In a small town in Peru in the summer of 1964, Sister Mary Katherine, a young American nun, walks away from her convent with no money and no destination. Desperate in this foreign place and afraid of her feelings for an Irish priest, she spends eight days on the run, encountering a variety of characters and situations along the way. As Kate traverses this dangerous physical journey through Peru, she also embarks upon an interior journey of self-discovery — one that leads her somewhere she never could have expected.
What is your name and where did it come from?
My name now is Sister Mary Katherine, O.P. This is the name I chose when I became a novice in the Dominican community of sisters outside of St. Louis, Missouri. My former name was Kate O’Neill, given to me by my proud Irish American parents, and the name I secretly still think of as my real name.
Tell us something about where you are living now.
For the past months, I have been living in the parish convent of the small town of Juliaca in the highlands of Peru. We are near beautiful Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world at 12,000 feet. The air is thin due to the altitude, and nights are cold, but the sunshine is bright and hot during the day. Sometimes I am breathless when I try to run or climb stairs too quickly. From my bedroom window on the second floor of the convent, I can glimpse the snow-covered peaks of the Andes in the distance.
Why did you become a nun?
I grew up going to Catholic schools in St. Louis where the Sisters of St. Joseph were our teachers. One sister especially drew me to this life. Her name was Sister Helene, and she was my favorite teacher. She was young and happy, quite pretty and lots of fun. She made me see that a life given totally to God and others could be full of joy and fulfillment. So ever since sixth grade, I had the secret feeling that God wanted me to be a sister. I tried to fight this vocation in high school when I found myself becoming boy crazy, as we used to say, but eventually I decided to surrender to this calling.
What do you like and dislike about your work now in Peru?
I love the children I teach and the teenagers I meet with once a week after school. These are Quechua- speaking kids who know very little Spanish, and who are just learning to read and write. My job is to teach them Spanish and religion. When I am teaching religion, I have a translator in the room, a young Quechua woman, who also knows Spanish. The children are very hard working from an early age on, helping their parents in the fields and caring for the babies. In the classroom they are quiet, rarely saying anything, but their eyes light up when I tell them stories about Jesus and when they learn new words in Spanish.
I dislike very much the fact that I do not speak Quechua. Also I do not know the culture nor the history of the people. I should have studied these things before I came to Peru, not just Spanish. I’m having to stumble through with too little preparation.
What are you most afraid of?
Right now I am most afraid of my feelings. You see, I find myself falling in love with one of the priests I work with here in the parish. He’s a fine priest, and I don’t want to disturb his vocation. I’m trying to be true to my vows.
What is your heart’s deepest desire?
I want to love God above all things, but I also want a deep human love, not just a general love for all people. How do I reconcile these two desires as a nun?
What are you learning about yourself during this time in Peru?
I’m learning that I am not as stable as I thought I was. I’m seriously considering running way. I need time and space. I need to figure out who I really am. Wish me luck, please.
Born and raised in an Irish Catholic family in St. Louis, Missouri, Marian O’Shea Wernicke is the eldest of seven children. She was a nun for eleven years and spent three years working in Lima, Peru, during that time. She is a former professor of English and creative writing at Pensacola State College and the author of a memoir about her father called Tom O’Shea: A Twentieth Century Man. She also coedited and contributed to an award-winning book of short fiction and memoir called Confessions: Fact or Fiction?