Requiem at the Refuge A Sister Mary Helen Mystery

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2000-03-09
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books

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Sister Mary Helen is dismayed when, after the unexpected death of Sister Cecilia, the president of Mount St. Francis College, Sister Patricia is appointed the post. Sister Mary Helen is not in the new president's best graces and feels she surely will be asked to retire. But the chance to volunteer at a drop-in center for abused women and serve on the board quite revives Sister Mary Helen's flagging spirits -- until a young woman who frequents the center is murdered.


REQUIEM AT THE REFUGE (Chapter One)Saturday, August 15

Feast of the Assumption of Mary

When Sister Cecilia, president of Mount St. Francis College, missed morning Mass, Sister Therese was very concerned. Once Father Adams had left the altar, Therese, who preferred her name pronounced “trays,” turned to face the handful of nuns who still remained in the pews.

“She never misses morning Mass,” Therese’s whisper reverberated through the chapel. “Especially on a Holy Day of Obligation.”

“It’s not a Holy Day if it falls on Saturday or Monday,” old Sister Donata corrected. “They’re changing everything,” she lamented.

“That is not my point,” Therese hissed. “My point is Cecilia must be sick.”

“Why don’t you go to her room and check?” Sister Mary Helen asked sensibly. Not that she would want anyone checking on her, particularly if she’d overslept.

“Let Anne go,” old Donata grumbled. “She has the youngest legs.” This, of course, was true. Sister Anne had just recently celebrated her thirtieth birthday.

Therese would have none of it. “I will go,” she said with a sniff and rose from her pew.

Beside her, Mary Helen heard her friend Sister Eileen sigh. “Poor Cecilia has every reason to be tired,” she whispered, “what with this business of getting ready to open school. If you ask me, it’s more work than being in school.”

Eileen stopped short. Therese had reappeared, her face the color of codfish.

“Dead! She’s dead!” Therese rasped, scarcely able to get her tongue around the words. Her bright sparrow eyes were riveted on Mary Helen. “Cecilia is dead!” Therese sputtered before her ragged sob tore through the shocked silence of the chapel.

Sister Mary Helen felt her heart thumping. Please, Lord, not murder! She held her breath. In the distance, foghorns wailed, warning San Franciscans that they were in for another dripping summer day.

“What happened?” Old Donata cupped her hand behind her good ear.

Therese hiccuped in a valiant effort to control herself. “Cecilia is dead,” she repeated. “She must have died in her sleep.”

Oddly relieved, Mary Helen hurried from the chapel to the nearest phone to call 911 while Eileen went for the priest.

After a quick breakfast, the nuns, still in shock, divided into groups and shot into action. Fortunately, they still had two weeks before the opening of the fall semester. It would take at least one of those weeks to prepare a proper funeral for Cecilia. After all, this was the first time in the long history of Mount St. Francis College that an acting president had died in office.

Before noon they had contacted Sister Cecilia’s relatives and friends, the college faculty and staff, the Superior General, the Archbishop, and any other dignitaries that they thought should know. Finally they prepared the death notice for the Chronicle.

Surely, they reasoned, they would have to wait two or three days for the official coroner’s report, although the paramedics assured them that Cecilia had died of a heart attack. Odd that Sister Cecilia, who had always seemed so strong and steadfast, had a weak heart.

More to keep from thinking about the tragedy than anything else, the nuns spent the afternoon on the details of death. They notified McAvoy and O’Hara’s Mortuary and decided on an appropriate burial suit, her good navy blue wool, of course, with a lace-trimmed white blouse. Then they arranged for a fitting wake with refreshments, planned the funeral Mass, put the program into the computer, chose the eulogist, scheduled the burial at the Order’s plot at Holy Cross, and organized the reception after the cemetery.

As the day wore on, they became more and more determined to have a requiem worthy of the president of San Francisco’s only Catholic women’s college. They even made up the beds in the convent’s spare rooms for overnight visitors. Surely there would be a crowd.

Late Saturday evening, after a light supper, they checked off the last detail. Satisfied that all was in order, the nuns collapsed into the comfortable chairs in the community room. Most eyes were glazed.

Therese put her long, narrow feet up on a hassock. “Poor Cecilia,” she said. “I guess you could say she died with her boots on.”

“Actually, she died with her bed booties on,” old Donata commented, seeming not to notice Therese’s flaming face. “I knit them for her.”

Since she retired, old Donata had honed her knack for driving Therese crazy into a fine art. If Mary Helen didn’t know better, she’d suspect Donata of practicing.

The sharp ring of the telephone pierced the tension. “I guess the word is out,” Sister Anne groaned and pushed herself up from her chair. “It’s going to be a very long week.”

“It’s a lovely feast day to die on, anyway,” Sister Ursula said piously. “To ascend into heaven on the same day as Our Blessed Mother did.”

“Unless you’re the one who is doing the ascending,” Donata snapped.

Another uncomfortable quiet filled the room.

Eileen, who had little tolerance for awkward silences, glanced around. “You all look exhausted,” she said, wagging her head. “As they say back home, ‘It is well that misfortunes come one by one and not all together.’”

“You’re right about that,” Sister Ursula agreed.

Mary Helen studied Eileen in amazement. She was more convinced than ever that her friend made up these Irish proverbs on demand, although Eileen adamantly denied it.

Furthermore, it had always been Mary Helen’s experience that misfortunes came in threes. Now was not the time, however, to say so. Now was the time for each of them to go to her own room and have a good cry.

REQUIEM AT THE REFUGE Copyright © 2000 by Sister Carol Anne O’Marie.

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