A Tale of Two Sisters
by Vincent Cuddihy
Late in 2009 Patrick Rafferty died in a single-car crash en route from the bar he owned in Dorchester to the family home in Hull on the southernmost fringes of Boston. His mother Nora had been summoned in the middle of the night to identify the corpse. The first thing she did when she got home was to call an abbey of cloistered nuns in rural Vermont for the first time in 30 years and ask the novice who answered to tell Mother Cecilia Flynn that her son was dead. Sister Alma did not understand that Nora was referring to Mother Cecilia’s son.
That is the beginning of J. Courtney Sullivan’s fourth novel set in New England, Saints for All Occasions (2017). Sullivan, who lives in Brooklyn, saw her 2011 book Maine named a 2011 Time magazine Best Book of the Year and a Washington Post Notable Book; her 2013 work, The Engagements, was named a People magazine Top Ten Book of the Year and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. A large part of the story is devoted to explaining how the mother superior of the Abbey of the Immaculate Conception had a son lying in the morgue of a Boston hospital.
We first meet the Flynn sisters, Nora and Theresa, as they are preparing to leave their home in Miltown Malbay near the Atlantic Coast of Ireland in County Clare. It is 1957 and they are heading off to Cobh, just south of Cork, to board a ship that will take them to New York. Nora’s boyfriend, Charlie Rafferty, has gone on before them and will meet them when they arrive to take them to Boston. Charlie expects that he and Nora will be married shortly after she settles down and they are confident that her younger sister is well settled too. Nora is not so sure.
In the end, it is Theresa who changes Nora and Charlie’s plans. Younger, prettier and more vivacious, it is Theresa who wants to go out dancing and attend parties. She has not benefitted from the discipline that their mother was able to impose on Nora before she died. The girls are not supposed to leave Mrs. Quinlan’s boarding house unescorted. So when Nora begins to refuse to go out, Theresa starts sneaking off on her own. She has become smitten by Walter McClain. When Theresa becomes pregnant, she thinks Walter will marry her. But Theresa is not the only one carrying one of Walter’s babies and someone else beats her to the punch.
Theresa is sequestered in a home for unwed mothers and a couple is found to adopt the child. But Nora can’t stand the idea that a member of the family will be raised by strangers. So she tells Charlie they are getting married. What’s more, she goes through the charade of pretending to be pregnant so that she and Charlie can take possession of Theresa’s baby when he is born. Theresa can’t stand being an aunt to her own son and heads to New York where she finds work as a teacher. One of her fellow teachers mentions that members of her family have a custom of going on retreat to an abbey in Vermont and invites Theresa along. This practice becomes a matter of routine for the two women and eventually they both join the order.
Nora is bitter that Theresa has left her to raise Theresa’s son by herself. Eventually, she and Charlie have two children of their own. But when Patrick is a teenager, he gets into a fight and badly injures another boy. Fearing for her son’s life, Nora packs the family up overnight and moves out to the house in Hull where they will be safely removed from the Irish community back in Boston. One of the most touching parts of this novel occurs when Nora and Charlie take the children to Ireland to see the homes where their parents grew up.
Sullivan devotes a large part of her effort to describing convent life, the changes that are being forced upon women who choose such a life and the changing roles of women in the Catholic Church. One of the most interesting things she documents is how Mother Cecilia’s (Theresa’s) leadership has allowed a cloistered abbey to continue to attract new members when many other convents are shutting down because the sisters are aging and no newcomers replace them.
The title comes from a booklet that one of the aunt’s had that listed which saint to pray to for which need, with suggestions for appropriate prayers. Most of us learned some of these as children: St. Christopher is the patron of travelers, St. Jude is the patron of lost causes, etc.