Jack and Beth Dunne travel separately to Valselo on a good-will pilgrimage to support a local orphanage. Jack uses philanthropy as an excuse to see Beth again after bitterness and grief separated them following the funeral of their five month old son three years ago. Forever soulmates, despite the seemingly impenetrable barriers they have erected between them, will they find the courage to forgive and fix their marriage? Or will they selflessly love enough to let each other go?
Sister Teresa awoke early to carve a little “me time” into her day. She relished a few quiet moments each morning before her tornado-like daily life spun out of control. This morning the sun was but a glowing line on the horizon as she sat shivering in a thin shawl on a boulder in the middle of a pasture in the sleeping village. A breeze lifted her veil and tickled a wisp of hair against her neck. Her breviary lay open to the day’s Morning Prayer, yet ignored in her lap. Her rosary hung slack in her hand as her mind raced, despite her hopes that peaceful devotion might forestall circular thinking about mounting troubles. The orphanage needed money. The furnace was on its last legs and the nights cooled increasingly.
If her incessant prayers were answered, heat might rise into ancient radiators.
She cast her eyes heavenward and offered a prayer of thanksgiving for Father Mark and his, please Lord, generous pilgrims. His group would arrive in Valselo this weekend. The sister prayed they would pack their checkbooks. Father Mark had promised he would raise the funds for the new furnace, somehow.
Dusting the back of her skirt as she rose from her seat, Sister Teresa strode through the fields towards home, praying the rosary in her mind like a lovely secret. She considered Our Lady of the Angels Orphanage her only home, in common with the forty children who lived there with her and Sister Madelena. Left on the doorstep of a convent, a newborn infant, Teresa had spent fifty years searching for her true home. She had finally found it five years ago in this tiny secluded village where she was needed, valued, and blessed by Our Mother's nearness.
Hail Mary, full of grace...
Sister Teresa stooped to pick an armful of scarlet poppies from the multitude of bushes edging the path that zigzagged across the pastureland. Heaping the flowers in a basket hung over her arm, she smiled, envisioning the flowers in vases adding cheer to her dining room table. Reaching the paved sidewalk, she hurried down the busiest street in town, waving to villagers on their way to sunrise Mass. A small sign, SIROTISTE, pointed the way to the orphanage, down the familiar lane.
The Lord is with thee…
The sprawling, single story stucco building nestled between two billowing, weeping willow trees. A fence bordered a slapdash athletic field. Slides, swings, and a rickety, wooden merry-go-round equipped another fenced-in, side yard. After breakfast, she always gave the children the freedom to romp in this playground until the school bus arrived.
Blessed art thou amongst women…
Teresa smiled when she noticed the pile of clothes on the add-on front porch. The villagers remembered her children with care packages that magically appeared on an almost daily basis. Anonymous donations included a loaf or two of home-baked bread, eggs plucked fresh from the coop, or vegetables from home gardens, which still glistened with morning dew. Today’s bounty looked like hand-me-downs. The kids loved to sort through the donated clothes—especially her girls.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…
Grinning she approached the porch along the narrow brick path and then stopped short when the bundle of clothes seemed to move. She balled her hands and rubbed them over her eyes, but she thought she detected subtle movement again. Drifting closer as she vowed to find a few pennies to buy those eyeglasses she obviously needed, the bundle of clothes morphed into the figure of a young girl huddling at the doorstep in a fetal position.
Hurrying, Teresa stumbled up the three slab stairs. She dropped to her knees in front of the frail girl, set the basket of flowers on the wood slatted deck, and rested her hand on the youth’s thin shoulder. “Child, are you all right?”
“Yes, Sister Teresa,” came a muffled, lyrical voice. She raised her head, a radiant smile lighting a heart shaped face. “I have been waiting for you.”
On an exhaled breath, Teresa exclaimed, “Oh my!”
Sitting back on her haunches, she hung captivated by this youngster’s crystal clear, turquoise eyes and dimpled, alabaster cheeks. In the many years Teresa had worked with children, she had never encountered a more beautiful child. Silky, straight, platinum blonde hair hung down her back. Skin like exquisite porcelain glowed in the dawn’s light.
With difficulty, the sister found her voice. “Why are you waiting for me? How do you know my name? Where are you from, dear?”
“They told me to wait for you here.”
“Who? The villagers?”
The child cocked her head, but remained silent as she stretched out bony legs. Lifting stick-thin arms over her head she yawned, and then giggled. In bell-like tones she said, “I have been waiting forever, and I am starving.”
“Where is your home?” Certainly, not in the village. I know every village family. “What is your name?”
“My name is Marta and my home is here now. With you.” She stood and extended her hand toward Teresa.
Clasping the offered hand, joy flooded Teresa’s senses, an ecstatic avalanche that swelled her heart to near bursting.
“Do you have eggs, Sister? I really love eggs.” Marta’s laughter tinkled.
“Yes, I think so,” she stammered, as she rose to her feet. Still linked to Marta’s hand, she had never experienced such happiness. “I can find some eggs for your breakfast.”
“Oh thank you, Sister!” Marta opened the orphanage’s front door with her free hand, tugged on Teresa’s arm, and towed her down the corridors, directly to the kitchen, as if she had navigated the journey through the hodgepodge floor plan before. Absolutely impossible. I know I’ve never seen this little girl here, or anywhere else, before.
Sister Madelena stooped to open the oven door as Marta and Sister Teresa passed through the arched kitchen doorway.
“Sister Madelena. You made your cinnamon buns. Oh yummy!" Marta exclaimed. "May I please have one?”
Teresa shrugged at Madelena’s vacant expression.
“They have to cool, first. Please wash your hands and join the other children at the table,” Madelena directed.
Marta let loose of Teresa’s hand, breezed over to the sink and dutifully obeyed Madelena. When she finished drying her hands, she poked her head into the dining room adjacent to the kitchen.
“Thank you, Maria, for saving me a place next to you,” Marta declared as she moved towards the table. She scooted along the long wooden bench to the place next to raven-haired Maria.
Teresa and Madelena stood in silence observing Marta’s interaction with the other children.
“Where did she come from?” Madelena whispered, eyes glued to the golden-haired child.
“I don’t know. I found her curled up on the front porch. She said she was waiting for me.”
“Did you tell her I was making cinnamon buns?”
“I didn’t say a word. This is the strangest situation. She knew her way to the kitchen, and she calls us by our names as if she has been here before. It seems she knows us, yet I have never seen her before. Have you?”
"No," Madelena said.
Mystified, the religious sisters wagged their heads and gazed pointedly at Marta.
The intercom chirred on his phone console and Jack depressed the button absently. He scooped the handset to his ear without lifting his gaze from the ledger sheet displayed on the gargantuan monitor on his glass-topped desk. “Yes, Anita.”
“Mark Mackenzie to see you, Mister Dunne.”
Disturbed, his eyes refused to focus on the screen. Father Mark, after all these years? Jack fixated on the vacant place on his desk where he had formerly displayed the silver framed photograph of Beth and Johnny. His chest constricted, as if God’s persistent wrath wrung out his heart with both mighty hands.
"Is he wearing a clerical collar?” Jack voiced into the mouthpiece.
“Uh, no,” came Anita’s reply. “But…since you mention it…”
Jack huffed a breath. “I know. The man can’t hide it. Send him in.”
Father Mark glows with the light of God.
Shoving his chair back, Jack rose to his feet while trepidation shook him to the core. I don’t want to see you, Father. I don’t want to remember.
The priest burst through his office door, handsome, energetic, glowing with that maddening confidence that God was on his side. Not mine. One thing Jack knew with certainty: God couldn’t care less about what Jack wanted.
How did you come up with the "adoption" philosophy of Our Lady Of The Angels orphanage?
A1. The idea is based on Father Jozo's (the parish priest of St. James Church, Medjugorje, at the onset of Marian apparitions in that village thirty years ago) similar philosophy running an adoption program for area orphans of the Croatian War. Children remained in their homeland while "parents" from around the world supported them. Happily, that program has ended now. Because the children are all adults living God's plan for their lives.
Q2. Who is Marta? Is she indeed the next generation of Valselo visionaries?
A2. Marta is very close to heaven. We're not sure how she knows what she knows. She just appeared on the doorstep of the orphanage like a living miracle.
Q3. Does your title refer to the hero and heroine's marriage?
A3. The title is related to Beth and Jack's hopes for their strained marriage. But, primarily, it celebrates that everlasting life is possible with belief in Christ, Jesus, the Resurrected Love of the world.