She was first Indian sister to lead the worldwide Missionaries of Charity
Sister Nirmala Joshi, who succeeded Mother Teresa as the head of the Missionaries of Charity, died early Tuesday at a Missionaries of Charity home in Kolkata, UCANews reported. She was 81.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his "deepest condolences" saying he was "saddened" by her death.
"Sister Nirmala’s life was devoted to service, caring for the poor and underprivileged," Modi tweeted.
The Indian government has recognized her work for the poor and for peace, granting her the Padma Vibhushan, the nation’s second highest civilian award, in 2009.
The dedicated and beloved nun was elected as superior-general of the congregation at the age of 63, in March 1997, six months before Mother Teresa died.
She completed two six-year terms, and was elected for a third term in 2009 but she declined because of health issues. The Missionaries of Charity constitution only allows two terms while a third term requires papal approval. She was succeeded by Sister Mary Prema Pierick, who remains superior general.
"She indeed carried forward the legacy of Mother Teresa, a legacy of love and service to the poorest of the poor through her nuns all around the world," said Archbishop Thomas D’Souza of Kolkata, where the nuns’ global headquarters is based.
She was second among 11 children of a Nepalese Hindu family who settled in Bihar state of India. Born Kusum [flower] on July 23, 1934, she graduated from Patna Women’s College, managed by Apostolic Carmel nuns.
She had told media that her call came while at the college hostel in Patna, when she saw a Hindu companion kneel to pray and make the sign of the cross. She was then just 16 years old.
The daughter of a late army officer, she continued her "search" for seven more years and became a Catholic in 1958 at age 23. She joined the Missionaries of Charity a month later. Her family was not happy with the conversion, she told ucanews.com in an interview. However, her younger sister Bindu also became a Catholic and joined the Apostolic Carmel nuns.
In her religious life, she took the name the Sanskrit word for purity, Nirmala. She completed a master’s degree in political science, and studied law as well.
Blessed Teresa of Kolkata chose her as her companion when she visited China in 1993 and Vietnam in 1995, when world media began to project the Indian nun as a possible successor to Mother Teresa. During those times, the Indian media looked on her as "the dark horse" among the likely successors.
Sister Nirmala joined the contemplative section of the congregation, where nuns spend most of their time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and "continued a hidden and unassuming life of prayer and service," Archbishop D’Souza said.
As head of the contemplative wing, and later as superior-general, “she used to spend every Thursday in prayer," Archbishop D’Souza said.
Retired Archbishop Henry D’Souza of Kolkata said she was "a beautiful example of commitment to the Church and service for the poor."
Sister Lynn Mascarenhas, a senior nun in Kolkata, said Sister Nirmala was "very holy and many people used to come to us for her blessing.”
“We will all miss her very much."
Bolly Pereira, a frequent visitor to the Missionaries of Charity Mother House, which houses the tomb of Blessed Teresa, described Sister Nimala as a very saintly person.
"About two weeks ago I saw her in a wheelchair looking very frail and weak," Pereira said. "But when asked how she was she said she was fine, although she was really very sick."
This article is adapted from one that appeared at UCANews.com, with input from Catholic News Agency.