Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Sister Nirmala Joshi, M.C.
By John Janaro (’85)
Sister Nirmala Joshi (1934-2015) might have protested her inclusion in this collection of “great” conversion stories. She was very reluctant to draw any attention to herself. In March 1997, when she was elected as the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity with the blessing of its founder, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, she humbly accepted God’s call but declined the title “Mother.” For Sister Nirmala, all “greatness” was to be found in Jesus in the Eucharist and in the poor whom she served with her whole heart. Nevertheless, the “story” of Jesus calling her from the Hinduism of her childhood into the fullness of knowing and loving him in the Catholic Church is indeed a great story of the working of God’s grace. The work of grace is always mysterious, yet we benefit from simply tracing the indicators of the path she traveled, which show forth the greatness of God’s love.
She was the eldest of ten children, born in the northeastern Indian city of Ranchi, and given the name Kusum, meaning “Flower.” Her parents were deeply devout Hindus, and Kusum cherished all that was true and good in their religious practices-especially fidelity to marriage and family, compassion and service to the poor, and a spirit of prayer. She learned these values growing up, and through them God prepared her heart to receive the Gospel.
Wishing her to learn English, her father-a British army officer-sent Kusum to a Catholic missionary school (not an uncommon practice for wealthy Hindu families) with no thought of her changing religion. At the school, however, she first learned about Jesus, and around this time she became fascinated by a statue of Jesus and his Sacred Heart in front of a Catholic church. One morning while waiting for the bus, she first experienced the profound sense that Jesus was with her and that she “belonged to him.” She began to learn about his life and teachings and opened her heart to his presence and interior guidance.
Nevertheless, as she continued her studies, Kusum struggled against any idea of conversion, which would seem to betray her family and her own cultural tradition. Then came the beginnings of Indian independence in 1947, and the chaos of the partition of her northern region into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. In the warfare and massive population displacement that followed, Kusum didn’t see any of the compassion she had learned in her family. She saw only violence begetting more violence. She went to Calcutta in search of a way to help, and there she met a most unusual European religious sister who was begging for the needs of the poorest of the poor and caring for them at her small mission station in the streets of the vast city. That sister was Mother Teresa.
“It was inspiration at first sight” for Kusum. She poured out her heart to Mother Teresa, who invited her to stay with her “unconditionally.” After several more years of prayer and service at Mother Teresa’s side, being drawn to Jesus not by any coercive proselytism but by gentle guidance and the luminous witness of Christian love, Kusum was finally baptized into the Catholic Church in 1958. taking the name Nirmala (“purity”). The next month, she entered the Missionaries of Charity.