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Sr. Nirmala plans travel, invokes guidance, prayer


Sr. Nirmala, newly elected successor to Mother Teresa as head of the Missionaries of Charity, is making plans to visit many of the order's homes around the world.

Sr. Nirmala, 63, was unanimously elected by 123 electors from the order on March 12.

The order runs orphanages and homes for the dying. It fed more than half a million people in 1996, taught some 20,000 children in its schools and treated 90,000 leprosy patients in its clinics.

Hundreds of volunteers work for the order with some 4,500 nuns around the world.

At a March 14 news conference in Calcutta, India, the nun elected to succeed Mother Teresa told journalists crowded into the courtyard of the order's headquarters that she would rely on Mother Teresa's guidance and prayers.

"For Sister Nirmala it will be a period of consolidation for the order rather than growth," Fr. C. Bouche, spiritual adviser to the order told Reuters News Agency.

"If God prays for me, if Mother prays for me and if you pray for me, I think I'll prove myself," Sr. Nirmala told the news conference as Mother Teresa stood at her side. "Mother is there to guide us."

"Now I am happy," Mother Teresa said March 13 after the announcement of her successor. Mother Teresa, troubled by health problems, has been asking for years to be relieved of her duties as superior general of the order she founded nearly half a century ago.

"I have plenty of work to do and I will be here until my last breath," Mother Teresa said. "We have to pull on. We have 568 homes all over the world in 120 countries. We will continue God's work." She said that the order wants next to set up a base in China. She joked with reporters: "You can come with me."

"Mother Teresa remains as mother and foundress," the Missionaries of Charity said in a statement. "Sr. Nirmala is the new superior general."

The nun was born Nirmala Joshi into an ethnic Nepali family in the northern Indian state of Bihar. A member of the Hindu Brahmin -- priestly -- class, she was educated as a lawyer before joining the Missionaries of Charity.

She is a graduate of Patna Women's College, managed by Apostolic Carmel nuns in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. She converted to Catholicism at age 24 when she heard of Mother Teresa's work.

She has supervised the order's centers in Europe and the United States, and since 1979 has led the contemplative wing of the order in which nuns devote their lives to meditation.

India Today, a leading periodical in India, and Asiaweek had recently described Sr. Nirmala as "the dark horse" among the likely successors. She had not been considered a top candidate in the election process because she was not one of the order's councillors-general. Her age, legal training and international experience are believed to have been advantages.

Catholic News Service and Religion News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 1997