Carol Anne O’Marie (pronounced “O-MARY”) is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the author of a popular series of mystery novels featuring an elderly Catholic nun-turned-sleuth, Sister Mary Helen. While religious mysteries and cinematic/television representations of nuns have become well established in twentieth-century literature and popular culture, Sister O’Marie is considered the first American Catholic nun (if not the first nun altogether) to have published a mystery series. While her stories primarily entertain, O’Marie’s depictions of Catholicism and women religious challenge stereotypes and invite wider understanding of religion in contemporary life.
Carol Anne O’Marie was born on August 28, 1933, to John and Caroline O’Marie in San Francisco, California. The half-Irish, half-Italian middle-class Catholic family was “very loving,” the author remembers. (The communication between her parents inspired the Kate Murphy–Jack Bassetti alliance that figures prominently in O’Marie’s novels.) Another daughter, Kathleen, was born seven years after Carol.
Into this secure home crept mystery, in vicarious form: young Carol enjoyed the radio suspense melodramas of the late 1930s and early 1940s, including “The Shadow” and “I Love a Mystery.” The O’Marie girls’ Irish grandmother also amused them with stories from True Detective magazine. Carol developed a lifelong fondness for mystery.
Upon graduating from Star of the Sea High School in San Francisco, Carol countered the family’s plans for her to attend college and then marry: she decided to become a nun. In 1951 she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the order that had taught her. A vocations recruiter advised at least trying convent life because it was easier to leave than marriage would be. The family did not entirely approve; Caroline O’Marie expected the order to find Carol an unsuitable novice and send her home.