Toward That Which is Beautiful: A Novel

Written by Marian O'Shea Wernicke
Review by Thomas j. Howley

In 1964 a surprising number of American Catholic girls decide to go into the convent to become missionary nuns. Mary Katherine “Kate” O’Neill is one of them, while her high school classmate “Gracie Gilmartin who swore a lot” never gets the calling. Now Kate is “Sister Mary Katherine” and finds herself in the highlands of Peru. These American missionaries’ stated mission is “to work themselves out of a job” by enabling their Peruvian parishioners to become self-reliant and independent.

Kate comes to love the local people she works with and the clerical members of her team. But that is also the problem, as she falls deeply in love with an Irish priest, Father Tom and, worse yet, her feelings are reciprocated. Torn by doubt about breaking her vows and ruining her own and Tom’s lives, she makes a bizarre decision to run away from the convent into the Peruvian countryside. As she travels from place to place, she meets a host of new characters, most of them good and a very few bad. She ultimately makes her final decision.

The author, a former nun, has written a stellar novel, no doubt calling on her own experiences. Having spent many years myself as an elementary school pupil with the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the book addresses a myriad of questions we youngsters had about our much-respected nuns. What was their training? What were their living conditions? What did they wear under their habits? Turns out these new young nuns’ first years of training were like my own Army boot camp, but on steroids. Part romance, part exposition of 1960s Peru, and above all a tale of personal doubt and perseverance, this superb book succeeds on all accounts. Strongly recommended.