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July 13, 2021 47 mins

PART NINE - Is this a cult? How do you leave?


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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
From a cocoa punch and I heart radio. This is
the turning I'm Erica Lance, Part nine, Highway of Broken Glass.
Over the time I've worked on this podcast, one word
has come up again and again. It was like a
cult thing. If you look at the characteristics of cults,

(00:25):
it's like unswerving obedience to a charismatic leader. Check one
doesn't always know where to draw the line between religion
and cult. You're only getting input from one source. You're
oscillated from everyone else. And that's what I mean by
Brian washing, and that's why it sometimes reminds me of

(00:47):
a cult. I tried to leave the word called out
of conversations with former sisters, or at least not be
the one to bring it up first. My fear was
that once that word was on the table, it would
say the Sisters retelling of their time in the MCS.
But the comparisons kept coming up, for example, control over media,

(01:09):
how the missionaries of charity are only allowed to read
books that their mistress assigns to them. He couldn't read
the newspaper, he had the radio, anything like that. We
weren't supposed to be looking around at anything, really, And
that was called keeping custody of the eyes. Another example,
sisters are cut off from their families and past lives.

(01:31):
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 limited sleep.
I've heard so many sisters mentioned the late nights and
early mornings, always waking at four forty am, which might
impact a person's ability to think critically. Early morning meditation

(01:51):
was a struggle. I was always tired as a missionary
of charity, and so most of that half hour very off,
And not always, but very often, it's just a struggle
to stay awake. Sisters were seeing us more holy. If
you needed less sleep, you were strong. You could take
a lot of physical pain and not complain and offer

(02:12):
it up. There was whether it was conscious or not.
There was a lot of value put on that. And
every day we scrubbed the same patch of floor for
half an hour, and I was exhausted, and I remember
thinking I couldn't used that extra half hour of sleep
instead of scrubbing the same piece of floor that was
clean every morning. Then there's the claim that the MC

(02:35):
has kept sisters from thinking for themselves. The order was
wired that you had very little time to think, and
the rules a rigid enforcement of rules. Mary Johnson says
that as she rose through the ranks, she was told
by a superior that she should be more firm with

(02:56):
sisters under her. For example, if a sister fell asleep
during meditation, Mary should take the sister to the kitchen,
cut an onion and make the sister put its juice
in her eyes. Do you think you were in a cult?
I think we had could to tendencies. This is my
personal opinion. Obviously, I think to be an occult, the

(03:18):
leader has to have clarity of what they're doing. And
I definitely, unequivocally do not believe that was the purpose.
Like I believe some of the outcomes happened, um, but no,
I definitely that's the That would be the only reason
I wouldn't think we were in a cult. That I

(03:39):
was in a cult. Do I think people who come
out of it need help d programming on some levels? Absolutely?
Clearly it's complicated. So when people ask me outright, are
the missionaries of charity occult? I don't have an answer.
I'm not exactly sure what a cult is. And I'm

(04:02):
even hesitant to use that word just because it's a
charged word. This is Alan Lance Lesser. She's a producer
on this show, and you might remember she's my sister.
And she dug into this question, what is a cult?
Do the m c s qualify? And this is the
first time I'm hearing what she learned. So I reached
out to a cult expert, a sociologist named Dr Yania Lolledg.

(04:27):
She's written books on it, She's researched it. I mean,
I was in a cult myself, and so for years
I wanted to leave, but I couldn't figure out how
to leave. Oh and she says she was in a
Marxist Leninist fan guard party cult. Oh wow. But eventually
it was dissolved and so in the end we all
got out at the same time. Right, when you've so

(04:51):
internalized the belief system, it becomes very difficult to leave
because you know you doubt yourself. When you have of
these thoughts, you have negative thoughts, you have to immediately
shut them away because first of all, there's no way
to talk about them, there's no way to entertain those ideas.
And you're also at the same time kind of chastising

(05:14):
yourself or even having those ideas and thinking that you know,
there's something wrong with you, that you're you're not being
as good a true believer as everyone else. That sounds familiar.
That almost perfectly describes a number of former sisters we interviewed.
How they felt, Yeah, that feeling of am I alone

(05:35):
in these questions or doubts. And also they're not able
to have personal conversations with their fellow sisters, so they
think that I'm just the problem child. Yeah, and you
didn't talk about why people left. Oh, yeah, So I
described the basics to her, how the sisters are extreme
in their vows, how sisters joined the order not knowing
what it really entails, the emphasis on suffering for the

(05:58):
sake of salvation, you know, the limited contact with the
outside world. It sounds like you're told to me, I mean,
it's obviously very extreme and using techniques that really break
a person down, which is what happens and call Yeah
that doesn't sound good. Wow, Yeah, that's that's not what

(06:20):
I think I expected to hear her start with. To me,
this would certainly fit a lot of the criteria of
being a cult. So what are the criteria for a cult? Basically,
there are three criteria she mentioned off the bat well.
First of all, there's the the authoritarian leader who demands
all loyalty, who cannot be questioned, who cannot be criticized.

(06:42):
There aren't any checks and balances on that person, and
whatever they say kind of goes. Second, there's a structured
sort of belief system, sort of what I call a
transcendent belief system, which gives you the answers to everything past, present,
in future. That belief system will go I do, and
requires of self transformation to allow you to be on

(07:06):
that path. And then third, basically there are these strategies
that are in place to reinforce the indoctrination and basically
keep you in the group and keep you isolated from
the outside world. I mean, there are examples of this
in the MCS, like the fact that you can only

(07:26):
write home once a month. You're not supposed to really
talk about your time inside. One thing that strikes me,
for example, with the first one is authoritarian leader. Like
the word authoritarian sounds so negative, and I know, I
don't think the average person would think, oh, mother Teresa
as an authoritarian leader. Um, it is true that she

(07:47):
said the rules for the order, and anyone that was
a superior had power without checks and balances, So maybe
it is an accurate description. It's just such a harsh term.
I think the thing about Mother Tree is that she
had this humility about her, Like I. She had this
like focusing in all her speeches on the poor and

(08:08):
love and on Jesus and sort of being this humble servant.
I think of the Medal of Freedom speech where she says,
you know, this isn't about me. Yeah, So it feels
a little different than some charismatic leaders that are just
so self focused. It's sheathed in humility, So it does
feel different, even though a lot of things feel the same. Definitely.

(08:32):
And something I didn't want to gloss over in this
discussion is that the mischares of charity are part of
an organized religion. So what really differentiates a religion from
a cult, because I think sometimes there's this fine line
and maybe there's even a gray area. Yeah. The way
I see it's the difference between the cult and the

(08:53):
healthy religion is that a healthy religion is going to
have you worshiping some type of of of higher being,
you know, whether it's God or Jesus or Allah or
Buddha or a tree or whatever. Right, but you're not
expected to worship this human person right in front of you,

(09:14):
which I don't know if that fits Mother Teresa, because
my impression is that it wasn't as if MC sisters
were literally worshiping Mother Teresa. Well, you know, I think
what I mean by that is that person becomes all powerful.
That person is clearly the one who is calling all
the shots and the one who you must obey. While

(09:37):
they may still worship God or Jesus. Um, the human
authoritarian figure intervenes and you know, declares herself the voice
of God. Yeah. So when she says a leader who
declares herself the voice of God, it's like, I don't

(09:58):
think Mother Teresa would say, I declare I'm the voice
of God. You know, like that doesn't sound like Mother Teresa. Um.
And yet and yet the Superiors are the voice of God.
I mean, that is the phrase we heard over and
over again. And she is the superior of the superiors. Yeah.

(10:19):
And you know one other question that I remember you
brought up with me that you were wondering that you
wanted answered at one point when we were reporting the
story was do ethical cults exist? Oh? Yeah, and so yeah.
I was curious about that too, so I asked Dr Loalich,
and this is what she said. In my opinion, there's

(10:41):
no such thing as a benign cult, because part of
what for me defines the cult is the person giving
up their autonomy, giving up their selves. And once you
give up your autonomy, I don't see that as a
good thing. So I don't care if it's a chocolate
chip cookie cult. It's not good that you've given up

(11:02):
your autonomy and your own decision making powers. I think
it makes sense if you are someone who believes that
independent thought is inherently a good thing, any group that's
taking that away would be seen as bad. Honestly. It
also makes me kind of question myself and whether I'm

(11:24):
too easy sometimes on the missionaries of charity. M hmm,
what do you mean, I'm trying so hard to see
everything from different people's perspectives, Like, I'm really trying to
keep an open mind. And if am I keeping such
an open mind that I'm not um seeing what's in

(11:44):
front of me, does that help me see it better?
Or does that actually blind me? A little bit like
we're going to have such different reactions from different listeners. Yeah,
I mean, I think some people would say, you talk
to a cult expert in reference to the mystery or
of charity. They might be offended by that. But to me,
what really sticks out about what she's saying is that

(12:07):
giving up of autonomy. And if nothing else, if the
missionaries of charity don't meet some of these other standards,
they do meet this standard, that giving up of self.
I mean that literal emptying of self we've heard from
the sisters Jesus miss increased, I m miss decrease. It's

(12:28):
just about the reduction of autonomy to be a pencil
in God's hand, and so they are discouraged from thinking
for themselves. But I think the counter argument is that
their spirituality is about that, that there's this intentional emptying
or draining of self. There's almost like a knowing letting

(12:50):
go of self, and there's something beautiful and meaningful about that.
For some of these women in their perspective, it brings
them closer to God. And why should others that it
is a beautiful thing to let go of yourself and
your own needs and desires for a larger picture, a bigger,
higher purpose or meeting. Yeah. So then I mean, given

(13:13):
all these barriers to leaving, I kind of thought, well,
what allows people to eventually leave? Then? Well, I think
what happens is I think everyone who's in a cultic situation,
even the true believers, everyone has doubts and everyone has hesitations,
and so because you can't do anything with them. The

(13:35):
way I see it is that you keep shoving these
things in the back of your head. And she used
this metaphor of a shelf, this shelf in the back
of your head, and finally something will happen, you know,
that'll break that shelf. It'll be one too many things.
And once that shelf breaks and these doubts come spilling out,

(13:55):
you know, then you kind of have the SAHA moment, like,
oh my god, I've got to get out of your
there's some this is not healthy, this is whatever. You know,
this is wrong. I have to get out of here.
It's not Also, as if once that shelf breaks, you
immediately walk out, you have to come up with a
plan for how to extricate yourself. That also really resonates

(14:17):
with what we've heard, definitely, But all of this also
just makes me think about what is it actually like
when you're there, You're in, You're sorry, your hair is
cut short. You've been living this life for potential years,
and to feel like you want to leave. And we've

(14:40):
heard that before from people of just those thoughts of
like how do I get out? I don't know how
to get out, and then like to just look to
the future, what will my future be? I just can't
imagine how difficult that would be. A lot of former

(15:27):
sisters we spoke to didn't want to be recorded, and
that includes all of the former sisters we talked to
who are originally from India. That's an important perspective because
a lot of missionaries of charity are Indian. That was
part of Mother Teresa's vision from the beginning. In my mind,
not being able to hear their voices is something that's
been missing in this podcast. One phone call with a

(15:48):
former sister from India hit us hard. She repeatedly said
that being an m C was like slavery. She said
the impact was like a quote shadow on your mind,
the way of thinking of the innabilly need to make friends,
the relentless guilt. She said, it stays with you and
She felt that life inside the empty society was so
busy it left no time to think. She said there

(16:09):
was quote a lot of brainwashing going on. Collect Livermore,
the Australian sister whose story we've been following, She used
the same language, what is brainwashing. Brainwashing is that you
you've only got one source of information. They know everything

(16:32):
about you, even your most personal thoughts, and if you
start to think you want out, they're there too, sort
of talk you out of it. Collect tried to leave
the Missionaries of Charity in She knelt in front of
Mother Teresa and Calcutta and said she wanted to leave,

(16:54):
but Mother Teresa pressured her to stay. She's the saint
on the ciner. She let's to be right. Ah, I
just knelt down too, she dismissed me. So Collette stayed
and took her final vows. In our interviews, Collette repeatedly
questioned why she hadn't left sooner. She often blamed herself.

(17:17):
She'd say she wished she had more of a spine,
more confidence to take action, But she also seemed keenly
aware of some of the pressures that kept her there.
You cut off from your family and you can't. You
haven't got a friend and you're just struggling to survive.
Collette remembers how sisters would report on each other, like

(17:39):
a time she was accused of having a particular friendship
the girl I joined with Ruth. She and I had
walked to mother house together. It just happened and we
were saying the Rosary along the way, and we just
happened to walk together, and this was reported, yeah, because

(18:00):
we're never usually together. And so I just exploded, and
and then I was and then then you have to
go through the whole rigma role of kneeling down and
confessing your lack of self control. And it just went
on and on again and again. Her superiors adminished her

(18:21):
for thinking for herself. She says she learns to question
the motives of everything she did. It's a very negative atmosphere,
you know. It's like emotional abuse, and it's not good
for a person in any way, because if if you
suffer emotional abuse all the time and insecurity all the time,

(18:48):
there will be a point where you'll just crack up
and you won't be kind. And I honestly feel that
some people living under that regime have become more bitter
and angry and not their true selves. But I don't know,
I don't I feel like I'm being too negative, you know,

(19:13):
like it wasn't all miserable. Like every time you see
the sisters, they'd be smiling and everything. The spirit of
the society was total surrender, loving, trust, and cheerfulness. No
matter what happened, you were supposed to be cheerful. But
it was just these internal things that problematic. I'm mostly

(19:38):
talking about the system. Colet says, the system taught you
to doubt yourself, but she also started to doubt her
place in the system. H B. Colette Livermore had been

(20:27):
a sister with the Missionaries of Charity for ten years.
Then she was transferred to an MCY house in Australia,
her home country. So on the way to her new assignment,
she was allowed to visit her family. She met her
mother and sister at a train station and they ran
up to greet her. All three of them were in tears.
When Collette left Australia for the m c S. Her

(20:48):
sister was ten years old. Now she was a young woman,
So I was in my own country and the culture clash,
the the way of doing things was even more jangly.
You know, it just wasn't didn't feel right. Collette was

(21:10):
stationed in Burke and the Outback, about four miles from home.
It just seemed culturally inappropriate the way we were behaving,
with the Aboriginal people trying to call him for Sunday
mess when they didn't want to go, the kids didn't
want to go. At this point, it felt like a
daily struggle to stay in the order. I knew that

(21:33):
I couldn't go on like this, and I think if
you're not true to yourself, you you quite literally lose yourself.
You're not who you are. Finally, she told her superior
she was done. The Superior had hers a priest. He

(21:53):
told Colette her desire to leave as the result of
an evil spirit. Besides, he said, what would you do?
Where were you go? Colette said she wanted to study medicine,
and he told her that was pride talking. It was
an impossible dream. A novice mistress whom Colette had previously
worked with, wrote to her. She said Colette had to
walk through a dark night of the soul. The crisis

(22:14):
she was feeling would purify her. Colettz says this was
insidious because it flattered her. A dark knight was a
sign of saintliness. But even with that in mind, she says,
she felt like she was cracking up. And so I
finally wrote to mother. I said, please don't delay this anymore.
I really need to leave. She didn't give the letter

(22:35):
to her superior like she was supposed to. Colette was
often in charge of the shopping, and in one of
her trips she mailed the letter to Calcutta herself. About
six weeks later, Collette got her answer mother Tracey's raw.
I think it's very distinctive. I knew um what it was.

(22:55):
All of the other sisters in the house, there were
only four of them, had gone to a nearby city
for medical appointments. Collette was alone, which is unheard the
first time ever in the house of time. I was
in the society. She stepped out of the house and
onto a dirt road nicknames the Crystal Highway because of

(23:16):
all of the broken glass. She stood there, letter in hand,
the shards glinting and lighting the way to the horizon,
and she read, my dearest child, you're asking for a
year of absence. I personally don't like it, but the

(23:39):
church permits it. If you still want it, you can
go home to your mother for three months without the
religious stress. Be careful when you are out, for you
carry in your heart the precious treasure, your vocation, your vows.
I will pretty much for you. Do not let the
evil one deceive you. You belong to Jesus, He loves you.

(24:01):
God bless you mother. Teresa m. C. Yes, I'm free.
The Superior was terribly distressed, tearful, but I was out

(24:22):
and it was a big relief. Yeah, I was out.

(24:57):
Mary Johnson would stay in the order for twenty years,
and she didn't know it yet, but her time there
was slowly running out. What made me want to stay
really was the deep conviction that God wanted me there.
That's why I stayed, because I felt like I was
called and whatever the circumstances were, whether they were happy

(25:19):
and beautiful times or whether they were sustained periods of
not so great, God had called me there and that
was what was important. But there was something else major
going on in her life. Mary had fallen in love.
One day she was on a train back from a
trip to Florence. It was nineteen years in when the
train entered a tunnel in the mountainside. Everything went dark.

(25:43):
She slid out the crucifix that was always at her side,
the one Mother Teresa had given her many years before.
This was the crucifix that she put on her pillow
every night when she prayed, and every night before bed,
she kissed the crucifix, kissed each of Jesus's five wounds.
On the rain in the dark, she ran her fingers
up and down its sides, and she started to think.

(26:05):
She thought about her years as an MC, what it
all meant, what she was doing with her life, how
she was doing as an m C. She knew she'd
broken her vows more than once. This time she'd fallen
in love with a priest. We call him Father Tom here,
but that's not his real name. And then there was
the time she broke her vows when she was alone
with Tom in the hospital. She knew she still craped

(26:26):
that intimacy. Not too long after our experience in the hospital,
Tom told me that he was being transferred. It was like,
all right, then, what can we do? That's the end
of that. She had stashed a glossy photo of him

(26:48):
in the folds of her spare. Sorry. She would sometimes
take it out and look at his face. She knew
this photo broke three of her vows, Poverty, which didn't
allow extra possessions, chastity forbade this type of relationship, and obedience,
which required that her superior know about her possession of
the item. But she couldn't seem to help herself. She

(27:09):
hit the photo, but now Father Tom was far away
and she was still stuck with her doubts and questions.
They rushed through her mind as she wrote that train
back to the convent. I just was holding Jesus on
the cross in my hands and wondering what am I

(27:30):
going to do? This is? I feel so conflicted, And
it's not just about Tom. It's also about being asked
to do things that I just don't really sit right
with me. It's about feeling so conflicted about the things
my superiors were doing. The organization didn't look like the

(27:50):
one that I had joined so many years earlier. I
had to make a decision, and I couldn't be, you know,
kind of one foot in, one foot out. So she
made a plan. She decided she would spend one year
keeping all of the rules, doing the best I can
to be exactly the sort of missionary of charity that

(28:11):
Mother Teresa would approve of. She told herself that if
at the end of the year she could be herself,
her true self and still be a missionary of charity,
she'd make a firm commitment to stay, but if not,
she'd leave because I didn't feel like God wanted me
to be somebody other than the person he made me.

(28:33):
Of course, to fulfill that pact to be a good
missionary of charity, she knew she'd have to give up
Tom and his photograph, so she took it from its
hiding place and brought it to the chapel. There was
a candle burning, and I held that photo up to
the candle and watched us as the photo turned to ash,

(28:54):
and it felt cleaner. I felt cleaner. She gathered the
ashes and blew them out the window. Mary was then
assigned to be superior of a house intour Bellamonica at

(29:15):
the northern edge of Rome. The previous superior had just disappeared,
no explanation, just left. She hadn't seemed to be in distress,
but she was gone. Now, leaving without permission was considered
a disgrace to one's self and the community, and now
it was Mary's job to replace her. Mary says she
tried to be a compassionate superior. She let sisters sleep

(29:37):
a little extra on Thursdays. She let one sister drink
coffee early to fight off drowsiness during meditation, and another
she let work in the garden. She also tried to
infuse her mission work with new meaning. I want to
help the poor people get out of poverty, not just
make them a little bit more comfortable being poor. You know.

(30:00):
I had tried when I was superior to get some
programs in place which would actually do that, and I
couldn't get permission to do it. No. No, we'll house them,
we'll feed them, and then we'll put them back out
on the street without any more help than that. That
wasn't enough for Mary. She felt like a robot just
following rules. We should help people live a full life,

(30:22):
she thought, and I wanted that full life for myself.
Throughout her time as a missionary of charity, very often
attended vow ceremonies. They happened every six months. That were
first vows, that were final vows. She'd always thought these
events were joyful, hopeful occasions. They were a chance for
her to silently renew her own vows to herself. I

(30:44):
knew all the words that ceremony by heart, every single
one of them. But this time, when she attended an
mcy vow ceremony, she didn't know if she could silently
renew those vows. Her mind kept flipping back and forth.
This was the year she had decided to give herself
fully as a gift to God. Then she thought, but

(31:06):
what right did God have to take everything? She stopped herself. No,
she was giving, God wasn't taking. She was Sister Donata,
the freely given one. But then why was it that
as she screwed her eyes shut, trying to quell the
built up presentment, she felt, tears streamed down her face. Finally,

(31:28):
she prayed, God, I cursed the day he placed that
woman's wrinkled face on the cover of Time magazine. This
is not love. As the sisters took their vows, something
inside of me is like yelling, don't don't do it,
don't do it. I was like sitting back in the

(31:49):
pews and and just trying to stay in my seat there,
but wanting to run from the church. It was Mary

(32:14):
Johnson's twentieth year in the m c S. As the
end of for one year, promised to fully follow the
rules approached, she asked to take double penance. She thought
it would bring her clarity and strength. She tightened the
chains around her arm and waist twice a day. She
hit her legs double the number of times. She no
longer believed God took pleasure in her pain, but she

(32:35):
did it anyway. You know, I've been thinking about this
decision because it's such a big one, and I was
trying to figure out for myself what was the last straw,
what was the thing? And then I kind of I
started thinking about my own life and times when I've
made big decisions, and often there isn't a moment, or

(33:00):
if there's a moment, it's not a moment of decision,
it's a moment of realizing I've already decided, like I've
kind of known for a while. One of the things
I've been doing for the past couple of years is
studying the brain the way we make decisions. And there's
a lot of controversy about that among neuroscientists and people

(33:23):
who study these things really closely, and it seems that
a lot of decisions actually get made before the person
is conscious that the decision has been made. All of
these different experiments, even just real simple things like you
can raise your hand whenever you want to raise your hand,
and the scans of the brain shows that the brain

(33:46):
knows that you're going to make that decision before you
know that you're going to make that decision. So I
think the whole, you know, big decision making thing it
it's not necessarily a moment that we are fully conscious
of that. There are all kinds of background things going
on in our psyches, in our brains that were not

(34:07):
always aware of, and then we become aware of them.
I think what Mary's getting at here is that by
the time she actually took action to leave, something deep
inside her already knew, like there is an element of inevitability.
I wonder if that's what allowed her to accept her
own decision. She knew she'd started already made it, Mary remembers.

(34:36):
On Christmas Day, an mc priest shared his own story
in a homily. Something about it struck her cut to
the core of her decision on whether to leave, and
he said that a year ago he left the father's
because he didn't even know if he wanted to be
a priest anymore. So he said he went away praying

(34:57):
and thinking and struggling, but at the end he'd come
to the conclusion that he would never be happier than
as a priest. So he came back to the MC fathers.
Then he told them God works in very surprising ways,
and we must not be afraid to follow the stars

(35:19):
he sends us, even if the journey takes us to
unexpected places. That night, Mary held a pillow over her
head to stifle the sound of her sobbing. She didn't
want the sisters to hear. I just new, but I cried,
and over the next few days I wrote that letter.

(35:46):
On January one, she wrote to Mother Teresa. She asked
to start the official process to leave the m c's.
It's called ex claustration. It would involve a year away
from the MCS before fully leaving the order, when Mary
could pray and discern her path. It's sort of like
a leave of absence. If after a year, Mary still
felt leaving the order was best, she would request permission

(36:09):
from the Pope for a dispensation from her vows. Mary
told Mother Teresa she loved the sisters and was grateful,
but she was leaving, and she would not change her mind.
Even though it was the first of the month. Mary
decided not to cut her hair that night, as she
usually did. Mother Teresa had told us, never go a

(36:30):
month without cutting your hair. She said that that road
only led to leaving the convent. But I was lucky
because my hair was curly, and even as it grew,
it didn't grow out in a way that could be seen.
She also stopped taking the discipline. She never would again.
I didn't leave the convent without faith, without trust, without hope,

(36:56):
without love. I had a lot of it. I just
didn't leave because I had turned against God or my vocation,
or because I was bitter. I left because I believed
God wanted people to flourish, and I knew I wasn't
flourishing there, So how could it possibly be that God
wanted me to stay? And lots and lots of prayer,

(37:20):
lots and lots of discernment, Mary felt called by God
to a new place. Around this time, Father Tom was
so far away in another country. Before he left, we
had had an agreement that if anything important happened, we
would let each other know, So I had his phone number.

(37:41):
I called him and told him that I had received
permission to leave the Missionaries of Charity on a one
year leave of absence. And when I told Tom that
I would be leaving for a while, he asked, does
this mean that you would consider marrying me? And that

(38:07):
question just kind of floored me because I wasn't expecting it,
and it wasn't really a proposal either. It was like,
what what did he mean? And I wasn't leaving to
marry him. I was leaving really to be myself, to
find my own way. And I felt like I loved

(38:29):
Father Tom so much, and I was scared that it
would be a distraction for me. I felt like I
really needed to figure out what God wanted of me.
So Mary wrote him a letter, pages and pages. She

(38:49):
said she loved him, she would always love him, but
she needed time to find her path. She said, during
her years ex clustration, her leave of absence, they would
and contact each other, not a phone call, not a letter.
When she finished writing, she felt peace, and then she
waited from mother Teresa's response. By this time, she was

(39:13):
quite old and she wasn't always remembering things. And I
received a letter back, signed by her. It was kind
of a form letter, but she had signed it giving
me permission to leave. She wasn't supposed to tell anyone
about the news, yet she wouldn't tell any of the
priests and volunteers she worked with until right before she left.
When the time came, she would say, is instructed. I'm

(39:34):
going to America to be closer with my family. Is
there some trouble? The sisters really wanted to contain any
sort of public relations damage that might come. Like any
sister who was transferred, she'd have no contact with the
people she left behind. She'd give up the relationships she
had formed over twenty years. But she wanted to warn

(39:56):
the sisters under her care. There were just six sisters.
I us they're superior. I told them a few days
before I left that that was what was happening. Did
you feel like they understood? I don't think they had
any idea the degree to which I had been struggling
and praying and discerning. Whenever Mary visited the larger convent nearby,

(40:21):
sisters would cry and ask her if it was true.
The sister who had once been married supervisor in the
kitchen when she was a novice nineteen years before. The
sister burned by boiling pasta water. She wept. Some sisters
told Mary she was making a mistake, that she'd regret
leaving for the rest of her life. But in the end,
the sisters and Mary's convent helped her get ready. They

(40:44):
helped so some close for me a skirt and a blouse,
a brown paisley skirt and a dark gold blouse, Mary
called at her getaway outfit. Mary didn't want to discuss
her departure with Mother Teresa in person. She had gotten
permission to leave in a form letter, and Mother Teresa

(41:07):
was eighty six in frail. Mary thought the news might
give her a heart attack, but things didn't go as planned.
She came to Rome where I was, and somebody reminded
her that shortly I would be leaving. And she came
and she found me, and she brought me to her
room and she says, what is this? Mother, here's about you?

(41:30):
So what is it? Mother? Tear's about you? And it's
a mother I'm leaving And she couldn't believe it, and
she tried to convince me to stay. And just very
very very very difficult situation and conversation. Mary knew Mother
wanted explanations, and there are countless things she wanted to say.

(41:52):
More than anything, Mary wanted to talk with this woman
who had defined her life, to tell her everything she
felt to explain Mother. She wanted to say, My God
isn't like yours. Your God asks you to deny yourself.
He counts each sacrifice. Your God is Jesus crucified. Mine
is the God of resurrection, who says, enough of this suffering,

(42:16):
Let's heal the world. Above all, she wanted Mother Teresa
to know she loved her. Did Mother know how much?
Mother Teresa said, Sister, listen to mother. Talk to mother.
She hid her hand on the desk with each word.
But Mary knew if she started listening her reasons for going,

(42:38):
it would turn into a dialog. She knew what Mother
Teresa would say, what persuasive argument she'd launch into, and
she knew Mother Teresa would be convincing. She still had
a power over Mary's psyche, and at a certain point,
she says, Mother could believes us about anyone, but she
cannot believe it about you. And we never had another conversation.

(43:02):
That was the last conversation I had with her. I left.
She died three months later. And I still dream about
her from time to time. On a spring morning, Mary

(43:34):
Johnson woke up in the convent dormitory, but instead of
putting on her sorry, she reached for the paisley skirt
and blouse. Instead of hanging the crucifix at her side,
she picked it up and kissed it, then put Jesus
in her bag. What did it feel like to put
on regular clothes after all these years? The strangest thing
about putting on regular clothes for me was I could

(43:56):
feel the wind on my calves. I mean, my sk
didn't go all the way to the floor, and just
like that, that part of me hadn't felt wind in
so long, So that was really strange. As Mary stepped
out the door, the short curls on her head moved
ever so slightly in the breeze. More than half her

(44:16):
life had been in a convent. She was thirty nine
years old. Now she just needed to figure out what next.

(45:13):
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 Dr Yanielalich,
Professor Emerita of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and
Amy Gaines, Sarah oh Lander, Mamad Fishcoff, Bethan Macaluso, Travis Dunlap,

(45:37):
and consulting producer Mary Johnson. Her memoir and Unquenchable Thirst
provided inspiration for this series. Our executive producers are Jessica
Albert and John Parratti from Rococo Punch and Katrina Norville
from My Heart Radio. Our theme music is by Matt Reid.
For photos and more details on the series, follow us
on Instagram at Rococo Punch. You can reach out via

(45:58):
email to the Turning at Prococa Punch dot com. I'm
Aerca Lands. Thanks for listening.
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