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Controversial book is thought-provoking

Autobiography of former nun from Texas is chance for sisters to 'rectify errors'

  • C M Paul, Kolkata
  • India
  • September 13, 2011
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The head of the Missionaries of Charity (MC) says the autobiography of a former member offers her congregation an opportunity for introspection and to rectify errors.

The book entitled An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson (formerly Sister Donata) was launched in the US yesterday, the 14th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s funeral.

“This is indeed a most humbling moment for us,” said Sr Mary Prema, who in March 2009 was elected superior-general of the congregation founded by Blessed Teresa of Kolkata.

“Jesus must be telling us to make serious introspection and work harder to rectify allegations made in the book,” Sr Prema said.

She also said that instead of being provoked by the book and wasting “our energies fighting the allegations” within it, the congregation would continue to serve the poorest of the poor “with greater humility and renewed dedication as Mother taught us.”

The book was launched in Australia in May and Canada in August. The French and Portuguese language editions are under way.

The book tells the story of a 17-year-old Texas girl who saw Mother Teresa’s face on the cover of Time magazine and answered her calling.

Eighteen months later, in 1977 she entered a convent in the South Bronx to begin her religious training. After serving in mostly Italian and North American postings, she left the order 20 years later.

While a nun, Johnson studied theology in Regina Mundi Rome and worked on Mother Teresa’s writings for a while.

Johnson says her book tries to humanize Blessed Teresa. “She was a human being, as all saints are,” Johnson wrote, adding that the media portrayed her in a certain light since they didn’t have the opportunity to get close to her.

The author recalls Mother Teresa telling her that MC nuns do not question, but “obey promptly, cheerfully, blindly.”

Johnson also notes that many nuns were “totally un-liberated, trained in complete obedience and not given schooling except in catechism.” According to her, the nuns were cruel in their training and some were "seriously unhinged."

Johnson reveals how the nuns practiced mortification of the flesh with self-flagellation and wearing steel chains (during morning prayers and Mass) with spikes that pricked the flesh to the point of bleeding.

The congregation also taught new aspirants that touching or friendships were strictly forbidden. Though, as Johnson reveals, “a certain nun who was sexually and emotionally abusive to other nuns,” including her, was allowed to stay in the order despite Mother Teresa having knowledge of her actions.

The book acknowledges Johnson’s awakening sexuality, her relations with two nuns and her attraction to a priest.

The book also tells the saga of two decades spent teaching, tending, learning, growing and trying to reform from within as validation and authentication of her unquenchable thirst.

Salesian psychologist Father Peter Lourdes, commenting on Johnson’s book, says many such books have come from former nuns. They should not have joined the convent in the first place. “Such persons never get the hang of it,” he added.

The Kolkata priest, who co-authored a book entitled The Human Face of Clergy, has a regular clientele of MC nuns undergoing psychotherapy.

Gezim Alpion, a sociology professor at Birmingham university in the UK, says Johnson’s book does not say anything new about Blessed Teresa. It is nothing but the confession of a teenager who joined a convent thinking that she would be able to do social work.

“What a misguided teenager,” he added.
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