“Naughty Nun” Mary Johnson on Existential Crisis & Mother Teresa


An Unquenchable Thirst-Click to Purchase



Sister Donata (Mary Johnson) with Mother Theresa (left) at her first profession of vows, in Rome, June 8, 1980 (Courtesy)

Sister Donata (Mary Johnson) with Mother Teresa at her first profession of vows, in Rome, June 8, 1980


When Mary Johnson left Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity after 20 years of service, she had to learn to pump her own gasoline, to use a microwave and ATM, and to make her own decisions. For this self-described “naughty nun” to begin life again at the age of 39 was not a transgression, but an act of bravery.

With so many stories in the news about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the investigation of American nuns, and the Pope’s recent retirement, Johnson’s memoir, An Unquenchable Thirstoffers a rare and provocative glimpse inside an institution that typically remains hidden from public view. The political maneuvering and willingness to turn a blind eye to harmful, even criminal, behavior that Johnson describes should not come as a surprise, and yet it does.

If you’re a fan of the writers Karen Armstrong or Kathleen Norris, I highly recommend An Unquenchable Thirst. Johnson is compassionate in her criticism, but portrays a religious institution in the midst of an identity crisis. As Johnson shows us, even saints have their faults, and a rabid focus on suffering is not only demoralizing for those who serve the Church, but ultimately to the Catholic religion as a whole.


Mary Johnson, formerly Sister Donata, in 2011 (Courtesy)

Writer Mary Johnson (Photo by Elliot Gould)



Mary Johnson and Mother Teresa

Mary Johnson (Sister Donata) and Mother Teresa



Mary Johnson on the Rosie Show

Mary Johnson and Rosie O’Donnell on The Rosie Show


2 Time Cover Living Saints

The cover of Time magazine that changed the course of Mary Johnson’s life at the age of 17.


A few days before the Pope announced his retirement, I had a chance to visit Mary Johnson at her New Hampshire home. During our conversation, we discussed her spiritual crisis, her relationship with Mother Teresa, her romantic affairs with another Sister and a Catholic priest, some of the recent controversies surrounding the Catholic Church, and her work with A Room of Her Own Foundation.

Johnson’s journey from conflicted, guilt-ridden Sister Donata to Mary Johnson the writer and media commentator is both moving and unflinching. This wise nun discovers the hard way that doubts and personal demons are not the work of the devil, as the Church insists, but are instead the growing pains of transformation.

You can listen to my interview with Mary Johnson below (or if it is not appearing in your email, click here to listen on the Gwarlingo website). You can also download the interview if you prefer to listen on your i-Pod or smart phone. Stay tuned. In the coming weeks, I plan to offer the podcast through i-Tunes, which will make subscribing easy.



Learn More

Mary Johnson’s An Unquenchable Thirst is available in paperback, e-book and audiobook formats, as well as hardcover. You can read more about Mary Johnson or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter by visiting her website.

You can donate to A Room of Her Own Foundation or learn more about their grants, conferences, prizes, and programs here.

The music featured in this podcast is “Für Hildegard von Bingen” by Devendra Banhart. The song is from his new album Mala, which will be released by Nonesuch Records on March 12th. You can order the album here. You can preview two tracks from Mala below:




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About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Ben Putnam March 8, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Thanks Michelle. You are always full of surprises. I love your approach of sharing those things which are most interesting to you. There’s such great variety in your posts and how you go about sharing them out. It always leaves me excited for what’s next. This podcast was so informative, interesting, and a great reminder that we’re all so multi-layered and dimensional. You produced this piece with a great balance of professionalism, honesty, freshness and care that made me feel as though I were sitting in the living room right along side of you.

  2. Jeffrey Gross March 10, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    Fascinating interview. I would really like to get her reaction to Christopher Hitchens’s take on Mother Teresa. Perhaps she discusses that in her book…

  3. | The Revealer March 11, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    […] Michelle Aldredge recently interviewed Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst and a former nun who served with Mother Teresa until the age of 39.  Aldridge writes at her (super fantastic site) Gwarlingo.com: […]

  4. G Barbara Fisher March 13, 2013 at 7:51 am

    I think you were ‘marked’, right from the start -just as I was, at the age of 10.Schooled in a French order catholic boarding school for girls, I see myself in some of your writings, and indeed, feel some of your pain. Now at the end of my life,and looking back, it has been a long questionable journey, with no real resolution. I feel I was marked by the church and some of its followers and finally abandoned by others. Nothing has changed.The church is nothing but a boy’s playground,with its novitiates learning the art of wheeling and dealing.You are too young to remember the Marian Year ( 1950).Ironically, one of my abusers, on a train entering a tunnel,took the wrong door and got sucked into the tunnel and her body smacked against the wall.Nasty ending, but her religious companion, after spurning some advances made to her from the former, managed to carry on ‘her good work’. Is there no end to it?”Love’ in the church, no matter how it is sliced is simply
    bait for some unwitting person and when ‘caught’ will carry on the

  5. Diane Lockward April 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    I’d just finished the book when I landed on this interview. I couldn’t put the book down. I’ve had a lifelong curiosity about convent life (though I’m not Catholic). This certainly gave me a close-up look. I don’t know how any woman can do it! Mary, I’m so glad you found the courage to leave and then the life you needed and deserved. Michelle–You asked just the right questions.

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