KOLKATA, India — Glowing tributes have been paid to Sister Nirmala Joshi, successor of Mother Teresa, who died June 23 in Kolkata.

For 12 years, Sister Nirmala headed the Missionaries of Charity congregation, until retiring in 2009.

“Sister Nirmala’s death is a loss not only for Kolkata, but for the whole world. We have lost a loving and compassionate mother,” extolled Mamata Bannerji, a Hindu and chief minister of the state of West Bengal, which has Kolkata as its capital.

“She always cared for the poor people. Physically we have lost her, but she will be with us. Sister Nirmala cannot die,” said the chief minister. She made her remarks during the June 24 “civic homage” at the motherhouse chapel, with the body of Sister Nirmala placed in the middle, ahead of the funeral service led by Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, former head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of  India.

“Sister Nirmala’s life was devoted to service, caring for the poor & underprivileged. Saddened by her demise. May her soul rest in peace,” tweeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon after the Missionaries of Charity announced her death.

Modi also offered “deepest condolences to the Missionaries of Charity family on the passing away of Sister Nirmala.”

While the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) did not issue any formal statement on the death of Sister Nirmala, due to its policy not to make statements marking the death of leaders of religious congregations, CBCI deputy secretary general Msgr. Chinnayan Joseph flew to Kolkata for the funeral; meanwhile, several bishops and Catholic organizations issued statements condoling the death of Sister Nirmala, a Hindu convert.


Died at Home

The ailing 80-year-old Sister Nirmala died amid prayers at the congregation’s St. John’s convent at Sealdah — a mile away from the motherhouse — where she was baptized during the Easter vigil of 1958.

“Critically ill from Easter (due to kidney failure), Sister Nirmala expressed a desire to return home from hospital. On June 19, her condition turned worse, and she slipped into a coma on the 21st. She went home to Jesus at 12:05am yesterday morning,” recalled senior Missionary of Charity Sister Nicole at the beginning the funeral service.

“Her life was her message. She practiced the Sermon on the Mount with love and served the poorest of the poor. Sister Nirmala was a symbol of patience, compassionate and ever enduring love,” said Archbishop Thomas D’Souza of Kolkata in his homily.

Hindus and Muslims were among the mourners who braved intermittent drizzles and downpours, as hundreds of people from all walks of life queued up to have a final glimpse of Sister Nirmala. Her body was brought to the motherhouse earlier in the morning and placed for public homage beside the tomb of Blessed Mother Teresa.

While several mourners came with flowers, persons with physical disabilities could be seen filing past the body kept in a glass casket, and dozens of Missionaries of Charity and others sang hymns. The sight of dozens of infant orphans — mostly of unwed mothers from the nearby sishu bhvan (children’s home), carried by the congregation’s sisters and maids — filing past the body illustrated the shared commitment to the poor of Sister Nirmala’s religious order.

From a Brahmin Family to a Life of Service

The eldest of 10 children of an ethnic Nepali Brahmin (Hindu priestly class) family, Kusum Joshi was born on July 23, 1934, in the northern Indian state of Bihar, where her father, Mahananda Joshi, served in military service.

Kusum, meaning “flower,” had the first experience of “God’s call” while in college, at the age of 17. After completing her master’s degree in political science in Patna, Kusum went to Kolkata. She was baptized during the Easter vigil of 1958 and was given the name “Nirmala,” meaning “pure,” by Mother Teresa. She joined the Missionaries of Charity a month later.

One of the few Missionary sisters to have pursued university studies after joining the congregation, Sister Nirmala completed her law degree and subsequently supervised the work of Missionary houses in Europe and the United States. Besides heading the order’s contemplative wing that she co-founded with Mother Teresa in 1976, the diminutive nun, with a disarming smile, accompanied Mother Teresa on several trips abroad.

On March 13, 1997, six months before Mother Teresa’s death, Sister Nirmala was selected as superior general of the Missionaries of Charity. In January 2009, the Indian government bestowed on Sister Nirmala the “Padma Vibhushan” —  the nation’s second-highest civilian award — for her services to the nation.

Though re-elected for a third time as superior general in 2009, Sister Nirmala declined the honor due to old age and ill health.


Family Presence

Surendra Prasad Joshi, the Hindu younger brother of Sister Nirmala, who flew in from Kathmandu, Nepal, for the funeral, along with Carmelite Sister Mary Terese, a younger sibling who followed Sister Nirmala into the Catholic Church and joined the Congregation of the Apostolic Carmel, sat near the coffin during the two-and-a-half-hour funeral service.

When the coffin was taken away in a flower-decked hearse in the evening, among those bidding farewell was Hindu Chief Minister Bannerji, who had stayed for nearly three hours at the motherhouse.

As the hearse started moving towards St. John’s cemetery, a mile away, for the “private” burial, the Missionary sisters followed behind on foot, led by Sister Mary Prema, a German native who took over the reins of the congregation from Sister Nirmala.

Register correspondent Anto Akkara filed this report from Kolkata, India.