June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

ACCORDING TO FAMILY LEGEND, at the moment in 1958 that 24-year-old Nirmala Joshi was being baptized in the presence of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, her father, police superintendent Mahanand Joshi, was awakened by a nightmare of a raging fire. Panicked, the devout Hindu Brahman, stationed in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, ordered his men into the jungle, pointing at a brush fire none of them could see. “It is a sign of something which is happening,” he wrote to Nirmala’s younger sister Bindu. Indeed, days later he learned of his daughter’s conversion to Catholicism and was distraught. “Our parents were badly upset,” Bindu says. But not even her father’s 744-mile trip to Calcutta could dissuade Nirmala from her chosen course.

Now, 39 years later, the strength of her commitment is evident. In March the 4’10” Nirmala, 62, was elected head of the Missionaries of Charity, succeeding the ailing Mother Teresa, 86, the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner who is an international icon of selfless devotion. In her new role, Nirmala is currently traveling in Europe and the U.S.—in Rome she had an audience with the Pope—though she continues to stay discreetly in the shadow of her indefatigable predecessor.

Under Mother Teresa’s leadership, the order she founded in 1949 to help the sick and the poor now numbers 4,000 sisters and 1,000 brothers, with 559 missions in 120 countries. Now the sprawling enterprise, which each year feeds more than half a million people, treats 90,000 lepers and counsels thousands of drug addicts and AIDS victims, is at a crossroads. Nirmala’s selection underscores the church’s desire to emphasize the order’s spiritual aspect and reduce its focus on the personality of its founder. Shy, self-effacing and astute, Nirmala is the first to insist she is no Mother Teresa. “Listen,” she recently told PEOPLE, “we all know this work is not about me personally.”

Though she lacks Teresa’s charisma, no one doubts Nirmala’s devotion. She often spends 12 hours a day in prayer and is known to approximate distances by saying, for example, “It is five rosaries away.” For three decades, it was Nirmala who was Mother Teresa’s nurse, companion and spiritual helper.

Born in Bihar, the eldest of 10 children, Kusum Nirmala Joshi first encountered Christianity as a young child at a Carmelite boarding school 150 miles from her home. (Elite Hindu families traditionally send their daughters to convent schools to be educated.) In exchange for having the nuns teach Nirmala English and math, her father and her mother, Mohini, accepted that their daughter would be exposed to the Bible. But the slaughter, in the name of religion, of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Hindus after Indian independence in 1947 horrified the 13-year-old girl and left her with a spiritual craving that slowly turned her toward Catholicism.

Witnessing a simple act of devotion proved a catalyst. One Sunday, when she was 17, as bells rang for morning chapel, Nirmala saw a classmate drop to her knees, eyes closed, crossing herself. “[And] at that moment, Jesus entered my heart,” Nirmala said recently, confiding, “I had great problems accepting this religion. It took seven years for me to join.”

It was her worldliness rather than her contemplative nature that Mother Teresa first sought to make use of when Nirmala arrived at the Missionaries of Charity convent with a master’s degree in political science. Soon, Mother Teresa sent her to law school so she could advise on adoption contracts and other legal matters. “With Sister Nirmala, you feel the edge of an intellect,” says an Italian volunteer at the Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta. “If you speak to her, [she] is totally there.”

In 1965, Nirmala established her order’s first overseas mission—to minister to the landless descendants of African slaves—in Cocorote, Venezuela. Four years latter, when Mother Teresa was bedridden after a fall, Nirmala was assigned as her spiritual aide. Together the two planned the order’s contemplative wing, emphasizing the mystical power of prayer, the first of which Nirmala established in 1971 in the South Bronx, N.Y. “She really is a person of prayer,” says Father Sebastian Vazhakala of the Brothers of the Missionaries of Charity in Rome.

At home in the motherhouse, the modest Missionaries of Charity headquarters in Calcutta, Sister Nirmala shares a simple cell, overlooking an open courtyard. Like all the nuns, she owns only three saris, which she handwashes herself. Rising daily at 4:40 a.m. to oversee mass, she instructs the novices and devotes herself to prayer before seeing to the order’s administration. She is also kept busy accompanying Mother Teresa in public, gently guiding her by the elbow. Thanks to her steady hand, says Father Vazhakala, “the order will not die when Mother Teresa dies.”

BRUCE FRANKEL

JAN MCGIRK in Calcutta and SARAH DELANEY in Rome

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