ASIA March 24, 1997


The Missionaries of Charity finally settle on a successor to their ailing founder, Mother Teresa


When Nirmala Joshi's parents, high-caste Hindu Brahmins from Nepal, put their daughter into a Catholic missionary school in the 1940s, their intention was for the girl to pick up some English and arithmetic. For that privilege, Nirmala's father, a devout Hindu army officer, was willing to have her participate in Christian prayer sessions and Bible study. What he hadn't expected was that his daughter would convert to Catholicism and dedicate her life to the poor. "I was at the bus stand," recalls Sister Nirmala, "when I first felt Jesus was alive in my heart."

Sweet-tempered and shy in public, Sister Nirmala, 70, now faces one of the more difficult challenges in Christendom: to fill the sandals of the revered Mother Teresa someday. Last week, Nirmala was chosen to succeed the ailing Nobel Peace Prize winner as head of the Missionaries of Charity order, which Mother Teresa founded in 1948 to help the sick and forgotten. She was elected "almost unanimously," according to Archbishop Henry D'Souza, by 123 fellow sisters from the order's far-flung centers in a brief, somber Calcutta ceremony, preceded by nearly two months of meetings and prayer.

Nirmala's conversion was neither instantaneous nor untraumatic. After her bus-stop epiphany, she wrestled with her conscience for seven years before being baptized at the age of 24. The defining experience, she told TIME, was the Partition of 1947, when colonial India was bifurcated, Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other by the tens of thousands, and millions of refugees were left homeless and dying. "There was so much killing," Nirmala says. "Everybody was just going mad. There was little compassion anywhere." She headed off to Calcutta, which was then packed with refugees from East Bengal. There, two Carmelite sisters directed her to Mother Teresa, who was spending her days tending to the poor and begging for funds to buy food and medicine for her mission. "It was inspiration at first sight," says Sister Nirmala. "Here was someone who could bring some compassion and a sense of destiny to people."

Sister Nirmala became one of Mother Teresa's earliest disciples in the Missionaries of Charity, which now has 3,500 sisters, runs 569 centers in 120 countries, aiding everyone from AIDS sufferers and lepers to orphans and earthquake victims. In Calcutta every year, the order feeds half a million families, gives schooling to 20,000 children and provides medical care to 90,000 lepers. Nirmala was in charge of its Latin America network in the 1970s and returned to Calcutta in '79 to head the order's contemplative wing. When Mother Teresa nearly died last fall from heart failure and pneumonia, the sisters realized they needed to select her successor, a process that had long been neglected. Every six years, the electoral college chooses the order's leader. For decades, Mother Teresa was elected with only one dissenting vote: her own. (She claimed she was getting too old and tired.) She never formally annointed a successor, but her assumed heir for many years was the diminutive Sister Agnes, a Bengali Christian who was one of her first followers. Agnes was stricken with cancer in 1990, and no sister dared step forward and openly express interest in the job. The leading contender had been Sister Frederick, the order's second-in-command, an 81-year-old native of Malta. What weighed against Sister Frederick was her age, poor health and a reputation for being a stern disciplinarian. Says one sister, who preferred not to be identified: "We wanted someone who is easy with us, has integrity and maturity but is not too old and ill." Adds another nun, Sister Christie: "Sister Nirmala's compassion makes her a carbon copy of the Mother." Most of the order's nuns and brothers are South Asian, which helped the candidacy of Sister Nirmala.

Sister Nirmala insists she is hardly a duplicate of her renowned predecessor. "I am not Mother Teresa, I'm Sister Nirmala," she told journalists at the order's Calcutta headquarters, where she was surrounded by cheering nuns. "Please don't call me Mother." Mother Teresa appeared beside her, obviously frail but smiling, and said, "I am very happy." Sister Nirmala then expressed doubts about her own ability to replace Mother Teresa. "Looking at myself, I am afraid," she said. "But looking at God and depending on the prayer and guidance of our Mother, I am sure I will be able to do what I have been chosen for. Please pray." She added: "I am in a dreamland." When Mother Teresa was asked if she would now retire, she replied: "I still have a lot of work to do, and opening a branch in China is one of the works I hope to complete before I am gone."

--Reported by Subir Bhaumik/Calcutta