From Brahman Family to Tending India's Poor
Washington Post Foreign Service
Mon., Sept. 15, 1997; Page A16
CALCUTTA, Sept. 14—Seven years ago, Mother Teresa tried hard to step down as superior general of her Missionaries of Charity, obtaining the Vatican's permission to retire and call an early meeting of the order's governing body to elect a successor. But two senior nuns, one named Sister Nirmala, thwarted Mother Teresa's elaborate plans by spreading the word that the Vatican had not actually barred members from reelecting her.
In March, her health failing badly, Mother Teresa did retire. Not long afterward, nuns discovered her preparing to remove her few belongings from her room here at the international headquarters of the order she founded a half-century ago. Once again, Sister Nirmala, her newly elected successor, intervened and insisted Mother Teresa remain in the "founder's room."
"She did not want to take over Mother's job and influence. She let Mother have, I would say, precedence over her," Edward Le Joly, a retired priest, said of Sister Nirmala. "Now, she'll have to affirm herself more. She's in charge."
With Mother Teresa's death on Sept. 5, leadership of one of the fastest-growing Catholic missions in the postcolonial era passed from a Nobel Peace Prize winner known throughout the world to a comparatively obscure senior nun who converted from Hinduism in 1958.
It will not be easy filling the sandals of a strong candidate for sainthood whose faith, determination and compassion built the Missionaries of Charity into a worldwide mission with 4,500 nuns and religious brothers working at almost 600 homes in 126 countries, including the United States. While the mostly Indian order has been expanding, other Catholic congregations of nuns and priests have had trouble finding qualified initiates in developed countries.
Under Sister Nirmala, 63, who was a surprise choice as Mother Teresa's successor, the Missionaries of Charity may find it difficult attracting enough donations and novices to sustain the breadth of its operations, possibly leading to a modest retrenchment. But the founder's fame could prove to be magnetic even after her death, especially with wealthy Westerners who may be moved by guilt to give in her memory.
Sister Nirmala said last week that she was "not so much concerned about money" and would continue the order's ban on direct fund-raising. Asked about a possible retrenchment, she said the order hopes instead to expand into new countries, such as China, an unfulfilled wish of Mother Teresa.
"Missionaries of Charity are called to depend on divine providence totally," Sister Nirmala told reporters Friday. "God will provide whatever we will need."
On her extensive travels around the world, Mother Teresa did solicit in-kind contributions from politicians and business executives, who had a hard time refusing her requests for surplus items. The United States contributed $1 million in basic foodstuffs through the Agency for International Development and Catholic Relief Services to feed 55,000 poor people across India daily.
Sister Nirmala said she does plan to travel as widely as her predecessor but will not take the same title because it has been "reserved only for our Mother, Mother Teresa."
Catholic priests and Indian benefactors close to the order have described Sister Nirmala as similar to Mother Teresa -- a diminutive woman of intense faith, kindness, purposefulness and administrative skill. For the past two decades, Sister Nirmala directed the order's contemplative wing, a dozen homes in India, Europe, Latin America and the United States where members seek spiritual renewal. She was also involved in the order's expansion into former Eastern Bloc countries.
Sister Nirmala was born a Brahman -- a member of Hinduism's priestly caste -- in eastern Bihar state, where her parents had migrated from Nepal. After her conversion to Catholicism, she took as her religious name a Hindi word that suggests a purity of mind and spirit.
Navin Chawla, one of Mother Teresa's biographers, said he first met Sister Nirmala last year while she was nursing the ailing nun. "I saw this sister with a very gentle smile and twinkling eyes that seemed to take in everything," Chawla recalled. "There is an enormous sense of piety about this woman. She is deeply religious."
One of the order's better educated nuns, Sister Nirmala has a master's degree in political science from an Indian university and additional training as a lawyer. She gives the order an Indian face, an important image in a mostly Hindu nation that has generally discouraged conversion to Christianity. Over the centuries, missionaries have been less successful in India than in many former European colonies. About 2 percent of India's 950 million people are Christians, including 100,000 Catholics in Calcutta.
During the six months since her election as superior general, Sister Nirmala was a constant companion of Mother Teresa, who this summer introduced her successor to Pope John Paul II during a visit to Rome. "It was a very good transition," said C. Bouche, a priest who has helped train the order's novices. "While [Mother Teresa] was there, Nirmala got confidence. She was accepted by practically all the sisters."
Bouche acknowledged that there had been "a little bit" of friction between Sister Nirmala and unsuccessful aspirants to Mother Teresa's position. Others close to the order said the nearly unanimous vote in March for Sister Nirmala helped solidify her support.
Many nuns regarded Mother Teresa as being so determined that only the Pope could tell her what to do. Her successor is described as also being forceful though probably less so. "Sister Nirmala is very firm; she's no softy," said Sunita Kumar, a Hindu who was a close friend of Mother Teresa. "I think if there is a final word to be said, it will be Nirmala's."
Like other Catholic orders, the Missionaries of Charity has revealed little about how much it receives each year in cash and in-kind donations, which certainly totals millions of dollars. Most contributions are collected by lay volunteers and channeled into the order's local or regional operations.
Low overhead has helped attract support to an order whose nuns' daily routine is designed to make them feel closer to those they serve. At the Calcutta headquarters, resident nuns hand wash the two or three saris they own and cook simple food using wood, charcoal or cow dung as fuel, just as India's poor do.
"If you want to help the dying, the diseased, the homeless, it's the most cost-efficient organization in the world," said William A. Canny, South Asia director of Catholic Relief Services.
Sister Nirmala said the order currently has 444 novices, about half of them Indians. In the future, however, the number willing to commit themselves to a life of poverty could slip in the absence of Mother Teresa's inspiration. "Without her earthly presence and charisma, I don't know how many will join and stick with it," Canny said.
With a new leader, possibly with fewer nuns operating fewer homes, close associates still expect the Missionaries of Charity to continue serving the poorest of the poor, just as it did largely in obscurity for three decades before Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979.
"I don't think the legacy of Mother Teresa will ever recede," Chawla said. "I have no doubt her work will proceed as she trained them to do it over 50 years."
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