don Bosco - just to name a few?

Christianity came to Bengal in the 16th century with the Portuguese and since then, different denominations of the Church have made significant contributions to the intellectual, social, cultural and religious life of Bengal and the rest of the country. Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, whom we all know as Mother Teresa, came to India as a missionary of the Sisters of Loreto and subsequently founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, where she lived and worked.

The Missionaries of Charity are well known in Kolkata and all over the world for their work with the poorest, especially the dying and the ill. The MC are defined by their blue-bordered, sari clad sisters, who work very hard and lead a simple life with practically no material comfort - not even TV or radio. They are permitted to visit their families once every five years and do not have annual holidays. Incidentally, Mother Teresa is said to have last seen her family when she left home at the age of 18.

The MC is a large order comprising nearly 5,000 sisters and brothers, women and men who have taken religious vows. They work in more than 130 countries. The MC attracts huge donations and is very wealthy. The austere way of life of the MC sisters and brothers is a demonstration of their commitment to their four vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and whole-hearted free service to the poorest of the poor.

There is no denying that even 18 years after the death of the founder, it is difficult to separate the MC organisation from the persona of Mother Teresa. For many people, both in India and abroad, the sisters of the MC are "Mother Teresa's nuns" and all the work of the MC, spread far and wide across the world, is "Mother's work". Such a close identification with the founder apparently seems at odds with the idea of humility. However, there is no denying that Mother Teresa was a larger than life personality and the Catholic Church is an astute organisation - if image building of Mother Teresa was necessary to promote the work of the Church (or God), so be it.

Of course, while Mother Teresa was adored and admired by thousands, she also had her detractors - the most celebrated being Christopher Hitchens and Aroup Chatterjee. There have been questions raised about people being left to die, the lack of modern equipment and facilities in many of the MC project sites - despite the enormous wealth of the organisation, Mother Teresa's supposed belief that the poor should be accepting of their poverty because it brings them closer to God and of course, her championing of the Church's opposition to contraception and abortion. And also, many people felt that Mother Teresa exploited the poverty of Calcutta.

Sister Nirmala walked into the shoes of not simply a much acclaimed woman of God, a Nobel Laureate and an adored religious figure but also someone who was at the receiving end of sharp criticism. Who is Sister Nirmala? What did she mean to the Missionaries of Charity and Calcutta? There is no huge outpouring of grief in the city, as there was when Mother Teresa died. The general opinion about Sister Nirmala is that she was low profile. Some people I spoke to today were genuinely surprised when they heard that she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2009!

Nirmala Joshi was born in Ranchi, to Hindu parents in 1934. Educated by Christian missionaries in Patna, she got an MA in Political Science and also a law degree. Quietly determined, and inspired by Mother Teresa's work, she converted to Roman Catholicism in the late 1950s and joined the Missionaries of Charity. In 1976, Sister Nirmala started the contemplative branch of the MC and headed it till she was appointed superior general of the MC. Catholic nuns and priests who belong to contemplative religious orders spend their time in meditation and prayer. This is different from those who are in service orders - nuns and priests who work directly with people. It is fascinating to note that Sister Nirmala came to MC inspired by their service to the poor but her spiritual journey led her to establish a contemplative branch for an order that is closely identified with active service. "The contemplative life requires a very special gift. Someone like me always has to be doing something," said Brother Brendan McCarthaigh, a Catholic priest and well known for his work in education.

Sister Nirmala may have been low profile but she was no pushover. The fact that she initiated a contemplative branch of the MC is a testimony of her spiritual conviction and institutional building ability. Her appointment as the superior general of the MC saw the coming together of a religious life of contemplation and that of active service. And this is what Sister Nirmala embodied. Writing about her, Father Jothi, a Jesuit working with the Udayani Social Action Forum describes how he would initially hesitate to talk about his agitational activist work with the Right to Food Network in West Bengal.

"The simple reason for hesitation was, she is a contemplative sister and would like me to pray and spend time in front of Eucharistic Lord as a priest than being on streets and shouting slogans for food for the hungry, like some other religious reminded me often," explains Father Jothi.

"On the contrary she told me, 'It is important work and you should demand on behalf of the hungry people, food and basic needs from the government the 'duty bearer.''

There is very little personal information available about Sister Nirmala but we know enough to conclude that she was capable and energetic and used her not inconsiderable talents to preserve and strengthen the admirable and enormous institution created by the charismatic Mother Teresa.


Anchita Ghatak Anchita Ghatak

The writer is a women's rights activist and development professional.

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