If someone chronicled the correspondence between two people in 2012, it would likely be a string of emails and text messages — even Facebook posts or tweets.
But the friendship between Thomas Merton and Therese Lentfoehr existed mostly through letters. So when Robert Nugent, a priest with the Society of the Divine Savior, began his research into the two friends, he had plenty of source material to sift through.
Lentfoehr began her correspondence with Merton, a 20-century mystic and Catholic poet, as a devoted follower, or fan. Their friendship slowly grew, lasting more than 20 years.
It was the nature of this relationship that drew Nugent, a priest with St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Freedom, in. He researched, read and wrote for nearly five years before publishing “Thomas Merton and Therese Lentfoehr: The Story of A Friendship” this year.
“It tells a very human interest story of a friendship,” Nugent, 75, said. “Very private, very confidential.”
Nugent started reading Merton’s writings, which focused largely on social issues, when he entered seminary in 1955. A decade after being ordained in 1965, Nugent joined the Salvatorians, a sect of Catholicism.
“Someone remarked to me that one of the sisters (Lentfoehr) was a friend of Thomas Merton,” Nugent said. “So that’s when I began to study or look into her relationship with him.”
Nugent was fascinated by Lentfoehr’s vast collection of Merton’s writings, which she’d compiled by volunteering to act as his archivist. Of course, it helped that Nugent was already a great fan of Merton himself.
“He’s one of my heroes, one of my idols,” Nugent said. “A great intellectual figure who impacted thousands of people outside the church… His correspondence was incredible, (especially) the scope of his interests and his ability to write about these topics.”
The idea for the book came about because no one else had written about Merton’s friendships with Catholic women. Nugent aimed to reveal Merton’s human side.
In the end, “Thomas Merton and Therese Lentfoehr” contains more than 100 copies of letters from Merton to Lentfoehr, plus another dozen or so she wrote in return. Interspersed among the letters are details about Lentfoehr’s life.
“I picked up a lot of stories from priests and brothers who are still living today,” Nugent said. “She made an impression on people. (She was) a bit eccentric in her own way.”
Nugent said the book, available through Amazon, is doing well with online sales. He hopes a review from Catholic media or a Merton scholar will help.
“(It shows) a part of Merton, that people who read him, know him, like him, will appreciate,” he said.