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Mary C. Johnson Headshot

Remembering Princess Diana and Mother Teresa: They Met at My House

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This week marks the fifteenth anniversaries of the tragic deaths, just six days apart, of two twentieth century icons, beloved women who first met at my house.

Some might expect that from my perspective -- that of an ex-nun who spent twenty years in Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity -- that I'd write about the service and inspiration Diana and Teresa offered the world. Instead, I find myself thinking about their clothes.

Diana, of course, was a fashion icon. Mother Teresa was, even among her own sisters, a notoriously sloppy dresser. Mother rarely pinned the sari high enough on her shoulder, and it often hung lopsided around her face, the pins at weird angles. We were all grateful that the morning of Diana's visit, Mother had allowed Sister Dorothy to fuss with her sari until it was more presentable.

My job that chilly day in 1992 was to keep the paparazzi out. Though Diana's private, unpublicized visit was scheduled for 2 p.m., the photographers appeared outside the convent gates on Rome's Via Casilina before dawn, the glowing tips of their cigarettes visible as we nuns filed into chapel for Morning Prayer. I refused the photographers' pleas for entry and they lugged their cameras onto neighbors' balconies, adjusted their telescopic lenses and awaited the limo that arrived right on time.

When Diana emerged, long legs unfolding, eyes bright, we sang. A sister approached with a garland and Diana shyly bent her long neck to receive the necklace of hand-strung pink netting we'd fashioned from scraps of a child's discarded tutu. The netting was as elegant a garland as we sisters had ever made -- normally, we strung garlands from shiny candy wrappers. What did a princess accustomed to pearls and jewels think of our fashion sense?

Mother led Diana into her room, a tiny office/bedroom just off the compound. I waited outside, guarding the door, hoping these two women -- so hounded and so admired -- might find solace in each other's company.

They talked for nearly thirty minutes, longer than I'd ever spent with Mother's undivided attention, despite having been a sister for fifteen years at that point. I added the sin of envy to my weekly confession list.

Mother cracked the door, motioning for me to admit the Royal Photographer. He decided to pose the saint and the princess clasping hands, perched on Mother's cot. I'm fairly certain it's the only royal photo featuring cardboard -- Sister Gertrude had taped a thick piece of corrugated boxboard to the wall above Mother's pillow, hoping to ward off dampness.

When the photographer stepped out, Mother told me she and Diana wanted to be alone with Jesus. Mother led Diana across the compound. According to our custom, they both removed their shoes before entering the chapel.

I guarded the open chapel doors as the world's two most-admired women knelt, heads bowed. Mother mumbled words none of us in the gathering crowd of nuns and British Embassy folk outside could hear -- and I gazed on their shoes. I'll never forget the sight of Diana's shiny black pumps next to Mother's floppy sandals. Mother's sandals had been mended so many times that I wasn't sure any of the original material remained. I imagined Diana's pumps as one pair among hundreds in an enormous closet, perhaps chosen for her that day by a maid or a butler. They looked as though she had worn them only for this occasion. Mother had worn the same pair of sandals every day for more than a decade.

I thought of the prayer every Missionary of Charity recites each morning while donning her sandals: I shall follow you, dear Jesus, wherever you may go, in search of souls. Each article of clothing donned has its corresponding prayer, with phrases like "holy habit," "angelic purity," "absolute poverty" and "mantle of modesty." A nun's clothes aren't just clothes; they're symbols of consecration to God and union with the poor, but perhaps clothes are always signs of the one who wears them.

When Mother and Diana exited the chapel and slipped on their respective footwear, I directed a chain of nuns to keep the paparazzi out as Diana's limo drove away. Though the princess left, the press refused to go. The cameramen took turns standing on each other's shoulders, snapping photos of the empty driveway and begging me to let them in.

Finally, near dusk, the superior told me to open the gate. The handful of photographers and journalists who remained could take photos in the compound, but I had to keep them away from the chapel and convent. I fielded questions with ease until the lone female reporter asked, "What was Diana wearing?"

"A skirt," I said.

"What length?"

"Short."

"What color?"

I shrugged.

"Versace?"

That one flew straight over my head.

The woman curled her lip at me. "Everyone on earth is dying to know what Diana wore to meet Mother Teresa, and you can't remember?"

"She had the most beautiful blue eyes," I said.

Only weeks later, in a Belgian tabloid reprinting a photo taken from one of those balconies, did I really notice Diana's black and white-checked pencil skirt, her white turtleneck sweater and black jacket.

If only the reporter asked me about Diana's shoes...