Mary Johnson joined the Missionaries of Charity, the group commonly known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at age 19. For fifteen of Mary Johnson's twenty years as a sister, she was stationed in Rome and often lived with Mother Teresa for weeks at a time. Johnson also lived and worked as a nun in the South Bronx, Washington DC, and Winnipeg. Mother Teresa sent her to study theology at Regina Mundi, a pontifical institute aggregated to the Gregorian University in Rome, where she received a diploma in religious studies. Johnson was assigned to compose and revise some of the governing documents of the Missionaries of Charity, and for six years was responsible for the formation of sisters preparing to vow their lives as nuns. After leaving the sisters in 1997, Johnson completed a BA in English at Lamar University and an MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College. She also married. A well-respected teacher and public speaker, Johnson has led retreats, workshops, classes, and training sessions of various kinds for nearly thirty years. Most recently she has taught creative writing and Italian to adults and is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation's retreats for women writers.


An early Polaroid captures my younger sister and me at back-to-back easels: she sketches shapes and colors; I draft a story. I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve always been a seeker. Editor of the high school newspaper and a nationally ranked public speaker and debater, I thought I was on my way to a career as a thinker and communicator when I spotted Mother Teresa’s eyes on the cover of Time magazine. As I read her story, I felt God calling me. Armed with a teenager’s stubborn conviction, at nineteen I left Texas for the South Bronx to become one of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

Within weeks of my arrival in the convent, Mother Teresa told the twelve women in my class of aspiring nuns (speaking of herself in the third person as was her wont), “Mother has promised to give Saints to Mother Church.” I didn’t always find humility, poverty, love, and obedience easy virtues, but I went after them with determination. I watched as ten of my companions left the convent within the first six months. Though their departures disheartened me, I was a headstrong girl energized by a challenge. In 1980 in Rome I professed my first religious vows. Mother Teresa re-assigned me to the South Bronx, then to new foundations in Washington DC and in Winnipeg, where I taught children from the inner cities, worked in soup kitchens, and opened a shelter for homeless women and children. Though I loved the work, community life proved difficult. I was often lonely. Once I grew so upset with my superior that I lifted her off the ground and shook her. Still, I believed God wanted me to be a Missionary of Charity. In 1986 Mother Teresa accepted my final vows.

Mother sent me to study theology in Rome. Eventually I was entrusted with the updating of the Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity, the group’s governing document; Mother had composed the original Constitutions on her knees before I was born. I researched a thesis that established me as an expert on Mother Teresa’s spirituality and I taught continuing education sessions throughout Europe. Sisters found my enthusiasm for a Missionary of Charity’s life of love and service contagious, even while I encouraged them to ask tough questions. Mother Teresa appointed me to guide sisters prior to their religious vows, a position I held for six years. But—I continued to disagree with my superiors. Surprising even myself, I fell in love with a sister, then with a priest. I broke my vows. Discovering my human needs and desires—and the fact that they could be met—while simultaneously trying to become a Saint was disconcerting. As I yearned for personal intimacy, intellectual freedom, and the opportunity to make a creative contribution, my community demanded self-denial and unquestioning obedience. My superiors (particularly two who increasingly filled the power vacuum created by Mother Teresa’s declining health) seemed intent on keeping me in my place. Buttressed by authority and well-oiled by obedience, the MC system imposed silence in God’s name and provided no mechanism for genuine accountability. The day I told Mother Teresa of my plans to leave the Missionaries of Charity after twenty years as a nun, her eyes—so full of pain—searched my face. She told me, “Mother could believe this about anyone, but she cannot believe it about you.”

Finding my way after twenty years in the convent wasn’t easy, but I was tenacious and had lots of help. My sister bought me a swimsuit and my brother-in-law taught me to pump gas. I sold clocks, ironed clothes, taught Italian, and worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. While completing an undergraduate degree, I studied with teenagers at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. I edited Lamar’s literary magazine, served as liturgical director at St. Anne Church, and founded an inter-religious discussion group. In 2000, as I began to write my story, I met a wonderful woman who committed to supporting my writing; together Darlene Chandler Bassett and I launched A Room of Her Own Foundation to help other women writers. I served and still serve as Creative Director of AROHO Retreats. I garnered writing awards and completed an MFA at Goddard College. All the while, I found myself questioning previous assumptions, including my beliefs about God. I fell in love. I fell apart. Between panic attacks and bouts of depression, I published my work in periodicals and on National Public Radio. Finally, after a long spiritual struggle, I found I had outgrown my religious faith. I let go.

Women writers on the 2009 AROHO Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Mary Johnson (top row, in white, looking right) is Creative Director of Retreats for A Room of Her Own Foundation. photo by Jamie Clifford.

I continue to find the world a marvelous place and try my best to treat others as I would like to be treated. Content with mystery, I understand that life is bigger than words and explanations. I continue to invest in community, knowing that respectful, affectionate bonds formed among human beings are among life’s most precious gifts, whether in churches, mosques, gyms or bars, schools or shops or synagogues.

I love my husband. I enjoy hiking, riding my bike, gardening, and yoga. Helping other people tell their stories brings me satisfaction. I’m honored to offer you my story, and hope you’ll enjoy it, that you might even gain some wisdom from my adventures and mistakes. Maybe you’ll even gain a little hope, as I do.