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North Shore resident and writer Alena Dillon releases her debut novel next week, on February 11. Mercy House, set in 21st century Brooklyn, follows Sister Evelyn and two other nuns who run a shelter for victims of gendered violence. 

Dillon moved to the North Shore five years ago from Long Island, where she and her husband worked at St. Joseph’s College, “which was largely run by nuns,” she said. “This novel was a love letter to that experience.”

Amy Schumer called the novel “a life-altering debut featuring fierce, funny, and irreverent women who battle the most powerful institution in the world. This is the book we’ve all been waiting for.”

Nothing daunts gruff, 69-year-old Sister Evelyn, who confronts violent men and creates a safe haven for the women at Mercy House. Until, that is, she receives word that Bishop Robert Hawkins (“The Hawk”) is coming from the Vatican to investigate American religious sisters suspected of breaking Catholic doctrine. Some of the ways Mercy House protects its women include helping them obtain divorces and birth control. Evelyn must challenge this powerful man, with whom she shares a dark past, in order to protect the women she cares for.

Dillon took inspiration for her book, published by Harper Collins, from the women at St. Joseph’s, whom she calls “such an inspiration.”

“They worked long hours in high-ranking positions at the school, and then often moved on to other shifts, overnights at the motherhouse or women’s shelters. All unpaid!” said Dillon. “It’s superhuman selflessness.”

During her time at St. Joseph’s, Dillon also witnessed the Apostolic Visitation, during which the Vatican investigated American nuns for, as Dillon said, “having a ‘secular mentality’ and a ‘feminist spirit.’” In a document written by the Vatican in 2012, after the investigation, the Vatican expressed concern with the religious women’s silence on “the right to life from conception to natural death,” “the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality,” and “the reservation of priestly ordination to men.”

“This struck me as unappreciative of their devotion,” said Dillon. “If the Vatican found something unsavory, the women’s identities and life security were at stake.”

Needless to say, it’s not a light read. The book details accounts of sexual assault and critiques the Catholic Church without critiquing Catholicism itself. “I was raised Episcopalian, which Robin Williams called Catholic Lite,” said Dillon. It’s a book that pushes boundaries, challenges ideals, and stares controversy right in the face through beautiful prose and strong characters. 

In an age in which sexual violence survivors are becoming more empowered to tell their stories, a book like this couldn’t be more relevant. “Stories continue to emerge about how individuals got away with atrocious acts because they were powerful,” said Dillon. “Survivors of abuse are rising up, and we are listening.”

After the success of her breakthrough novel, Dillon has another book slated for completion in 2021 which she says is about a girl training for the Olympics who will do almost anything to achieve her dream. 

Head to Atomic Café in Beverly on February 13 at 6 p.m. for a book discussion with Dillion and her fellow author Ioanna Opidee, and pick up a copy of the book in person. If you can’t make it, Mercy House will be available wherever books are sold on February 11.