Sonoma Valley Sun


The artist she needed to be

Posted on January 17, 2023 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Alyssa Conder | Sun Arts —

In Jesus and Other Lovers: An Intimate Memoir of a Catholic Nun, Sonoma’s Judy Theo Lehner takes us on her life’s journey as she finds herself, and, as she describes it, “the artist that I needed to be”. 

The book chronicles Judy’s life as a nun, and her relationship with, among others, Jesus. We follow her on her path to finding her true love, finding her true life as an artist and through art, finding her way out of a convent that would not allow her to be the artist she longed to be. 

After leaving the convent, divorcing Jesus, and remarrying, her family moved from Berkeley to Hawaii. She decided then that she needed to write her own story, and began this work. As she was moving back, a book came out about a nun, which almost defeated her. Her husband reassured her, “Judy, there can be more than one book about a nun”.

She decided to write the book. To prepare for this undertaking, she enrolled in San Francisco State writing classes to establish the skills required. 

Judy painted this self-portrait as young nun in San Francisco

Meanwhile, Judy opened Red Wolf Gallery in Sonoma. The gallery required much of her focus for more than a decade, but when it closed 12 years ago it was time. She recently finished her self-published book, (twice now first on the bestseller list in non-fiction at Readers’ Books) which she calls her “final project”.

Judy recalls one show at Red Wolf Gallery called “Nuns and Nudes”, one of the paintings, a self-portrait, will be on display at her book reading at Readers’ Books on January 25 at 6pm. 


In 1967, when she left the convent, there were 300 nuns. Now there are 30.  “It’s a dying institution,” Judy tells. “The Jesuits are buying all the convents. The Jesuit university is thriving, but nobody is going in to be a new nun. The order now has associates. They do good work, and help the nuns but they’re not nuns, more of a volunteer force of widows and retirees, looking to serve their community.”

An excerpt from Jesus and Other Lovers

I could hear her coming after me with a slow deliberate step. I was hiding in my third floor bedroom cell but she would find me. Sister Aquinas always found me. How could I escape? I looked at the window of the bedroom cell, hesitated, then threw it wide open, tucked up my habit and pulled myself to the sill. I swung my black stockinged legs outside and eased my headgear out, hoping my veil wouldn’t catch on the window frame and hold me back. Inhaling nervously, I slowly stood up on the ledge three stories above the manicured lawn of the front of the motherhouse. I pressed back against the outside of the convent and, though my palms were sweaty against the wood, it was warm against my back. I squinted, as the sun was startling bright after the dim bedroom.

Suddenly, my body sagged, to stay calm, I focused on my breathing and recalled that I had never been afraid of heights. Three stories below cars whizzed through an intersection. Across the street the gas station bell sounded as cars came and went. Two old women waited at the bus stop. I felt like an omniscient observer. I edged even further away from the window in case Sister Aquinas happened to look out. She wanted me to love her and was angry I couldn’t love her anymore. 

After ten years I was weary of the struggle to be a good nun. And lonely. I felt overcome again by that feeling I had weeks ago when I was driving and coming off the Golden Gate Bridge and tempted to accelerate on a curve and simply speed into space. Now I could just fall forward and I’d be free. The long struggle to be a good nun would be over. Peace, yes, peace. Oh, it was tempting. Cautiously, I shifted and looked down. I was weary of the struggle of woking with the Old Guard nuns, trying to be a good biology teacher, though I wanted so much to teach art. Would my biology students miss me? Would my Mom, always so proud of my decision to become a nun, now be ashamed? Would the Superior try to hush the fact that a young nun, only 27, killed herself?

I stood breathing deeply for a long time, away from everything , the rules, the teaching, the loneliness. Then I recalled suicide was punishable by everlasting hell fire.  No, no, I did not want hell fire. 

Slowly, I edged back to the open window. When I slide inside, it was dim and quiet and cool. I collapsed on my bed in my small cell. I had a sense of having been away a very long time.

– Judy Theo Lerner

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA