About the Author
Sister Carol Anne O'Marie has been a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for the past fifty years. She ministers to homeless women at a daytime drop-in center in downtown Oakland, California, which she co-founded in 1990. She has written ten novels featuring Sister Mary Helen.
SISTER CAROL ANNE O'MARIE (1933-2009) was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for the fifty years. She ministered to homeless women at a daytime drop-in center in downtown Oakland, California, which she co-founded in 1990. She wrote eleven novels featuring Sister Mary Helen.
Read an Excerpt
Death Goes on Retreat
By Carol Anne O'Marie
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Sister Carol Anne O'Marie
All rights reserved.
Sunday, June 20
* * *
* * *
"We'll be there in a jiffy!" Sister Anne took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed to the mud-spattered road sign. "Santa Cruz County. Elevation eighteen hundred feet."
Just get us there alive, Mary Helen thought with a frozen smile. When Anne whizzed past the lonely Summit Inn, she heard Sister Eileen suck in her breath. Mary Helen was surprised. Eileen, sitting stiffly in the backseat, was always a bit of a daredevil; the sort who loved a roller-coaster ride. Apparently Anne's driving was too much even for her.
Mary Helen tried to distract herself. Shoving her glasses up the bridge of her nose, she stared out the car window at the trees and underbrush that grew alongside the twisting Highway 17. Hoping Anne didn't notice, she closed her eyes at the precise moment the young nun leaned the convent Nova into yet another series of turns for the descent.
This stretch of road, through the Santa Cruz Mountains from the Santa Clara Valley to the coast, was considered so dangerous that Cal-Trans had constructed a low cement divider along most of it to prevent head-on collisions.
Despite its treacherousness, the three nuns breezed along. All the traffic seemed to be on the other side of the highway, coming back from the beach. Any cars ahead of them, Anne simply passed.
"Isn't Vine Hill Road the turnoff?" she asked her two numb passengers. Before either could answer, a brown and gold sign proclaimed in large, bold print, ST. COLETTE'S RETREAT HOUSE, 3 MILES. The arrow pointed into the hills.
Signaling, Anne made what Mary Helen considered a death-defying left-hand turn. She glanced behind her. Eileen, her soft, broad face wrinkled into a frown and her eyes squeezed shut, fingered her Rosary beads.
Vine Hill Road, which might more aptly be named "Pothole Lane," had one advantage. It slowed Sister Anne down to a jolting twenty miles per hour.
At first, redwood and fir trees formed a dark tunnel. With bracken brushing against the car wheels, they ascended the hill until the ground at their left fell away and they looked down, much as birds might, on a valley of gigantic evergreens. The only signs of human life were a honeycomb of mailboxes set back in a clump of live oak, and a stumpy telephone pole.
Just when Mary Helen feared they were completely lost, another small sign pointed the way up an even narrower road.
"This is just like being way out in the country." Eileen's words bumped up from the backseat.
Mary Helen nodded. Actually, that was exactly why she had chosen to spend a week at this retreat center. Although St. Colette's was only sixty- five miles south of San Francisco, its brochure stressed the remoteness, the quiet, and the access to all the beauties of the redwood forest.
That and the glorious colored pictures convinced her that St. Colette's was the perfect place for her annual retreat. She was so enthusiastic about it that Eileen decided to join her. They both needed it. The two old nuns had spent a particularly difficult academic year at Mount St. Francis College, what with their pilgrimage to Spain having resulted in a murder investigation and its aftermath back home. But better not to think of all that now.
Retreat was the time to "come apart and rest awhile." She had chosen a quiet, beautiful spot in which to greet her God and to realize, once again, His continual, loving presence and the strength of that love.
Mentally, she unpacked her suitcase: her Jerusalem Bible, her book of the Divine Office, a well-worn copy of the Life of Teresa of Avila, hiking shoes, windbreaker, and several cotton skirts and blouses. She'd toyed with the idea of buying a pair of comfortable slacks, the kind that Sister Anne often wore. But a quick comparison of their girths cooled that notion, pronto!
Sister Blanche, the college's science teacher, had insisted that Mary Helen take along a lovely little book full of photographs entitled Plants of the Coast Redwood Region. "That way you'll know what you're looking at," Blanche said.
These books, plus the retreat master's conferences, should give her plenty to think about. A Father Percival Dodds was to be the retreat master. She'd never heard of the priest. Lest he turn out to be a bore, just before they left the college she'd tucked The Chartreuse Clue into her pocketbook.
"Isn't that a mystery?" Eileen had asked with more innocence than was genuine.
"Isn't religion itself a mystery?" Mary Helen was equal to her old friend. "Aren't we going away on retreat in part to wrestle with life's mysteries? Why, this particular book features a Catholic bishop as a kind of Nero Wolfe. And it was written by a former priest. That qualifies it as a holy book of sorts.
"Furthermore, it fits perfectly into my plastic prayer-book cover. If that isn't providential, I don't know what is."
Eileen simply rolled her large gray eyes.
Although no living soul was behind them, Sister Anne hit the signal lever for a left turn.
Now she gets cautious, Mary Helen thought as the car slowly descended the steep driveway into St. Colette's. Gigantic redwoods surrounded a valley of low wooden buildings with bright orange shingled roofs that she recognized from the brochure. The entrance itself was guarded by a terra-cotta statue of St. Francis holding a rabbit and petting a wolf. Although a few cars were in the parking lot, the center was deserted except for two enormous, noisy German shepherds whose clamor didn't seem to bother the birds swooping down on the brightly blooming flower beds. The dogs, tails wagging, ran up to the car and barked ferociously.
Eileen peered out of the car window. "I never know which end to believe," she said.
"Where is everybody?" Opening the car door, Anne began to rub the huge animals behind their ears. Before long, romping playfully, they followed her toward a halfglass door marked OFFICE. "I'll ring the bell," she said, "to make sure you two get in."
"You go on," Eileen spoke up. "You want to get to your father's house for dinner and you don't have much time to spare. Wish him a happy Father's Day for us."
Anne hesitated, then began to pull the suitcases from the Nova's trunk.
"We'll get in," Mary Helen assured her, raking her fingers through her short gray hair to smooth it. After the ride it must surely be standing on end.
"We are probably just a little early. I didn't expect you to get us here so quickly. Traffic and all," Mary Helen added, hoping she hadn't sounded critical.
After all, Anne had done them a big favor dropping them off. The convent car that Mary Helen signed out for retreat had broken down. Again! Eileen and she would be on the bus, if Anne hadn't offered to drop them. She could just as easily have driven directly to her parents' home in San Mateo to celebrate Father's Day.
"If you're sure." Mary Helen recognized a look of concern in Anne's hazel eyes.
"We will be just fine." Eileen patted her hand.
"What could possibly go wrong in an idyllic setting like this?" Mary Helen asked. She wasn't positive, but she thought Anne did a double take.
"I'll pick you up on Saturday, then. Have fun!" Anne called over the rev of the motor.
"And to think she worries about us," Eileen said, watching the convent Nova exit amid swirling dust and barking dogs.
With Anne on her way, Sister Mary Helen walked to the office door and pressed a small button doorbell. She waited, then pressed it again. No answer.
The top half of the door was made of what looked like wine-bottle bottoms and was impossible to see through.
"Maybe we are expected to walk right in." Eileen glanced warily at the dogs who, tired of chasing Anne's car, were loping down the hill.
"How do?" Mary Helen sang out, pushing back the door. Quickly the two nuns stepped into a lobby of sorts. A sudden draft banged the door shut. The bottle bottoms gave an ominous rattle. That kind of glass, Mary Helen remembered, was all the rage in the sixties. Glancing around, she realized that the entire room had a sixties look: paneled walls, Danish chairs covered in lime-green and orange vinyl, a small swag lamp in the corner.
Beyond was a smaller office with the door ajar.
"How do?" Mary Helen called out again.
An invisible hand pushed the inner door, which closed with a soft click, shutting out all but the low hum of a telephone conversation. Although the words were not clear, the tone certainly was. The speaker was extremely agitated.
"What do you suppose is going on?" Mary Helen whispered.
Eileen set her mouth primly. "Whatever it is, it does not concern us," she said. "Maybe we should step outside."
The heavy bodies of the barking dogs slammed against the front door, rattling the glass again.
"Do you want to?"
"Not on my longest day." Eileen moved closer to Mary Helen.
Without warning the door to the inner office flew open. A short, solid, habited nun with flaming apple cheeks stepped out.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," she said in a high-pitched, distracted voice. "I am Sister Felicita."
At the moment you look anything but blissful, Mary Helen thought, introducing herself and Sister Eileen.
Sister Felicita, smelling faintly of lavender, smiled uncertainly. Her large, pale blue eyes blinked behind rimless glasses. "How can I help you?" she asked, tucking her hands beneath the black scapular hanging loosely from her shoulders and covering her black habit.
Except for a horseshoe-shaped white coif circling a tuft of ash-colored angel hair and a small pointed collar, everything Sister Felicita wore was black: her shoulder-length veil, the nylon stockings filling the gap between her mid-calf skirt and her sturdy black shoes. She's a little "sixties" too, Mary Helen noted wistfully. How easy her packing must be!
Rifling her pocketbook in search of their confirmation letter, Mary Helen tried to determine Felicita's age. The habit, the almost entirely covered hair, and the full face made it hard to pinpoint.
Something about the way gravity was already pulling Felicita into a pear shape made Mary Helen place the nun in her late fifties.
When Felicita's left hand fluttered out from behind her scapular to take the letter, Mary Helen knew she was right. Hands are a dead giveaway.
Just a kid, she thought, congratulating herself. She always considered anyone twenty or more years her junior a "kid." And she fully intended to keep right on doing so, although there were more and more "kids" around these days.
Without warning Felicita's face turned the color of Brie cheese. "You're a week early!" she blurted out.
Mary Helen grabbed back the letter and shoved her bifocals up the bridge of her nose. "It clearly says June twenty-seventh. Isn't today the twenty-seventh?"
"No, old dear," Eileen whispered. "It is the twentieth."
Mary Helen bristled at the "old dear." This was not an age issue. It had nothing whatsoever to do with age. It was a mistake that anyone with a busy schedule could easily make. God knows, her schedule was busy enough to confuse someone half her age.
"Now you tell me!" she snapped at Eileen.
"Now you ask me!" Eileen snapped back. "But, no harm." Always optimistic, Eileen had obviously hit upon a solution. "We can still make whatever retreat we are on now."
"That's impossible." Red splotches returned to Felicita's cheeks.
"Nothing's impossible!" Mary Helen frowned. That was the trouble with "kids"; they couldn't see the options. "What retreat are you having?"
"A diocesan priests' retreat." Sister Felicita said, then giggled. "And frankly, I could use some company!"
* * *
Over a cup of coffee in a tiny collation room off the kitchen, Mary Helen explained that Sister Anne had dropped them off, and since they didn't have her parents' phone number and didn't want to disturb her until morning anyway, they were for all practical purposes stranded.
Thoughtfully, Felicita traced small circles on a plastic tablecloth. "Maybe it's providential," she said. "The retreat actually starts tomorrow, but a few of the priests have already arrived. And just as you pulled up I received a phone call from Bakersfield."
"Oh?" Mary Helen perked up. Maybe they'd find out why Felicita was so upset when they arrived.
"The other four nuns ... There are only five of us here to run this huge place. But that's another story. They went to the funeral of one of our benefactors in Bakersfield. A fine, generous man. ..."
That's another story, too, Mary Helen thought, hoping she wouldn't get sidetracked.
"Someone had to stay home because of the priests' retreat." Felicita pursed her lips. "They were to be home late tonight. Sister Timothy assured me that the car was in perfect working condition." Red splotches reappeared on her cheeks. "And ..."
"The blasted thing broke down." Mary Helen finished the sentence. Nuns are the same the world over, she mused. In coifs or out of coifs, Franciscans or Presentations or Mercys, teachers or retreat directors. We all have a Sister Timothy, and at least one sick car.
The loud, persistent clang of what sounded like an enormous gong filled the room and spread down the mountainside.
"That's our bell," Felicita explained unnecessarily. "Do you hear it?"
If I didn't hear that, the next thing I'd hear would be Gabriel's horn, Mary Helen thought, waiting for the noise to die out. It didn't.
"A benefactor gave it to us. It came from the old Berkeley ferry," Felicita shouted above the din. "A little nautical for a mountaintop, but it does the trick. We use it to call our guests to prayer, to the retreat conferences, to meals. Although sometimes Beverly overdoes it."
"Beverly?" In the distance, Mary Helen heard the dogs howling.
"Beverly is our cook. A wonderful chef, really, but a bit on the temperamental side." Felicita's pale blue eyes blinked rapidly. "Something must be wrong in the kitchen. You can always tell by the way she rings."
The clanging stopped as suddenly as it had begun, leaving its echo dying slowly among the trees.
"We had better go before she starts again." Avoiding the kitchen proper, Felicita led Mary Helen and Eileen out a side door and onto a wooden sundeck.
"If Beverly cooks as well as she rings, we are in for a treat," Eileen remarked cheerfully.
If she cooks as well as she rings, Mary Helen thought ruefully, she wouldn't be cooking here!
Although each building was separate, they all seemed to be connected by the sundeck. At least the main ones did. Felicita paused long enough to give them a taste of the panorama.
Drawing in a deep, woodsy breath, Mary Helen gazed out across a valley of redwoods, beyond the gorge to where ridge after ridge of the Coast Range rolled purple in the distance.
A hot sun falling just below the treetops on its slow descent into the Pacific, created a tranquil sky full of lavender and pink. Directly below the sundeck, long blue shadows stretched like fingers over the lawn and drew dark stripes across a sparkling swimming pool. An evening silence covered St. Colette's Retreat House. The heavens were declaring the glory of God. Mary Helen stood rapt in the beauty until the raucous call of a jay perched on the deck rail broke the spell. Apparently he had heard the dinner bell, too.
"Right this way." Felicita, plainly used to being immersed in all this loveliness, seemed anxious to get to the dining room. "We call it St. Jude's," she said, swinging back the heavy door. "He's the patron saint of desperate and impossible cases, as you know."
Eileen shot Mary Helen a warning look. Mary Helen stared back innocently. She had no intention of asking if its name had any connection to the food served, if that was what was worrying Eileen. After all, Mary Helen realized full well that, as hard as Felicita was trying to be hospitable, they were at best uninvited guests.
"When we first began this building, it seemed an impossible feat, so we prayed to St. Jude and — see!"
The two visitors looked around. St. Jude had outdone himself. The dining room was airy and spacious with walls of windows letting in the breathtaking view. Twelve, or maybe fifteen, brown Formica-topped tables were positioned around the room. Each had place settings and orange vinyl chairs for eight. Cylinder-shaped lights hung from the ceiling in groups of three.
"Looks as if a couple of the boys are already here," Felicita whispered.
Sister Mary Helen followed her glance toward the table in the far corner. The "boys," who were seated and sipping what appeared to be red wine, were two grown men in sport shirts and black slacks.
Mary Helen never understood why priests in "civvies" neglected to change their trousers. Black pants were such a telltale.
"Ah, Sisters, join us." One of the priests, the older of the two, rose and pulled out a chair.
Excerpted from Death Goes on Retreat by Carol Anne O'Marie. Copyright © 1995 Sister Carol Anne O'Marie. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another cozy featuring the detecting nun, Sr. Mary Helen and her sidekick Sr. Eileen. This time the sisters get their calendar mixed up and show up a week early in Santa Cruz for a nuns retreat only to find that the place is full of priests who are supposed to be on retreat. After an encounter with an absolutely obnoxious cook who seems to hold the whole place hostage to her schedule, Sr. MH finds a body, the police show up, and the fun begins. The author presents the murderer early on, and keeps providing broad hints, but also goes to great lengths to prove that it cannot be this person. San Francisco detective Kate Murphy, from the dear sisters' home area, gets roped into helping. After a second death Sr. Felicita, the meek mousy lady in charge of the retreat center finds a backbone, the local detective (with help from Sr. MH of course) solves the mystery, and Sr. gives her sermonette on life to the reader.This is the 2nd one of the series I've read, and while they're fun, they're a bit light, and this one was quite preachy. Still, an acceptable who-dunnit.