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May 18, 2021 46 mins

PART TWO - The sisters learn more about sacrificial love and what it means to be married to Jesus. Mother Teresa believed suffering brings you closer to Christ, so the sisters look for opportunities for sacrifice – including sacrifices Mary never expected. She also meets a charismatic sister who makes her question whether God’s love is enough.

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This series was inspired by Mary Johnson’s memoir, “An Unquenchable Thirst.” Find it HERE -


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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:03):
Before we get started, I want to give a quick
heads up. In this episode, we talked about what could
be described as self harm. In the evening, could hear
these these noises and they would always be coming from
the bathroom, just like this kind of thud thud thud,

And it would go on for a while, and it
did have a kind of fleshy components to it. But
I had so many other things to think about. It
didn't make a big effect on me until until I
understood what was actually happening. So I was washing the

sheets one day and one of my fellow postulant, Sister Alberta,
came in and she says, to so is sister Mary,
what do you think of the discipline? And I said, well,
discipline is hard, following the timetable, keeping quiet when you're reprimanded.
It just requires a lot of discipline. But it's okay.

God has called us here. And she looks at me
and she says, no, no, no, I don't mean the timetable.
What do you think of the discipline. We all have
the discipline. We have a little sheath of knotted chords
that we beat ourselves with every evening. When Sister Alberta

told me this is I. My stomach contracted and I
couldn't talk. It was hard to breathe, she says, But
don't you hear that noise the professed sisters make when
they go in the bathroom midnight. We're taking the discipline,
we're making up for our sins. I didn't really know

how to take it in at first. This is something
I really never imagined, never imagined, and it was on
an entirely different level from folder napkin in three, like
the Trinity or don't talk after night, For this was
something way different. Mary Johnson was nineteen years old when

she learned about the discipline, and still getting used to
her new life in Rome, one that was spent mostly indoors,
working in the kitchen of a men's home run by
the Missionaries of Charity. On her rare bathroom breaks, she
stop and stare out a window in the hall, and
I would see Neuro's palace. I could see the Colosseum
right there from right where I was, But it never

got out onto the streets of Rome in any sort
of sense. And just going from the convent to the
kitchen in this one of the most intriguing cities in
the world, and it felt like everything was getting very,
very small. In the kitchen, Mary's job was to wash dishes.
She also helped drain large vats of hot pasta water.

The vats were so big that the sister in charge
of the kitchen needed help to lift them. One Sunday,
after we finished mass and I came back and I
was headed towards the kitchen, I heard this horrible shriek.
Mary ran toward the sound and found her supervisor on
the floor, just covered in boiling water, burnt from head

to toe because she'd tried to drain that pop by herself.
And I ran to her, and I pulled her clothes
off her and obviously in so much pain. The first
thing she said was, sister will be so angry. Mary
knew who she meant, the superior or of the house,
who was always angry. Her gaze and judgment permeated the

mind and the heart of everyone who lived under her
lived in fear. Basically the next morning at prayer, Mary's
kitchen mate was covered in bandages because just s she
was taking these little tiny steps, and she was obviously
in a great deal of pain. So the next day
Mary assumed she'd be cooking by herself while the burn

sister recovered. And what did I discover? But she was there.
I said, you shouldn't be here. You need to go
back home and rest, I mean. And she looked at
me and she said, a missionary does not rest. She
said it in a very small, quiet kind of voice.

M hm. And I told her, ster, this is this
is really silly. I'm going to go back to the
convent and I'm going to tell sister that you her here.
And as I pulled my apron off getting ready to
go back, I heard this tiny voice, Sister is the
one who told me to come. And I saw there

were tears in her eyes and she said, Sister says
that one mother had fever. She just kept working. Through
the window at the end of the hall, Mary watched

city life passerby by spring. She was dying to get outside,
get out of the kitchen and feel the sun on
her face. She asked her mistress to please give her
a new assignment, let her work directly with the poor.
And she says, well, the sister in charge of the
kitchen won't accept anybody else. She wants only you. Mary
was devastated. She didn't think she could take it anymore.

Her mistress looked at her and said, you know, mother
always says love to be real has to hurt. When
she said those words to me, it felt like like
a slap. Love has to hurt from acco punch and

I heart media. This is the turning I am America
Lands Part two. Love to be real has to hurt.
So tell me, um, you know, I think some people

who hear the phrase love to be real has to
hurt would not like it, would feel Um, it's a
bit excessive. Yeah, what do you say to that? We're real.
Love is sacrificial. This is is their Kathleen Hughes, she

was a missionary of charity for twenty nine years. So
you think of parents taking care of children, and and
people are transformed having children because they suddenly realized they
have to clothe them and feed them and take responsibility
and then drive them here and do this. So it's
the same with taking care of the poor. And you're

not even a relative to be a missionary. In the
life of the missionaries of charity, it's a continual giving
from the minute you get up. And so seeing Christ,
as Mother Teresa would say in the distressing disguise of

the poorest of the poor. We had to see Christ
and that sister we lived with, whom we didn't like,
or who rubbed us the wrong way, you know, which
is natural in life? Or who is our superior year
and she doesn't understand us. You know, we had to
see go deeper and to find Christ there in those people.

But love to be real must hurt, must cost, must
empty us of self. Love to be real must hurt.
There's this story, a legend really about Mother Teresa's feet.
Mary says. It's one that the sisters repeated over and
over to each other. There are different versions, but the

gist is that when Mother Teresa was a young nun,
she was given shoes that were far too small. Instead
of asking for a new pair, she chose to wear
the shoes even though they didn't fit. In her mind,
they've been given by God. This was why the sister said,
Mother Teresa's feet looked deformed, her toes folded over each

other at strange angles. She had a saying that was
always kind of important to me, and that she actually
said to me personally at one point. Physicists take whatever
God gives, Give whatever God takes with a big smile.

Mary learned early on that love and sacrifice were closely linked.
It started with her aspirant mistress. She came to the
refectory one day all excited, and she said that she
had a gift for us. She was giving each one
of us sacrifice beads. She handed out little strings with
ten plastic beads on them, and she told us, pin

these sacrifice beads somewhere where no one will see them,
in your pocket or inside the waistband of your skirt.
And then every day, when you make a sacrifice, you'll
move one bead down. And then at the end of
the day you write it down this little notebook. And
at the end of the month you show me that
notebook and how many sacrifices you have made each day.

And she says, oh, there are so many ways of
making sacrifices. If the food is not salty, you don't
put in more salt. If it's already way too salty,
you add some more salt. If you want to sit
in the chapel near the window, you don't go there.
You'll find the hardest place to sit. And the thing

to me that was most noticeable was how happy she
was about it. The miscenaries of charity didn't plug this
out of thin air, this idea of sacrifice. It starts
with an important story in Christianity, the death of Jesus,
also known as the Passion or Christ's passion with a
capital P. Passion comes from the Latin word for suffering.

In the story of the Passion, Jesus experiences prolonged and
intense pain in the period before it's death. He's betrayed
by disciple, whipped, sentenced to death, and march through the city.
Soldiers nail his hands and feet to a wooden cross,
a crucifixion. He hangs this way until he dies. Christians
believe these are the sacrifices Jesus makes for the world's salvation,

and the missionaries of charity believe that by making daily
sacrifices they can share in Christ's passion help him make
up for the world's sins. They believe they can save souls.
This image of Christ on the cross is so central
to the missionaries of charity that the phrase crucified spouse
as part of their vows. This bride of Christ concept

used to be fairly common among nuns and religious sisters.
They'd often wear long white dresses like bridal gowns when
they took their vows. Today, most religious orders had moved
away from the concept. They focus more broadly on loving
God and God's creations. But the missionaries of Charity still
consider themselves married to Jesus, and Mother Teresa was very
clear she and all the nun in the order are

married to Jesus at a particular moment in his life,
the crucifixion. I have to say, the first time I
heard this about Mother Teresa, I was surprised. I knew
Jesus's death was central to Catholicism, but the messages I
heard from her growing up were so positive, so focused
on compassion. With Mother teresas focus on the poor. I

assumed she was most inspired by the Jesus who healed lepers,
that Jesus who gave sight to the blind, or stood
up for people whose society rejected, and she was. But
what Mother Teresa related to most was Jesus's darkest moment,
his torture and death. She wanted to join in his suffering.
Once I was traveling with Mother Teresa and she asked

me to bring her her prayer book. It just happened
to be open to this place where she had a
little prayer card. It was the face of Jesus son
to cross, and she had written on it Jesus, I
love you so much. And I felt very um, oh,
my goodness. I'm not supposed to see this. This is

something very intimate. This is but you know, it was
like that was what Jesus on the cross was for Mother.
This was her crucified spouse in Rome. Mary's work in

the kitchen continued. She longed for another assignment, but pushed
those thoughts aside. Instead, she thought of Mother's words, the
less we think of ourselves, the more God thinks of us.
Jesus must increase, I must decrease. She looked forward to
Sundays when she led the singing for Mass. She loved

the Italian hymns, and I gave her a break from
the kitchen, if only for an hour. Mary often thought
about what her hard work was leading to what they
call first vows, the moment in less than three years
when she'd become a professed sister, a major step in
her evolution as a nun. She also wondered about those
strange noises from the bathroom the repetitive sound of ropes

hitting flesh. By now she knew it was the discipline,
the sisters beating themselves to atone for their own sins
and for the sins of others, to save souls. So
after dinner each night, I would hear this slap slap
slap from the bathroom stalls ended, cringe and feel my

pulse race. It's like almost like like excitement. Ever since
that sister in the laundry room had told Mary about
the discipline, she'd been trying to make sense of it.
Why didn't anyone tell me about this, she wondered? Should
I be taking initiative and ask for a rope? What's
God's will? Hitting herself didn't seem logical to marry, even

though Jesus suffered, she didn't think he sought it out.
But sacrifice to save someone else's soul from eternal damnation,
that was a length. Love to be real has to hurt.
I wanted to learn how to love. I wanted love
to be the central thing in my life. So this
is a new way to love. Well. Jesus was whipped

before he was crucified, and this would be a way
of being united with Jesus. Finally she found clarity. She
told herself, if this is a divine test, I'll take it.
Maybe the discipline is what I need to fully submit myself,

beat myself into humility and generosity. She went and told
her mistress sister, um, I've heard we're supposed to use
the discipline, but nobody ever gave me one. She said, oh,
I see, I'll take care of it. So then what happened?

How much time passed until the discipline came up again?
So one evening we were walking to the refectory and
I heard somebody whisper my name. I turned around in
the dark corridor and realized that it was Sura mistress.
And she stuffed something scratchy into my hand and closed

my fingers around it. And when I got to the light,
I looked down and I saw those knotted chords of
rough rope that were dangling from my fist and realized
what it was, and I stuffed it into my my
skirt pocket. Another sister walked into the bathroom, and Mary
realized she was supposed to follow. The sister took one stall.

Mary took another, but she had no idea what to
do exactly, how was she supposed to last herself. At first,
I tried to whack at my back, but that gave
like a muffled sound. So I lifted my skirt and
swung at my legs, just above my knees, and that

sounded pretty right, about a little softer maybe than what
I had heard. So I swung harder, and I swung
at my thighs until they turned red. And as I
hit harder, there were these white streaks from the rope
on the red flesh, and I thought, well, now I
figured it out. I'm doing penance like the saints. This

is the kind of thing saints do, isn't it. That night,
like every night, Mary and the rest of the sisters
knelt next to their cots as they prayed, they extended
their arms out to each side and help them there,

making the shape of a cross, almost like they were
on the cross with Jesus. In nine, a year into

her time in Rome, Mary was finally given the assignment
she had longed for, go out into the community helped
the four she'd moved to a new convent on the
outskirts of Rome, in a neighborhood called toward Fiscale. It
was flanked by ancient Roman aqueducts. Many people lived in
the archways of these aqueducts. They leaned planks against the

arches to make walls, old billboards to advertising Ferraris and
Colgate toothpaste. One man who lived there was named Alvaro.
We'd call out whenever we passed by Alvaro's arch and
we'd ask him if we could come in and talk,
and he would always say no, no, no, next time,
next time, next time. And that went on for weeks

and weeks and weeks. Unexpectedly, a week before Christmas, Alvaros
lit his billboard door aside. He let Mary and her
partner into his home, and when we went in, the
smell was so strong that we had to hold handkerchiefs
near our noses. There's just so much smell. Mary and
the other sister pulled everything out, lots and lots and

lots of bottles. There was a mattress reeking of urine,
and we burned it in the field behind the aqueduct.
They scrubbed the walls and made a bed for him
from cinder blocks with a new, clean mattress. When al
Varro saw the feather pillow, he cried it was just beautiful.
They lit a candle and the three of them sang together,

very traditional Italian Christmas song. Um to send it a
list Lisad little Chill, Havienona Groadta alfredocher Lo Avienona Groadta

alfredocher Loo. Helping people like Alvaro. This is what Mary
wanted from her life as a missionary of charity. But
she was lonely too. Nineteen year old Mary really wanted
a friend at that point because it was getting more

and more isolated. Everything was all the contact with my
family had been cut off. Oh. I used to get
homesick a lot. MC sisters were only allowed to write
home once a month. The superior reviewed all of their letters.
Mary says. The superiors told sisters not to write about
what happened in the community, don't mention hardship, and we

couldn't receive phone call from our families unless it was
a real emergency, if someone had died or something like that.
Family could visit if they could afford to travel to
wherever in the world you were stationed. But his sister
was allowed to visit home only once every ten years.
And I had no idea that that was part of

becoming a missionary of charity. Really, I didn't know that
I'd only get to write a letter home once a month.
I didn't know that I'd only get to visit my
family once every ten years. I had no idea about
all of that. And you see, there were all sorts
of rules that were trotted out only when you had
been adequately prepared, when you had already invested certain things,

when you'd already come to accept so many things that
didn't make a whole lot of sense. And well this
was just one more. It was very hard on my family,
that's for sure. It was luck ill was did almost
Collet Livermore didn't know Mary Johnson. She started with the
MCS in Australia in v She still remembers her first

day in the convent. My friend Ruth came and we
were putting our stuff away in our dormitory and Ruth
was lying on the bed munching an apple and chatting away.
Sister Victoria came and blew us up. You know, this
is our first day sisters, with all sisters us. Yes,

you don't talk in the dormitory, you don't talk at
all between meals. You definitely don't lie on the bed
and munch in apple. You know, so we quickly got
the idea. Collette felt some guilt about leaving her family.
Her mom raised four kids on her own, and since
Colette was the oldest, she helped out a light. So
Mom didn't want me to go, but off I went.

You know, it's sort of pretty selfish. Actually, Sometimes the
superior held letters back for a while as a acrifice.
Collette remembers one time in particular, mail was withheld for lent.
She missed an important letter from her mother, Rodney. What
if her brothers was in the hospital it looked like
he might die. After Colette's mother didn't get a response,

she called the convent in tears. Collette's mistress let her
take the call. Didn't you get my letter? Rodney's dying.
He's really really seek both his lungs of collepse. Collette
told her mom she hadn't received her letter. She said,
now I know I really lost you. Collette says she
asked her superior for permission to go home to see

her brother, who was still in the hospital. Permission was denied.
She couldn't leave the convent. Collette told her mother she
wouldn't be coming to visit. I wanted to go home,
but you see, I had no money and my hair
was completely shaved. Not that that would have stopped me,

but I didn't have any regular clothes. I had just
a sorry and everything. Yeah, it's just strange how completely
cut off you are from your family and from your
usual way of life. I just needed to have a
bit more of a spine. I think and say, well,
I'm going, But for some reason I didn't, and I

regret that now. I can't understand why I didn't. You know,
I can't understand myself, but I must have been controlled
from the inside a bit in rome. After Mary Johnson

took the discipline for the first time, beating herself became routine.
Did you do this every day for twenty or so years?
I mean, was this really a daily practice for all
those years? Was there a daily practice every day except
Sunday or big feast days. You started off with very
few strokes, if I remember right, it was about fifteen. Eventually,

when I became a finely professed sister, it would be
fifty strokes. Fifty strokes strokes every night, Yeah, and that
was that was usual. And then there would be certain
times we would do double penance during Lent or any
other time Mother chose. The sisters did double penance a
hundred strokes a day, joining in the passion of their

crucified spouse. Before I started this project, I had no
idea Mother Treesa's orders still did this kind of thing,
that it was an expectation of a modern day order.
A new corporal mortification was still a thing in the
Catholic Church, causing pain or discomfort to yourself, usually as
some form of spiritual growth, fasting as an example. So

I was kneeling in prayer, but whipping. I didn't think
nuns would still be expected to whip themselves, certainly not
fifty times a night. The type of whipping is known
as self flagellation, and what I learned is that it
has a long history, dating back to the eleventh century.
In some cases, monks whipped their naked bodies together out
in the open. It really took off in the thirteen

hundreds when Europeans whipped themselves as a form of religious protest.
Over time, though, it became more of a private thing,
serving as penance or a way to share in christ
suffering and be closer to God. It fell more out
of favor in the nineteen fifties and sixties, around the
same time as a second Vatican Council known as Vatican Too.
If you don't know what Vatican Too is, it's basically

when the Church updated its rules and rituals to try
to match modern life, but some people held on to
corporal mortification. Pope John Paul the Second reportedly practice self flagellation,
and so did the missionaries of Charity. We asked the
Missionaries of Charity to comment on this, and they refused
to be interviewed, but a sister we spoke to who

left the order in ten said it was still practiced then.
To be honest, I feel a little weird even talking
about the discipline because I think it's more of a
private thing for the sisters, but it's such a big
part of daily life. Mary Johnson thinks it has real
spiritual and psychological effects. Certainly, beating yourself every day is

a reminder that you're a sinner, taking away any sort
of pride, you're someone who needs to beat yourself. I
think that in some circumstances also, there could be a
kind of sado masochistic erotic pleasure thing going on. I

think a lot of things do get twisted or can
potentially get twisted around when all the all sexual energy
desire has to be repressed or sublimated um and I

I wouldn't be surprised if if that element was there
in some way or another. For Mary, the discipline was
a comfort when she felt guilty. After she confessed she
could atone That relief of having the discipline close at
hand to help expiate whatever wrong one might have done

could be a thing where you would feel the pleasure
of the relief of I don't have to bear that
burden of guilt in the same sort of way because
I'm doing something to make reparation for it. The rope
wasn't the only form of penance. There are many, some physical,
some psychological, like the spiked chains. For an hour a day,

sisters wore these chains around one arm and their waist,
the spikes poked inward. There were forms of public penance,
like kissing the feet of your fellow sisters. You'd go
down a row of nuns and touch your forehead to
each of their feet, or there would be to kiss
the footsteps like you're not even worthy even to put
your forehead on her foot. Another public penance was called

beg the meal. At dinner, you'd go to the superior
and Neil kiss the floor, hold your ball there and say,
I beg you your sister, please give me something to eat,
and she would put the soup, bread, whatever into your
bowl and you would take it to a corner in
the room and you would eat it kneeling. Mary says,

public penance and public apology could be a really good thing.
You're trying to build a community in close quarters, and
I could see how being open and vulnerable that's powerful.
One of the things that I learned from my life
with the Missionaries of Charity is the value of a
sincere apology, being honest about the fact that we all

make mistakes, deliberate or not, and the public acknowledgement of
that doesn't have to make you smaller somehow, it just
makes you more real, more honest. February. Mary still in Rome.

She's still a novice. That means she's early in her
MC life, but she knows that might change soon. In
a few weeks, she'll write her letter to Mother Teresa,
requesting to take vows for the first time. Of course,
Mary has been living them, but this will be her
first official commitment. If permission is granted, there will be
an elaborate ceremony for this important moment. Then it will

be too late for second thoughts. Mary has trouble sleeping.
She tosses in turns and wonders if she's meant to
be a sister. The other nuns sleep around her in
their cots, so everything was close. You could always hear
if somebody was snoring. But this particular night, I was

fast asleep and heard this shouting and this commotion and
these words very loud. I need a man, I need
a man. Someone lights a candle and Mary sees who
called out in the dark. It's the mistress in charge,
the same sister who gave Mary the rope for taking

the discipline. So here's this woman set to teach us chastity, poverty, obedience,
and service, and she's yelling out in the middle of
the night. For man. It was rather shocking to tell.
The truth was like, WHOA, what's going on? The sister
was dreaming. Mary cracked open the shutters to let in

the moonlight. Another sister held the shoulders of their mistress,
who shook under her blanket. There were tears on her face.
The next morning, the mistress slept in and sequestered herself
for most of the day. I think she was so
completely embarrassed. We needed her in so many ways. She

was the one who was supposed to be leading us,
and here she just disappeared. Mary told a fellow sister
about her concerns about their mistress's dream, her seclusion, and
how they needed her back. Then their mistress walked into
the room. She'd heard it all. Yes, it was a
little bit embarrassing, but more than that, it felt like
an opportunity for me. So finally I'm going to get

a chance to say something to her because we hadn't
seen her for so long, and just you know, so
I'm telling her so we need you, you know, please
come come back. And she was very concerned. She said,
but some of the sisters are so shocked by what
I said. And I said, well, well, if they're shocked you,
what they need is for you to come out and

just explain something or just talk to us, let us
know that you're all right. We all have temptations. You've
shown us that you're human, So why don't you come
back and let us know that what you've always told us,
that Jesus is enough for us. And she looked at
me and she said, because Jesus isn't enough for me.

That night, Mary lay awake for a long time. This
was the first time an authority figure had expressed this
kind of vulnerability to her. As she lay there, she wondered,
what does it feel like to need a man so
much that you shout in your sleep? Why wasn't Jesus enough.

Mary was twenty one years old. She'd never been on
a date, never had a relationship, never even been to
a school dance. She saw couples in Rome holding each
other and kissing and made her excited, But she always
reminded herself, God loves me more than those two people
love each other. On her cot in the dark, she

told herself, doubt is the devil's work. To want more
is sinful. Sister Donata, you are nothing. You have always
been nothing, You will always be nothing. A few weeks

after the incident with her mistress, Mary wrote the letter
to Mother Teresa. She was ready for her vows. While
the novices waited anxiously for Mother's reply, they spent more
time praying. They doubled their strokes of the discipline and
their chains for longer. Finally Mary got the answer. Mother
said yes, she could take her first Vous June was

the big day, Mary's biggest day yet in the Missionaries
of Charity. She wore a white sorry her wedding dress.
Mary's family traveled to Rome from Texas to be there.
The Archbishop was there, so is Mother Teresa. As part
of the ceremony, Mary's father stood before the congregation and

read from the Bible. He looked at Mary when he said,
for his sake, I have suffered the loss of all
things and count them as refuse in order that I
may gain Christ and be found in him. He had
tears in his eyes. There were more readings than a homily.
Eventually each novice was called to the front. When they

called Sister Donata, Mary replied, Lord, you have called me.
She then read her vows. Her hands shook I, Sister
Mary Donata Johnson, vow for one year chastity, poverty, obedience,
and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.

According to the constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity, I
give myself with my whole heart to this religious family,
so that by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and
with the help of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, cause
of our joy and Queen of the world, I may
be led to the perfect love of God and neighbor
and make the Church fully present in the world of today.

When she finished, Mary stepped toward the archbishop and knelt.
He handed her a new crucifix. She kissed it. Mother
Teresa then wedge the crucifix on Mary's left side between
the sorry and the belt. Mary knew she would carry
this cross every day for the rest of her life.

Jesus was Mary's spouse over the better part of the
next decade. She had assignments in New York, in Winnipeg,
in Washington, d c. She even became an assistant superior.
She worked with kids in the community, led summer camps.

She loved that work and spending time with her fellow sisters.
I enjoyed hearing their stories, you know that talk about
what life was like in India or Africa, or Lebanon
or wherever they came from. Many of them had gone
through all sorts of difficult things to get there. There.
There there were, for the most part, women who came

wanting to serve, wanting to give of themselves, and it
just felt nice to to be with most of them.
By the end of the eighties, Mary's back in Rome.
One day, the superior of her convent, Sister Stella, calls
everyone together. She made an announcement, a rather unusual announcement.
She said that there was a new sister coming to

the community, and she wanted us to know that this
sister I had had some troubles in her community, the
community she was coming from, so I knew that that
something was up, Mary says. They were told not to
ask what those troubles were, that we should all be
extra kind to this sister. The day the new sister arrived,

Mary was sitting at the table working on MC financial accounts.
She walked in with his presence. She was tall, and
she's pretty and broad shouldered and sense of herself about
her that was so on like what most of the
missionaries of charity had, and so she caught my attention.

The sister introduced herself. We're not using her real name.
Mary calls her sister Niobe. She brought Niobe some lunch,
and I placed it in front of her and she
started picking up her fork, and then Sister Stella looked
at her and said, but you didn't even say grace.
And this Sister Niobe rolled her eyes a little bit

in my direction, where St. Stella couldn't really see her.
And then Sister Niobee said grace, but without standing up
and without making the sign of the cross, all of
which were very much protocol. And then she started eating,
and I thought to myself, I may actually like the sister.
She has a mind of her own. Look at that.

One Sunday afternoon, Mary was looking for a place to
write her monthly letter to her family. It was hot,
so she went outside to an area between the convent
and the monastery. We call that the garden. Even though
there was nothing growing there except a little grass, there
was a little bench and I walked in a little
disappointed because it was already occupied. Niobe was there and

she was sitting on the bench, and so I turned
around to to go out, and she said, no, no,
come sit here with me. Mary sat on the bench
next to Niobe and started her letter to her parents,
but Naobe started talking. I just wanted to thank you
for being so nice to me. It's it's not so
easy to change communities, and you've been nice. And then

she tells me this really strange thing. She says, you know,
there are some very decent sisters here, but you are
the best. And that felt really weird because by this
time I had been in the convent more than ten years,
and nobody had ever complimented me for anything, because we
don't make compliments. That would be like a temptation to pride,
and so you just don't do those things. And I

can't imagine going ten years about a single compliment. That's
that's that's a lot. And here she's saying, you are
the best. And okay, when am I getting myself into here?
Mary was a little shocked by Naobe's forwardness and warmth,
and I said, oh, well, okay, thank you, and I'm

going to write my letter now. But Naobe kept talking.
She started asking all sorts of questions. She says, you
want to get to know me better, and she's asking
about my family and and it was kind of irresistible,
the thought that somebody was actually interested in me as
a person, even had noticed me as a person, not

just as somebody to do things. But I knew it
was dangerous because we've always been told that it was dangerous,
and it felt very risky, and that kind of added
to the allure to tell the truth and it and
it felt really good just to sit somebody and and
so we we sat there and by the time the

two hours for writing letters wore up, mindset, dear mom
and dad, how are you? And that was about it.
For ten years, Mary had worked so hard to be
a perfect nun. It consumed her thoughts, took over her being.
That included the rule about particular friendships, as the MCS
called them. No one was allowed to have a particular friendship.

But Mary found it thrilling to break the rules with Naobe.
Every now and then we'd find a little time to
have some sort of little conversation. I'd find that she
was often trying to sit next to me during meals,
and she would sometimes sit very close to me. At
those meals. She might even touch Mary's foot with hers

and that felt very risky and forbidden, and you know,
just doing this surrounded by everybody. And so times she'd
take her hand and just put it on top of
my knee under the table. And I can't tell you
how that sent chills up and down, because nobody had

had touched me in that way for forever and ever,
and it felt so good. Then one morning, when the
nuns were still in grand silence, Mary was putting wet
laundry on the line to dry. She had a bucket
of clothes beside her and a clothespin in her hand,

and all of a sudden, Niobe is next to me,
and she's whispering in my ear. Mary dropped her clothespin.
The world turned electric. She whispers in my ear, Sister Dona,
I love you. The Turning is written by Allen lance

Lesser and Me. Our producers are Allen lance Lesser and
Emily Foreman. Our editor is Rob Rosenthal. Andrea A Suage
is our digital producer. Fact checking by Andrea Lopez Crusado
Special thanks to Amy Gains, Sarah oh Lender, Catherine Joyce,
Beth and Macaluso, Travis Dunlap, and consulting producer Mary Johnson.
Her memoir and Unquenchable Thirst provided inspiration for this series.

Our executive producers are Jessica Alpert and John Tarotti at
for Coco Punch and Katrina Norville and I Heart Media.
Our theme music is by Matt Reid for photos and
more details on the series. Follow us on Instagram at
for Coco Punch. You can reach out via email to
the Turning at for Coco punch dot com I America Lance,
thanks for listening to
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