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Nirmala Interview

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Nirmala Statement
Nirmala Interview

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Catholic Excellence Award



By Rodolfo Bermejo CALCUTTA, 1998 (
- 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 poor.

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 as
head of the Missionaries of Charity. Sister Nirmala--whose name means "Immaculate" in
Hindi--was born in Nepal, and raised a Hindu. She met Mother Teresa here in Calcutta in the
spring of 1958, when she was 23 years old, and was about to ask to be admitted to the Catholic Church.

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 here.

Q: What are the main changes that have occurred in the order since Mother left?

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 novices,
many postulants.
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 Charity?

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 facing?

(Here Sister Nirmala turned to Sister Frederick and repeated the question, and they laughed

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 your work.

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 demands?

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: "Please don't
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 Mother.

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 same complex.)

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 sacrificing.

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 poor?

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 others.

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 general superior.

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 Yemen.]

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 accepted" everywhere.

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 have
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. She
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 receive.

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