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Former nun reads from Mother Teresa memoir

Mary JohnsonWhen Mary Johnson graduated from Lamar University in 2000 with a bachelor of arts in English, the former nun hadn’t quite reconciled with her decision to leave the Missionaries of Charity. After 20 years of devoted service to the poor under the administration of Mother Teresa, Johnson needed 10 years and “a room of her own” to reflect on her experiences.

Armed with her English degree and a tangle of memories from her former life as a nun, Johnson arrived at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in Albiquiu, N.M. There, she met Darlene Chandler Bassett, who recognized that while she continued her education, Johnson would also need time, space and privacy to untangle the last 20 years of her life. Bassett invested in Johnson with financial support, and the result: the A Room of Her Own Foundation and a critically acclaimed memoir.

On Monday, Oct. 25, Johnson returned to Lamar for a reading of her memoir, “An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life” in the Dishman Art Museum Auditorium. Published this year, her book generated 50,000 copies in its first printing and is quickly attracting attention – the book was featured in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers and the October issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

“Those of you who knew me when I was here at Lamar in 1998 probably remember someone who didn’t smile as much as I do these days,” Johnson said, addressing former classmates and instructors sitting in the audience. “We weren’t supposed to have friends, even among the sisters. Adjusting to life in the real world after the convent was a challenge for me.”

She also spoke as part of the 2011 Sociology Forum sponsored by Alpha Kappa Delta sociology honor society and the sociology program.

Johnson left school at the University of Texas in 1977 to join the sisters as an aspirant in the South Bronx, N.Y. She watched as 12 aspirants in the convent dwindled to two, as most could not handle a life devoid of privacy, affection, independent decision making, even hot water. But a then-19-year-old Johnson, who would be called Sister Donata (meaning “freely given”) continued on to work in Washington, D.C., Winnipeg, Canada, and Rome. Sister Donata struggles throughout the memoir to suppress her doubts through prayer, humility, and physical abuse.

Mary Johnson“I started to feel as though I was suffocating,” Johnson explained to one guest who inquired as to why she finally left. “They were becoming more narrow-minded, and I was becoming more open-minded. I was still very devoted to the ideals of the group, but I couldn’t breathe anymore.”

After leaving the order in 1997, Johnson returned to Beaumont to live with her sister. The next year, she took up a full-time job at St. Anne’s Church and enrolled at Lamar to complete the degree she left behind more than two decades ago. It was at Lamar where Johnson learned to express herself through words and began to assemble her memories from her experience within the confines of the convent. As for Bassett, what started as a kind gesture has since developed into a non-profit organization designed to support women writers, aptly called A Room of Her Own Foundation.

R.S. “Sam” Gwynn, professor of English at Lamar, is one of the instructors who taught Johnson.

“The discipline you learned during your time as a nun certainly served you well here as a student,” Gwynn said during the discussion. “I think the main thing you’ve learned since you’ve left Lamar is patience, that the book would eventually come out, and that you would write it.”

After the reading, Johnson hosted a book-signing sponsored by Sigma Tau Delta English honor society and Barnes & Noble. Controversy surrounding “An Unquenchable Thirst” stems from many of the questions that arise as readers relive Johnson’s personal conflicts with sexual desire, spiritual faith, and the stubborn, sometimes cold side of Mother Teresa.

But as Johnson read an excerpt from the memoir detailing a travel experience with the late public figure, she affectionately transformed her voice to resemble that of Mother Teresa, revealing an inherent bond with the world’s only “living saint” who shared the habits of any other 78-year-old woman.

“Mother’s appreciation for rules was unique, in my experience. Mother adhered absolutely to the constitutions of the Missionaries of Charities. But the laws of nations, cities, towns and airlines held no sway,” Johnson read of a time when Mother Teresa requested leftover airplane food from a stewardess, inciting chuckles from the audience. “Especially when Mother could finagle something for the poor.”