Snapshots of a saint
Marquette photographer Dan Johnson recalls a whirlwind 22 hours in 1981 when he documented Mother Teresa’s visit to Marquette University
By Joe DiGiovanni
Oh, what a face it was.
Rugged and worn, Mother Teresa had a face that Dan Johnson beautifully documented in more than a thousand photographs when the famed missionary visited Marquette University in 1981.
Johnson, the chief photographer in Marquette’s Center for Teaching and Learning, fondly remembers the 22 hours that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta spent in Milwaukee.
“She was a nice, unassuming woman who was really dedicated to helping the poor,” Johnson said, reflecting on the visit in anticipation of her canonization at the Vatican on Sept. 4.
“We had a pretty good relationship right away,” he said. “She trusted me. When she had some alone time to sit and pray, I was welcome in that environment.”
Marquette, during its centennial year, presented Mother Teresa with its highest honor, the Pere Marquette Discovery Award. It was part of a month-long, nationwide itinerary during which Mother Teresa visited houses of the nuns and brothers of her order.
Johnson and Paul Roberts, another Marquette photographer, took 1,400 photos, and Johnson is particularly fond of close ups of then-70-year-old’s beautifully weather-beaten face.
“Her face looked like that because she had a hard life and was helping the poor,” he said. “Those are the pictures I liked the most.”
Johnson met Mother Teresa at Mitchell International Airport, and he remembers walking backward while snapping photos as she shook hands and greeted children before claiming her belongings at the baggage claim. She acknowledged both people who had come to the airport to greet her and others who happened to be traveling and “who were stunned she was there,” Johnson said.
Instead of traveling with suitcases, she had all her belongings in a cardboard box simply labeled “Mother Teresa Milwaukee.”
The Marquette photographer quickly snapped a photo of the box, and it became his single favorite shot among the vast collection.
“When I make pictures of people I want to represent them the best that I can,” Johnson said. “The photo of the box shows you can show something about a person’s personality without having them in the picture.”
A Marquette donor later bought Mother Teresa an entire set of new luggage, but she brushed it aside and left it in her hotel.
Tickets to the public ceremony were so overwhelming that the university moved the celebratory liturgy from Gesu Church to the MECCA Arena, now known as the UW-Panther Arena.
Marquette President Rev. John P. Raynor, S.J. presided. Johnson snapped the iconic photo of Mother Teresa receiving communion from the legendary Marquette president, realizing he needed to document the moment.
“You never really know what people think are the important photos,” he said. “It was historical.”
As reported in Mother Teresa: Discovering God in the Poorest of the Poor, Mother Teresa “arrived late in the afternoon of Friday, June 12. . . During her time in Milwaukee, Mother Teresa met with nuns at the St. Joan Antida convent, spoke at the St. Joan Antida library with a group who worked with the poor and dying in Milwaukee, conversed privately with Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and met in a small group with Marquette administrators.”
The story from the Marquette University Special Collections and University Archives also noted that she had breakfast with 2,100 Marquette faculty, staff, and guests, met privately with visitors, and held a press conference in Johnston Hall.
It was a grueling schedule.
“You could tell it was wearing on her but she was a trouper,” Johnson said.
Johnson has photographed many other dignitaries on campus, including former Polish President Lech Walesa and Bishop Desmond Tutu, but remembers Mother Teresa for being unassuming.
“She was not star-like, and I appreciated that the most,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of people. She was never outrageous. Always low key.”
Johnson was one of a few lucky people who spent some private time with Mother Teresa, and she kindly signed a photo for his mother in law, who was battling cancer.
The 22 hours in Milwaukee went very well, with thousands of people able to see and celebrate her during an extraordinary weekend at Marquette.
“Everybody stepped up for this,” Johnson said of Marquette’s efforts. “You felt like you needed to step up your game, too.”
Of course, photographers shot with film those days, and Johnson had to send hundreds of rolls away to be developed and wait for them to be returned.
“Two or three days later I was able to breathe a sigh of relief,” he said.
And, that sigh of relief turned into an incredible collection hosted digitally by Marquette’s Raynor Memorial Libraries, preserved forever.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to associate archivist Michelle Sweetser in Marquette University’s Special Collections and Archives. We appreciate your many contributions in honoring Mother Teresa.