Fairfield native Alena Dillon publishes debut novel on sassy nuns

Photo of TinaMarie Craven

When people think about nuns, the first thought that comes to mind might be dour, ruler-wielding women in habits. That’s not the case with the charismatic and energetic nuns who dominate the pages in Alena Dillon’s debut novel, “Mercy House.”

Sister Evelyn is a renegade nun who puts the needs of her charges before herself and at times the doctrines of the Catholic church in order to help them heal from their past traumas. Sister Evelyn, along with two other nuns, Sisters Josephine and Maria of the order of the St. Joseph Sisters of Mercy, run a women’s shelter in Brooklyn where they willingly give up their own beds to help the women who need them. The nuns are happily operating their facility until a bishop from Sister Evelyn’s past comes to investigate the order as part of the Apostolic Visitation or Nunquisition in 2010.

Dillon, a Fairfield native, said she was inspired to write the book, in part, because she actually witnessed the tail end of the Apostolic Visitation while working at St. Joseph’s College in Long Island in 2010. While working at the college, Dillon said she had a sense that the nuns she worked with felt betrayed by the investigation.

“They had committed their lives to this unpaid work and they were so devoted and had such passion and enthusiasm and they had to start proving their faith to the very institution that should have defended them the most. And that same institution, as we have heard, has been guilty of protecting men who committed very serious crimes, so it was an unfair juxtaposition of how they advocate for their people,” she said.

Dillon, who earned her MFA at Fairfield University had planned to visit the Fairfield University Bookstore on March 19 at 7 p.m. to discuss the events that inspired her book, give a reading and book signing. As of March 12, that event has been postponed.

“I’m kind of going back to the playground,” she joked.

After working with nuns at the college, Dillon said she wanted to showcase the “fascinating contradiction between being human and superhuman,” she observed. In addition to holding high-powered positions as professors and provosts at the college, the nuns would head off to carry out their respective mission work.

“I hadn’t had too much interaction with nuns [before] so I had this perception of them as being still and pious and maybe uninteresting and I was so pleasantly surprised to find how fascinatingly human they are. They are superhuman in a lot of ways; the women I met had such a crazy work ethic, they worked high power jobs at the college, then went off and did their own mission work after hours and were so dedicated to all the students and the community,” she said. “So there’s a lot you might expect about nuns, but then they’re competitive among different departments, they have their little grudges, I watched them dancing to ‘It’s Raining Men’ at a holiday party.”

She added that her former boss, Sister Suzanne Franck, has been very supportive of her while writing the book and that she even conducted an interview with her that is included at the end of her book.

Dillon noted that the opening passage in the book, which depicts Sister Evelyn groaning as she climbs out of bed in the middle of the night to help someone, was inspired by a nun she knew at the college who worked nights at a women’s shelter.

Given that her characters work at a women’s shelter, where the occupants are survivors of sexual and physical abuse, Dillon said she was also inspired to by the #MeToo movement and how it has empowered survivors to come forward and share their stories.

“If I could reach anybody and have them recognize themselves in the pages, I think that would be a huge victory and a really satisfying accomplishment. In a more general sense I wanted to capture these incredible, complicated women and more and more I enjoy seeing these kinds of characters crop up on television shows and in novels. If I can contribute to that legacy, then that would be a huge accomplishment,” she said.

Dillon, who celebrated her son’s first birthday and the publication of her first book within the same week, has been very busy. When she’s not caring for her family and dog Penny, she can be found traveling or running. In addition to promoting “Mercy House,” which comedian Amy Schumer called, “a life-altering debut featuring fierce, funny and irreverent women,” Dillon is busily working on her next book, which is set to come out next spring.

She revealed the book will follow the sacrifices a young woman makes to become an Olympic gymnast and will include contemporary elements like Larry Nassar’s crimes.

“I really enjoy uncovering aspects that I hadn’t known about before, especially when it comes to injustice and it fuels my fire, my inspiration, I guess, and I feel this compulsion to fictionalize it and imagine things from all different sides and imagine what it was like for the people who experienced it and the consequences of those events,” Dillon said.

Editor’s Note: Dillon’s event was postponed after publication. Her event will be rescheduled for the fall.