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Interview of Marian O’Shea Wernicke

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Author of Toward That Which is Beautiful

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: Please share with us your early Catholic formation

Marian: I was lucky in my parents, both grandchildren of Irish Catholic immigrants.  Both my mother and father were devout Catholics, educated in Catholic schools in St. Louis. My mother was taught by the Sisters of Loretto and was a graduate of Webster College. My father was in The St. Joseph’s Home for Boys taught by the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet after his mother died and his father was unable to care for him. I am the oldest of their seven children, growing up in a family in which Catholicism was woven into our daily lives, going to Catholic grade schools and high schools, saying the Rosary on our knees ( amid much grumbling)  during the months of October and May. In seventh and eighth grades I had a wonderful nun, whom I admired deeply, for a teacher.  Sister Hortense was young, laughed a lot, and radiated happiness and fulfillment in her life of serving God by teaching us, unruly kids.  She was my role model of what a sister’s life could be. 

Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.

Marian: I went to a small Catholic High School in O’Fallon, Missouri for the first two years’ where I was taught by the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood.  Their beautiful motherhouse with its extensive grounds was right across the street from our school. We had a young, dynamic priest for our religion classes who really knew how to engage us in thinking about our faith on an intellectual level.

Dr. Knight: How did you make the decision to enter the convent?

Marian: The summer before my junior year in high school at the age of sixteen, I decided to enter the convent. I had felt the call from God to be a nun for several years and finally surrendered to it despite my enjoyment of boys, dancing, etc. There was a still, small voice within that urged me to go before I got too distracted by the world.  My parents rather reluctantly agreed, thinking I was too young, but my father was quite proud, I know, to have a nun in the family.  Several other girls from my high school were entering that year also, so it felt wonderful to think that we would all be in the novitiate together.

Dr. Knight: What ministries did you discern in your order?

Marian: The Sisters of the Most Precious Blood were devoted primarily to teaching.  A few sisters were nurses, and there was also an ecclesiastical art department where talented sisters who were skilled seamstresses and artists designed and made gorgeous vestments, but I felt drawn to teaching. I loved English and took English as my major when I finished high school in the novitiate and entered college.

Dr. Knight: What was the mission of your order?  Did you realize that mission?

Marian: Besides teaching, another mission of the order was to serve in foreign missions.  We had two houses and a school in Finland where the sisters taught and ministered in Finnish parishes. In the late 50s and 60s, our community began to serve in Lima, Peru, with the Maryknoll priests in a large urban parish which had a grade school and high school as well as a clinic. We also had two houses in LaPaz, Bolivia, working with priests from the St. Louis archdiocese in more catechetical and social work positions as well as a medical clinic in very poor neighborhoods. I had volunteered to go to Latin America anywhere I was needed, and in 1968, I was assigned to Lima, Peru to teach in the parish of Our lady of Guadalupe in a lower-middle-class area of Lima. I was thrilled to be chosen for this mission, and spent five months in the Instituto de Idiomas in Cochabamba, Bolivia, studying Spanish. This was a wonderful time to meet other missionaries as well as Peace Corps and Vista volunteers serving in Latin America. I spent three years in Lima, and it was during my time working there that I began to question my vocation. Away from family and friends for three years,  I had to really face myself and whether or not I had a vocation to a celibate life.  I felt that in trying to love everyone, I was not really loving anyone deeply.

Dr. Knight:  After you left the order, what was your next discernment?

Marian: I left the convent at age 27, having spent 11 years in religious life. I still loved God and wanted to use my talents to serve in some way, especially after having worked hard to become fluent in Spanish. So I looked for and found a job in a bilingual program in a large public high school in Holyoke, Massachusetts, teaching Puerto Rican students who did not speak English. After two years, I met a wonderful man, a Catholic, the son of a Puerto Rican mother.  We married at a small Catholic wedding and took jobs in Madrid, Spain. We came back to the States and had three beautiful, healthy children. My husband and I were both active in our parish, teaching CCD and serving on the Catholic School Board and the Parish Council. We continue to read theologians like Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, and Elizabeth Johnson to deepen our faith. We both practice Centering prayer daily and are active in social justice issues. God leads us every day in new ways. My time in the convent deepened my faith greatly, and I have been most grateful for those eleven years in religious life.

Dr. Knight:  Do you think of your work in writing a book part of your spiritual mission?

Marian: Yes, although I was not conscious of that at first. I taught English in a community college for 25 years. When my students, most of whom were not Catholic, heard that I had been a nun, they were very curious. They wondered why any normal girl would want to live a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. That’s when the idea of writing a novel began. I realized that I had read very few novels that portrayed the life of a nun in a realistic way. So I set out to tell a story of a young woman who has made that choice, been very happy at first, but who then questions her decision and is torn between her love of God and desire for human love. I hope I have portrayed both the beauty and sublimity of the life of a modern sister as well as the great sacrifice such a life demands. 

Dr. Knight: Do you think your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?

Marian: That’s a great image. A mosaic is only seen as beautiful when it is finished. At my age, all the parts of my life are now coming together to show the complete picture of a woman, from girlhood, religious life, marriage and motherhood, teaching, writing, and now being a grandmother!

Dr. Knight: What do you want readers to understand after reading your book?

Marian: I want them to see and feel what Kate feels on her journey to self-realization. I want them to see that a woman for whom God is real and present can be lost for a time on the journey but can come to understand and accept herself as God made her.

Dr. Knight:  What are some of the challenges of the future for the Church?

Marian: First of all, the bishops and the clergy have to acknowledge and do public penance for the terrible betrayal of children and young people by so many of them.  This issue of the cover-up of sexual abuse is the primary cause for so many people, especially young people, leaving the Catholic Church forever. Secondly, the Church has to give a greater role to women, including the priesthood.  No modern young woman wants to belong to a Church that considers women inferior to men. Finally, the Church needs to embrace the theology of Pope Francis in his total commitment to the environment and to all social justice issues, especially the issues of immigration, systemic racism, and white privilege in America. We must be truly faithful to the teaching of Christ in these issues.  Our bishops and many Catholics do not seem to understand that we are not a one-issue church. 

Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ?

Marian: I am so moved today by young people’s understanding of and commitment to social justice. They are leading us. Immigration, systemic racism, the environment, gun control, all these are the issues of Christ too. We should be followers of Dorothy Day,  Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis who spoke of creating “the beloved community.”  That is what the Church should be in the world. These young people give me great hope for the future.

Dr. Knight: Are there any other issues you want to bring to your readers?

Marian: I think immigration reform is badly needed. I am now working on the second draft of a novel about my Irish immigrant great-grandmother. I am portraying the experience of people who were forced by poverty and injustice to leave their beloved homes and make their way to the USA at a time when certain immigrants were often not welcome here.

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