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Indian-born nun to succeed Mother Teresa

March 13, 1997
Web posted at: 12:32 p.m. EST (1732 GMT)

CALCUTTA, India (CNN) -- The worldwide Missions of Charity elected Sister Nirmala, a Hindu convert to Catholicism, to replace Mother Teresa as the head of the charity mission. A news conference is slated for Friday to formally recognize the handover.

"Now I am happy," Mother Teresa said after her successor was announced. She had been asking for years to be relieved of her duties of the charity mission she founded some 50 years ago.

Nuns at the Missionaries of Charity headquarters in Calcutta were heard rejoicing after an eight-week selection effort that ended with a closed-door vote by 132 senior nuns.

"Sister Nirmala, M.C. (Missionaries of Charity) was elected almost unanimously as the new Superior General," Archbishop Henry D'Souza's office said in a statement. "Mother Teresa was present for the election and blessed Sister Nirmala."

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A news conference was scheduled for Friday morning when the ailing Mother Teresa, 86, was to turn over her administrative powers -- but not her title "Mother" -- to Sister Nirmala.

"Mother Teresa remains as Mother and foundress," the Missionaries of Charity said in a statement. "Sister Nirmala is the new Superior General."

Sister Nirmala welcomes challenge

Sister Nirmala, 63, whose name in Sanskrit means "pure," takes over a charity organization that has been led since its creation by Mother Teresa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and has become a symbol of devotion to the sick and poor.

Mother Teresa never groomed a successor to lead the order, which has 4,500 nuns in more than 100 countries.

Sister Nirmala welcomed the challenge of maintaining the order's high-profile.

"I am in dreamland right now," she said. "It's a big responsibility. If you look at it from myself, I am afraid. But looking at God, and depending on prayer, I think I will be able to continue God's work."

Pope John Paul II had advised the nuns in a letter that the Missionaries should be led by a woman of deep spirituality, which may have steered the conclave against better known candidates with more administrative experience, said Father Edward le Joly, a Jesuit priest who has been close to the order for decades.

Sister Nirmala will be aided by a council of four members to be elected before the nuns disperse to their missions around the world.

She was born into an ethnic Nepali family in the northern Indian state of Bihar and was a member of the Hindu Brahmin, or priestly class, before converting to Catholicism. She trained as a lawyer before joining Missionaries of Charity.

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

Reuters contributed to this report.


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