“Some people have been put off by the title, but I think it’s a shame for people to judge a book by its cover— literally,” says Johnson with a laugh. Maria Morera Johnson, who is witty, quick to smile, and slightly irreverent, explains that the idea to write a book about saints first began to take shape one day on a weekly podcast entitled “Catholic Weekend.”
Johnson is a cohost of the podcast for Star Quest Production Network (SQPN) and recalls that particular day the conversation turned to which saints each of the hosts most admired. Johnson found in the saints people like her. Take Saint Teresa of Avila, for example.
She’s witty. She’s quick to smile. She’s slightly irreverent. And she’s a saint. She is known for sayings such as “A sad nun is a bad nun” and “May God protect me from gloomy saints.”
It was the inspiration of the saints themselves that helped Johnson choose a title for her first book, provocatively titled My Awesome, Beautiful, Badass Book of Saints: Courageous Women Who Showed Me How to Live. The book, as the title implies, features several saints coupled with modern-day women whose lives are marked not only with a deep faith, but with a strong character, as well.
Getting to Know the Saints
Johnson admits she was a bit stumped when she first set out to write the book. “I saw saints as one-dimensional holy
cards,” she says. “I never saw them as regular people who lived regular lives.” For one year, Johnson researched the lives of the saints. The more she read about them, the more she wanted to read about them.
“I felt a real human connection with so many of them,” she says. “They kept sending me little signs and messages.” Even so, the book really began to take shape one day as she was reading her newsfeed on Facebook. “I saw a newsfeed that the cause for canonization had just been opened for Sister Blandina Segale,” Johnson recalls.
Curious, Johnson began reading about Sister Blandina. Johnson learned that Sister Blandina was an Italian-born woman who immigrated with her family to the United States in the 1850s.
She joined the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati and was sent to Colorado in the 1870s, where she began working in frontier towns. It was at one of these towns—Trinidad, Colorado— that she treated one of Billy the Kid’s gang members who had been shot and was being left to die because the doctors refused to care for him due to his criminal activity. Outraged, Billy the Kid himself returned to the town to skin the doctors, but Sister Blandina intervened and convinced Billy the Kid to relent. Awed by her bravery, Johnson reposted the story on her Facebook page, saying, “The Church needs more gun-toting nuns.”
With renewed fervor, Johnson began researching different saints. One of those was Saint Rose of Lima. When Johnson was a young woman, Saint Rose of Lima was unknown to her. Of course she had heard about her, but she just didn’t know much more than the basic details of her life. Then Johnson began to realize that Saint Rose of Lima was turning up in many different places. While at a speaking engagement, Johnson decided to attend Mass at a local church. The parish name—Saint Rose of Lima. She found a medal of a saint on the ground. The saint—Rose of Lima.
“As I got to writing this book, I began to realize that some of the saints seemed to be following me, trying to be my friends,” smiles Johnson. “I firmly believe in the communion of the saints, and I think that some of them were reaching out to me.”
After several of these “chance encounters,” Johnson began to look deeper into the life of Saint Rose of Lima. What she found was a woman of such beauty that she attempted to disfigure her face to dissuade male suitors. “Saint Rose didn’t want any deterrents to her plan to be a bride of Christ,” Johnson adds.
She also began looking at the lives of modern-day women whose faith has led them to the extraordinary. Women such as Immaculée Ilibagiza, who in 1994 found herself in her native Rwanda, hiding in a small bathroom with seven other women for 91 days in order to avoid being slaughtered by Hutu fighters.
Helpless, she hid as her village was annihilated—including members of her own family. A Tutsi and a Catholic, Ilibagiza relied on her faith to survive and, eventually, to forgive her family’s killers. Johnson points out that both Sister Blandina and Ilibagiza, as well as Saint Rose of Lima , are all featured in her book. “All the women in my book boldly jumped into situations armed with their faith,” she says, adding, “so yeah, these saints are all badass.”
She admits that the book may not appeal to everyone, but notes that “this book is for people like me, who maybe thought that saints were one-dimensional people who didn’t live in this world. But they are much more than that,” Johnson continues. “We are all made of the same stuff as these people. We are all called to holiness and, more importantly, we all are capable of achieving that.”
A Faith Reawakened
Maria Morera Johnson was born in Cuba in the 1960s. When she was 3 years old, her mother and siblings fled the Communist nation and settled in the United States. Her father would later join the family. According to Johnson, she comes from a “very Catholic family,” noting that her uncle was one of the few men to enter the seminary in Cuba after Fidel Castro came into power. He is currently the bishop of Holguin, Cuba.
Like many young adults, Johnson fell away from the faith in her 20s. She attended Florida International University, fell in love, married, and had three children. “Thank God for children,” she laughs, “because my faith was reawakened when it was time for our eldest to start school!”
Johnson found herself once again getting involved in her faith when she began speaking to her children about the teachings of the Church. “The more I got involved, the more I realized that catechesis is a lifelong thing,” she says.
While her children were young, she met Greg and Jennifer Willits, the founders of Rosary Army. That relationship, she says, “kindled in me a fire that has never been quenched.” She began writing for the couple’s blog, as well as for their video podcasts, and was ultimately led to SQPN, a podcast network. “The idea behind SQPN is that we need to introduce people to Jesus. We need to go where they are, not wait for them to come to us. I think it was that background that led me to this book,” she muses. “This book is just an hors d’oeuvre. Maybe by reading this book, it will lead people to want to know more—about God, about saints, about the faith, about themselves.”
Saint Rose of Lima and Audrey Hepburn
In her book, Maria Morera Johnson compares Saint Rose of Lima, known for her exceptional beauty, to a modern-day beauty—actress Audrey Hepburn. Johnson writes that Hepburn’s beauty went far deeper than her Hollywood glamour. Just as Saint Rose of Lima opened the doors of her Peruvian home to care for homeless children, Audrey Hepburn became an ambassador to the United Nations, traveling extensively throughout Africa and South America helping poor children.
“The most beautiful pictures of Audrey Hepburn don’t show her in diamonds and Givenchy dresses,” writes Johnson. “Instead, she is crowded by smiling children clamoring to be held by her or carried on her back, and she welcomes it. You can see it in her smile. “Audrey Hepburn and Saint Rose of Lima, beautiful according to society’s standards, demonstrated a purer beauty that came from the heart,” she continues. “Their loving service became the true measure of their beauty.”
At the end of that chapter, as she does with every chapter, Johnson asks the reader to reflect on certain questions. In this case, the questions are all related to beauty. “How can your inner beauty inspire others?” she asks, then urges readers to “thank Jesus for those qualities that make you beautiful. Offer them to the Blessed Virgin Mary and ask her to magnify them in you in the service of her Son.”
What Comes Next?
According to Johnson, the book, which was released in November 2015, has generated much attention. “It’s been really neat—this book has opened up so many conversations,” she explains. “There have been so many people
who have wanted to share with me their favorite saint. And then the men!” she laughs “The men all say to me—what about the men? Why did you write a book only about women?”
Johnson does not dismiss the possibility of writing a sequel, one that perhaps focuses on bold male saints, but she does note that she is currently focusing on her final year of teaching composition and literature at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, a position she has held for 10 years.
“I’m looking forward to retirement,” she says with a hint of sadness. “But I would also love to continue the conversations that begin when people read this book. “This is what I love—I want to engage people where they are and start a conversation. I want to be there for people who are seeking and looking—that’s what this book, and these saints, are all about.”