CATHOLIC WORLD NEWS INTERVIEW WITH MOTHER
By Rodolfo Bermejo CALCUTTA, 1998 (CWNews.com) -
It all began exactly 50 years ago, in this city, famous around the world for its
population density and the impoverished conditions in which its nearly almost 14 million
inhabitants live. A small nun known as Mother Teresa began her work with the poorest of
The body of Mother Teresa now lies in a simple white marble tomb in the central house of
the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order that she founded. Today that order has
spread around the globe, and is now at work in 133 countries, with more than 4,000 nuns
from 80 different nationalities.
In August, Catholic World News had an exclusive interview with Mother Teresa's successor
head of the Missionaries of Charity. Sister Nirmala--whose name means
Hindi--was born in Nepal, and raised a Hindu. She met Mother Teresa here in Calcutta in
spring of 1958, when she was 23 years old, and was about to ask to be admitted to the
The interview was conducted with Sister Nirmala sitting on the same bench where Mother
Teresa used to receive her visitors. Sister Nirmala invited also Sister Frederic--a
British nun, whom she describes as her best counselor, to sit in on the interview.
Q: Sister, can you explain to us how the life of Missionaries
of Charity has changed since Mother left?
Sister Nirmala: The life of Missionaries of Charity, by the grace of God, has not changed
in any way, except that we miss our Mother: her physical presence. Otherwise, by the grace
of God it is continuing in her spirit.
Q: But have the people of Calcutta changed their approach to you and
the sisters since Mother is here no more?
Sister Nirmala: No. It is the same. They treat us just like it used to be when Mother was
Q: What are the main changes that have occurred in the order since
Sister Nirmala: Changes? well, the order has grown, in the sense of having more houses,
because this year we have sanctioned 17 houses more, just since Mother died. All these
houses will be fully working by December of this year.
Q: But ordinarily how many houses would you open every year?
Sister Nirmala: It depends--sometimes many, sometimes less, but definitely the number this
year is quite large.
Q: And have you seen a change in the number of new vocations?
Sister Nirmala: The number of vocations has also increased this year. We have many
But it's true that in these last years we have been getting fewer vocations than what it
used to be.
The reason is--at it is everywhere- -that many children are not born. Also there is a lack
of permanent commitment, which is all over the world. So we can say that the number is
comparatively less, but still we get many vocations.
Q; Have you been traveling at the same pace that Mother used to do
when she was governing the order?
Sister Nirmala: Yes. I would like to travel more, but it has not been possible this year.
I have been to most of the South American countries; I have been in all the houses in
Albania, and in Rome, and to two or three houses in the United States. Ah!, and Portugal;
we visited two houses in Portugal. That's all for now.
Q: Can you tell us about the future goals of the Missionaries of
Sister Nirmala: Future goals are to continue, day by day in the footsteps of
Mother--nothing out of the same charisma that she thought us.
Q: What are the main problems that Missionaries of Charity are
(Here Sister Nirmala turned to Sister Frederick and repeated the question, and they
Sister Nirmala: We cannot look at problems as "problems." Problems are gifts of
God. If you look at them as problems, they will be problems, but if you look at them as
gifts of God, they are challenges, and we always welcome challenges. So they are
challenges, not problems.
Q: But perhaps some of those "challenges" are obstacles to
Sister Nirmala: No; nothing is an obstacle. How you take it is what matter. People are
very open and helpful to the Missionaries of Charity, but remember that it is God's work,
it's not our work. He is in charge, he provides and he sees what is necessary and what is
good for us, so he allows these "challenges" because they are good for us. He
will give us the graces to get through.
Q: What about financial means: food, medicines, material goods?
Sister Nirmala: Absolutely nothing is lacking. God provides-- everywhere in India as well
as abroad. You know, that is the promise of God for us. When Mother started the society
and Mother was called, she did not start on her own, Jesus called her to start this
congregation. He wanted her to be poor and the poorest of the poor. He wanted her to be
empty-handed and serve the poorest of the poor free. It is such a paradox, isn't? He said:
I will provide. That was Mother did, and that is what we are continuing to do: trusting in
God's Providence, serving the poorest of the poor, free. And God does it. His promise is
fulfilled every day. All we need to do is to keep being faithful to our commitments, to
answer the call of God, everything else follows.
Q: But Sister, what would you tell those people who are so afraid of
lacking the "indispensable?
things every day, or those who want to possess more material things?
Sister Nirmala: Trust in the Lord and do your best. Let the kingdom of God in your lives
and he will provide everything.
Q: How does the Order cope with all the financial and economical
Sister Nirmala: By trusting in God, and he is providing. We never ask for things. People
just come and give. Everywhere they want to carry out fundraising activities, we say:
fund-raise; we don't want to use Mother's name. No."
We want people acting on their own. We want their spontaneous collaboration. But if
somebody is going around fundraising in Mother's name, we don't accept it. We want to
depend on God's providence--only.
Q: That reminds me of the current controversy about the committee
that is being formed in
Calcutta to name the city's main street as Mothers Teresa's Avenue and to build an statue
of her. You are opposed to that effort. Why?
Sister Nirmala: We are not opposed to naming the street, nor to the statue, but we are
opposed to taking Mother's name for that committee and raising funds for all these kind of
activities. That is what we oppose. The congregation--the Missionaries of Charity--has the
duty and the right to
protect and use that name.
Q: So would you allow the naming of the street if it is a case of
something that is done spontaneously--or at least without this fundraising?
Sister Nirmala: Oh yes, yes; absolutely. But this fundraising we don't want.
Q: Is there any other place in the world where the sisters carry out
as much work as they do here in Calcutta?
Sister Nirmala: Here it is on a large scale. But we have houses all over: in Africa we
have so many; in Haiti; in Ethiopia; in South American countries, in the United
States--everywhere. Yes, in Calcutta we have many more centers. But you have to consider
that the Missionaries of Charity are in 133 countries around the world.
Q: Can you share with us some anecdotes of the devotion that people
have shown for Mother
Teresa since she died?
Sister Nirmala: People are continuously coming to see (the tomb of) Mother, and everywhere
they pray to Mother and they are receiving many favors. The main devotion to Mother is
that all these people are coming to share the work, to support us. They come with
donations, and all of them are tell us how much their life is inspired by the life of
Q: Have you received notice of any miracles from her intercession?
Sister Nirmala: Many miracles are happening around the world. Physical, spiritual miracles
are been reported. Or course for the canonization process not everything is accepted; they
accept only certain kinds of miracles.
Q: Well, have you already seen "those kinds" of miracles?
Sister Nirmala: No, we cannot say that yet. It has to be documented. They [officials at
the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints] have to examine the evidence and they
have to say this is the one, we can not say it. The postulation for the cause of
beatification has not yet started.
(In the Chapel some nuns have started the Adoration hour and their voices singing hymns
are clearly hear from where we are. The central house of the Missionaries of Charity is a
four-story building where 250 nuns live together. The usual work is done with remarkable
diligence and silence. It is hard to believe that there are so many people working in the
Q: Can you tell us something that made a deep impression in your
heart, being living side by side
with a holy woman?
Sister Nirmala: When I joined, I was just a postulant, and I had not been here even one
year, I got sick and Mother brought me from our section to her room, she gave me her bed
to sleep on and she slept on the table. Do you understand that? I won't ever forget that.
She gave up her bed for me. There was no extra bed. She was only taking care of me, and
I was very new in the order. I was just a small little one, you know, and she was
Mother--big Mother. Do you understand the meaning of that? These little things of love
were common with Mother: her delicate love.... .
Q: What was Mother's favorite thing to do besides working with the
Sister Nirmala: She loved to eat sweets! But more than anything she loved to help the
helpless. She was always ready to help, always encouraging and challenging us, always
asking others to help her to help.
(Sister Frederick adds, while laughing): And she loved settling things. Mother always was
settling things in their proper place.
She liked to challenge people to make sacrifices, to give of themselves--not of somebody
else. You make the sacrifice and you give.
Mother used to tell the story of a little child who, when he heard that there was no sugar
for the children in Shushi Bhawan [an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity], he
did not take sugar for a few days and collected it and brought it to Mother. These were
the kinds of things she loved: to challenge people to make the sacrifice for the sake of
She was always ready to love; everybody experienced her capacity to love. We all talk
about Mother all the time. No matter where we are, we always are talking of her. We love
her so much, because she loved us much.
Q: What about the sacrifices she used to make?
Sister Nirmala: Even is she was sick and all, she would not care. How much she used to
push herself to fulfill her duties! When she was sick she didn't care for her life. It was
we people who
used to pursue her and take care of her. She never wanted.
I never saw somebody who just "threw away" her life as Mother did. We had to
protect her life,
but she was absolutely carefree, and not wanting any attention for herself, because she
said there are so many poor people outside. She never wanted to be different from us and
from the sisters. Everybody ate same food. She would take no exemption--nothing.
Q: But in India, that must had been quite shocking--here in a
society accustomed to caste distinctions, where she was the figure of authority, the
Sister Nirmala: We were very happy to see this in our Mother. It made us feel--as we
are--a real family, it was a great inspiration to all of us.
Q: Are there any persons or institutions in India that are not happy
with the work the Missionaries of Charity are carrying out? Are there any detractors?
[This interview was conducted just before the killing of three Missionaries of Charity in
Sister Nirmala: I cannot tell. Maybe they are not happy because they don't want to be
happy. That is their business. But I don't know of any; I have never heard of any.
We have so many applications; there are so many bishops are asking for the sisters to go
into their dioceses, in so many countries. With some of them, we are already there, but
they want more houses of the sisters. In some countries we have not yet started because we
have not enough sisters to respond to all those applications. Sisters are very well
accepted and very much wanted.
Q: But in India Christian organizations are not "very well
Sister Nirmala: We have had no difficulty along that line. Never. We have never had any
confrontation with Hindus or Muslims.
Q: What was Mother's attitude toward Hindus and Muslims?
Sister Nirmala: She respected everybody's religion; she helped them to live whatever they
received in their faith, as best as they could. Her whole idea was: "This is what
they should do, and if some day God gives them the grace of faith, they may be able to
respond generously to that call." But she wanted everybody to be wholehearted in
whatever they believed.
Q: Did she try to convert them?
Sister Nirmala: No, but she would have been happy if people received the grace of faith.
prayed for the grace of faith. Some of them converted: a few.
Q: One final, specific question: Can you tell us about the work that
the Missionaries of Charity
carry out with pregnant women who are considering an abortion?
Sister Nirmala: Yes. We have a home for troubled mothers and we tell them not to abort, to
give us the baby. They come to us and they give birth to the baby. Some then take the baby
home with them; after giving birth, you know, somehow they are willing to keep the baby.
Others they hand the baby over to the sisters to take care of him, and then give the baby
for adoption. In India alone, we have given in adoption more than 8,000 children. Some of
these babies come from these ladies; many more are from among the abandoned children we