CALCUTTA, India — When Mother Teresa died, skeptics asked how the congregation she founded would be able to carry on the austere legacy she had handed on to her nuns.

Nine years after the death of the charismatic nun, who was known as “The Saint of the Gutters,” her mission of serving the poorest of the poor has grown.

“We are trying to improve our prayer and work, and continue in the path the Mother has shown us. God has helped us in this,” Sister Nirmala, successor and superior general of the Missionaries of Charity congregation, told the Register in an interview Sept. 22 at the mother house in Calcutta.

The number of Missionaries of Charity homes has gone up steadily from 594 in 1997 to 749, while the number of nuns has increased to 4,739 — along with more than 700 in formation.

Apart from this, more and more aspirants from new countries are joining the congregation that has now members drawn from 94 nations — more than a dozen more than at the time of the Mother. Similarly, the number of highly qualified professionals joining the congregation has also gone up, with more than 250 doctor-nuns in the congregation now.

During the period, the Missionaries of Charity have set foot in 14 more countries, taking their hallmark blue-striped cotton sari now to 134 nations. The latest is Afghanistan, where they opened a new home in Kabul during Easter this year.

Among the other countries that the order have entered in the post-Mother Teresa period include Kazakhstan, Finland, Mali, New Zealand, Israel, Algeria, Togo, Chad, Norway, Bosnia and Thailand.

“There is no shortage of funds. God has taken care of us and his poor,” replied Sister Nirmala, when asked whether the congregation is facing any financial crunch as many feared that the flow of donations would dry up after Mother Teresa, who was beatified in 2003.

Asked how the congregation was carrying on the work of evangelization, Sister Nirmala said that “the most effective way of spreading” the Good News is “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor through humble works of love revealing God’s tender concern for them.”

“Little acts to love have the power to touch the most hardened hearts and generate love in return,” she said. “We have been able to remain faithful so far to the vision of our mother.”

While few expected the Missionaries of Charity to wane in their dedicated service to the poor, some observers expected easing some of the tough austerity measures rigidly followed by the congregation.

Despite the hot and humid weather in Calcutta, no ceiling fan has been installed in the chapel at the mother house where nuns and novices gather for prayer several times a day while scores of volunteers and pilgrims join them for early morning Mass.

Following the rigid discipline Blessed Teresa laid down, dozens of nuns could be seen washing their own clothes soon after the 6 a.m. Mass and prayers, even before breakfast.

“Our life of evangelical poverty is part of the living of our vocation. As long as we still remain faithful to our vocation as Missionary of Charity our life of evangelical poverty will remain,” Sister Nirmala explained.

This spirit of poverty is evident in the Mother Teresa Museum the Missionaries of Charity opened last year. While the museum next to Blessed Teresa’s tomb on the floor of the mother house displays the spartan things Mother Teresa used, like her  torn cotton bag with wooden handles and a sari mended in several places, none of her awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, was present.

“There is no need to display these. Mother would have never liked it because she did everything for the love of God. The people also know that,” said Sister Nirmala.

Meanwhile, the number of pilgrims visiting the tomb has also greatly increased after the beatification.

Sister Martina, who is in charge of receiving the pilgrims who flock to the grave, said hardly a day passes without a “private Mass” at the tomb. Besides local Catholics and others, Sister Martina pointed out that large groups of pilgrims as far as 2,000 kilometers in the far south and west coast visit the tomb, often accompanied by their parish priest.

People of all faiths, including Hindus and Muslims, visit the tomb regularly, added Sister Martina.

A busload of Japanese tourists were at the Missionaries of Charity chapel for the early morning Mass Sept. 22, along with dozens of European volunteers. Later, the volunteers would fan out to different Missionaries of Charity centers like Nirmal Hriday (Clean Heart) — the home for the dying and the sick in Calcutta, near the well-known Kalighat Hindu temple.

“This is like a factory, but the volunteers are our strength,” said Sister Tereselita, who was attending a dying young man at the Kalighat home. In fact, four dozen volunteers and half a dozen nuns toil for hours every morning cleaning sores infested with maggots, bathing and feeding more than 80 dying people — most of whom cannot even stand on their feet.

Since Blessed Teresa opened her first charity home at the Kalighat temple (which she called her “first love”) in 1952, more than 33,600 “unwanted” dying people have died in peace under the loving care of the nuns and volunteers, while another 50,000 have been nursed back to health after being picked up from the streets.

“They have been very faithful to the Mother in their service to the needy,” said Salesian Father C.M. Paul, former national president of Signis India, the international Catholic association of audio-visual media professionals.

Father Paul told the Register Oct. 4 that “the people treat the nuns with the same love and respect they showed to the Mother.”

At the Monsada Salesian center along the border with Bangladesh where he is stationed, Father Paul said the Missionaries of Charity there have even launched “new initiatives” to train the local teenage girls and women in leadership and self-employment besides their charity work.

Meanwhile, the congregation is close to realizing one of the unfulfilled dreams of its founder, a home in China. Following the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Sister Nirmala said, the People’s Republic invited the Missionaries of Charity to open a home as a step toward improving relations with the Vatican.

Sister Nirmala visited the city of Qingdao last July and was shown the building where they could run the home for the elderly and the handicapped.

“We are ready. But, the final decision is not in our hands,” added Sister Nirmala. She elaborated further, saying, “We have not pursued this. But, Mother has not forgotten her dream and is working it out from heaven.”

Anto Akkara is based

in New Delhi.p>