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How A St. Louis Nun Found Love, Kept Her Faith And Turned Her Life Into A Novel

Marian O'Shea Wernicke's 2020 novel is set in Peru, where she served as a nun in the 1960s.
Marian O'Shea Wernicke by Matthew Shea
Marian O'Shea Wernicke's 2020 novel is set in Peru, where she served as a nun in the 1960s.

Marian O’Shea Wernicke was just 16 years old when she entered the convent. The oldest of seven children in a Catholic family with deep roots in St. Louis, Wernicke was drawn to live her faith, but she also worried about the temptations ahead. “I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it,’” she recalled.

She went, joining the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in O’Fallon, Missouri. She ultimately spent 11 years as a nun, teaching in St. Louis and Peru. But the same distractions she’d feared as a teen continued to speak to her soul. She found herself falling for a priest stationed in Bolivia, an epistolary relationship that left her torn between the attraction she felt and the vows she’d taken. In 1971, she left.

Marian O'Shea as a young nun.
Courtesy of Marian O'Shea Wernicke
Marian O'Shea as a young nun.

Now Wernicke’s debut novel, “Toward That Which Is Beautiful,” draws on her experience as a nun in Peru. The 2020 novel tells the story of Mary Katherine O’Neill, a St. Louis native who joins the sisterhood as a teenager and later volunteers to serve in Peru, only to find herself drawn to an Irish priest. She leaves her convent in the high plains of Peru, setting out alone on a desperate journey across the country, grappling with a crisis of faith.

Previously a professor of English and creative writing at Pensacola State, Wernicke now lives in Austin, Texas. She said the novel’s central journey is entirely fictitious; she drew on her travels in Peru and additional research to plot her heroine’s course.

But the emotional struggle was all too real.

“My sisters laughingly said, ‘You know that’s your story,’” Wernicke recalled on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I said, ‘No, it’s not!’ But, I wrote this book because I often had students who found out I was a nun, and they often said, ‘Why would any normal girl want to take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience?’ Certainly anti-cultural values! No one wants to be poor, chaste or obedient. But I wanted to explore that, and dramatize that, in a way that people could relate to.”

“I love the church, and I want it to change"
Listen to Marian O'Shea Wernicke discuss her life, her book and the Catholic church on St. Louis on the Air

For all the difficulties of a nun’s life, leaving was still hard. Wernicke struggled to release herself from the vows she’d made, saying it took three years to work through her feelings. She recalled advice she got from a priest during that time: “Do you feel free to leave the convent?”

“No, I don’t,” she told him. “I feel guilty. I feel like I’m turning my back on God.”

“He said, ‘Well don’t leave until you feel in your heart that you’re really free to do this,’” Wernicke recalled. “I think that was very good advice. … As I have Kate say in the book, ‘God, you made me this way. So I’m going to try to follow my nature, follow the way I see my life now.’” Years later, she married (not the priest, she hastened to add) and had three children.

In Peru, Wernicke said she fully realized the naivete of being an American trying to help a people whose culture she only dimly understood. She recalled being in a cab during her time in Lima and the driver asking if she was from the U.S.

“He said, ‘Why are you here? Aren’t there problems in your own country?’ And this was 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The civil rights movement was heating up, protests, Vietnam was heating up. He floored me with that question,” she said. “In the back of my mind was always that question.”

Wernicke remains a Catholic, and she’s hopeful about the leadership of Pope Francis. “I love the church, and I want it to change,” she said. She’d like to see a greater role for women, and married men, in church leadership. “I think we would have a healthier church if we had women priests, and if we had men who were able to choose married life if that’s what they felt called for. It should be a choice.”

But she has no regrets about the 11 years she gave the church, nor that chastity, poverty and obedience. “I don’t regret one minute of them,” she said. “Some people said you missed your high school, you missed having fun … I don’t feel that way. I feel that I grew. I went to a different country, I learned Spanish, I learned a different culture. … It enriched my life.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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