BY: JOE BENEVENTO
When Monsignor Martin Heamey is found strangled just after a debate with Tony Cupelli, a former monsignor and present professor at Smith College, Tony’s detective brother Mike seeks a possible link between this murder and the apparent suicide of a Carmelite nun in Brooklyn. The brothers uncover a growing cult of young women devoted to dark interpretations of the teachings and life of St. Teresa of Avila, a cult the brothers seek to prove guilty of the crimes, even as more possible victims of the devotees are revealed. When not one, but two, of Tony’s present love interests are included among the most likely suspects, his own life is at risk unless, and until, the Cupelli brothers can decipher the clues awaiting in the secret writings of St. Teresa.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Saving St. Teresa by Joe Benevento, Tony Cupelli is a former priest in the Catholic Church, turned college professor, who has a brother who’s a police detective. When a visiting priest, who is invited to debate with Tony at his college, is murdered, Tony and his brother Mike set out to solve the case.
I must say that this was one of the most complex and intricate plots that I have read in some time. I learned a great deal about the Catholic Church and their St. Teresa of Avila as well as trying to figure out who done it, which wasn’t easy. As I said, the plot is strong and very complicated, so you’ll need to pay attention. This isn’t one of those books that you can read while watching TV. But if you want something that will hold your interest from beginning to end, you can’t go wrong with Saving St. Teresa.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Saving St. Teresa by Joe Benevento revolves around the murder of a Catholic priest. Our protagonist, Tony Cupelli, and his brother Mike, a police lieutenant, try to link the priest’s murder to the death of a nun and undercover not only a secret religious sect but a devious murderer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
The story is intriguing, the plot strong, but very complex, and the characters realistic and well developed. The story has a clear ring of truth which adds to its overall appeal. While I don’t normally care for religious fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed delving into this story and trying to figure out who the bad guys were and what their motives were—religious fanaticism or just plain greed.
The slippery white silk of Faith Covington’s camisole was close to disappearing under the dark blue dress she had laid out on her bed when Tony Cupelli entered the room. As he approached, Faith needed no words to understand what Tony wanted. She accepted his embrace but then pulled away.
“Not now, Tony. It’s almost time to get to Graham.”
“Well, maybe if we took the car instead of walking?”
“The walk will be good for you, for all the usual reasons, but also to clear your head before the debate,” Faith said with confidence, inviting no further argument.
“That’s just it, though. I’m pretty nervous about all this. I’m not sure a walk is going to work. But love, that’s good for about any situation, don’t you think?” Tony’s tone was playful, though maybe already colored with a touch of resignation.
“Love is ‘a pure, divine affinity,’” Faith quoted, “not a release for physical tension. And I thought we were making progress.”
“Progress?” Tony asked, even as he thought of how nicely Faith’s stylishly short, light-brown hair framed her near perfect face and large gold-green eyes. “Not taking time out for love is progress? How? It’s not like we’re a married couple, right?” Tony joked, even as he realized how little his humor had a chance of working. Still, lifelong habits were hard to forsake so he continued. “I mean, ‘pure, divine affinity’ is fine when you’re alone in a cabin and it’s too cold to walk to Concord anyway. But, let’s face it, the one flaw in Henry David’s program is his preference for solitude. I mean, he was like the Transcendentalist Garbo. Only an occasional squirrel ever snuggled in his cabin at night, not a woman like you.”
“This is no time to debate Thoreau,” Faith said with a half-smile that seemed almost involuntary, like a mother amused more than she should be by her child’s antics.
An assistant art professor at Smith College, Faith was a teacher and potter by profession, but also an ardent, if eclectic, eco-feminist. Tony understood how she saw herself as a virtual disciple of Thoreau, whose chapter on “Higher Laws” from Walden she took as a central verse in her personal bible culled from all the important spiritual teachings of the world–our progress in life was ever away from the gross appetites and onto the wholly spiritual ones.
That her potential soul mate and sporadic lover of the last several months would both joke about and question one of the great books of American literature should have made her upset. Instead, she settled for ending the conversation with another chaste kiss and the definitive movement of her dark blue dress off the bed and onto her body.
He laughed. “Okay, but if I freeze up on stage, it’ll be your fault.”
“You’ll find some heat once you’re on stage fighting that fascist Monsignor Heamey. You’ll channel all that desire into defeating sexism. I can’t wait to see you return to the field. There will be plenty of time to celebrate later,” Faith promised as her eyes flashed with real conviction.
It was a cool, early November night in Northampton, with a frost warning in place for the hours approaching dawn. It was a bit over a mile from Faith’s apartment to the Brown Fine Arts Center on the Smith campus. Since she and Tony had begun dating in June, Faith had pushed him to find more ways to fit exercise into his daily routine, even as she encouraged him to begin the process of detoxification that would come from the eventual abandonment of meat, processed sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and most of Tony’s other oldest and closest culinary companions. So far, he was making more progress with exercise than with diet, but Faith still seemed optimistic for the long term. He had gotten back down to one hundred and ninety pounds on his six foot, two inch frame, or four pounds lost for each month with Faith. He joked that if they stayed together long enough, he would disappear. Tony walked alongside Faith’s brisk pace with all the energy of a former athlete not ready to admit he was well past his prime, though sixteen years his companion’s senior, at forty eight.
When Faith and Tony reached their destination, they were happy to have a difficult time getting past the stream of an arriving audience even larger than their expectations. Monsignor Martin Heamey was already near the podium. He was talking intently with Tony’s boss and friend since high school, Henry “Hank” Gallagher, a large balding man with light blue eyes and a dark gray suit. A Renaissance scholar and, for the past five years, the English department chair, Henry was a consummate politician. This explained how he could be a mostly popular male chair within a department where the majority of his colleagues were not only females, but ardent feminists. While some of Hank’s published writings nodded with respect toward contemporary feminist interpretations and criticisms of the church during the Renaissance, his Irish-Catholic background seemed to make him equally comfortable handling Heamey. Next to Dr. Gallagher, Tony spotted other colleagues, including a large contingent from the Religion Department at Smith. He focused more on the one woman among the faculty he didn’t recognize, but before he could ask anyone about her, Faith ran up and embraced her.
“Oh, Veronica, I’m so glad you made it.”
“Well, of course, Faith, I told you I would. And is this the infamous Antonio Cupelli?”
“How do you mean?” Tony asked. “Have you been reading my books or has Faith been talking ‘out of school,’ so to speak?”
While Faith gave Tony an eye roll, her friend’s laugh seemed genuine.
“Your books. I’ve read all your books, actually. I’ve even taught the one on the Holy Spirit,” she informed Tony in a voice with a slight, perhaps Mediterranean lilt he could not identify more specifically. “I’m Veronica Teuma, I teach in the Religious Studies program at Holy Cross. Faith was my student when I was at Brown.”
With that introduction, Professor Teuma reached out to shake Tony hand. He noted her hand’s warmth and the pleasant firmness of her grip, something he missed among most academics. Veronica seemed to radiate a confidence connected to some internal reservoir of calm conviction. And her eyes’ darkness seemed belied by their steady suffusion of light.
“Teuma, Teuma, at Brown? Yes, you’ve done what I thought were really fair reviews of my last two books. It’s nice to meet you.” Tony smiled. He felt immediately comfortable with Veronica, comfortable enough to ask her a potentially troublesome question. “But why leave the Ivy League for Worcester?”
“I wanted to be someplace where I didn’t have to apologize for my Catholicism.” As Veronica responded, she lightly fingered a thin, string necklace whose pendant was hidden from view in her black sweater. For just a moment, her dark sweater and modest black skirt gave Tony the impression of a beautiful nun. Her hair was also dark, almost black, and just lightly touched with gray, but Tony guessed her to be at least a few years younger than he. She was not quite as slender as Faith and was a few inches shorter at about five feet, five inches tall, but Tony found her every bit as beautiful as he listened to her add, “I’m anxious to see how you and the monsignor will handle that here at Smith.”
“Tony’s no longer a practicing Catholic,” Faith assured her friend.
Veronica looked a little disappointed, both at the news and the level of proprietary smugness with which it was delivered. But there was no time to continue the conversation.
The debate topic was simple and twofold: whether women should ever be allowed to be Roman Catholic priests and whether both men and women priests should be able to marry. Faith had done most of the leg work to bring Heamey to campus, so Tony could debate with the monsignor on the merits of his controversial tome, A Better Role for Women, which one Catholic feminist critic had proclaimed “set back women’s progress in the Catholic Church to before Vatican II.” The book had been written in almost direct response to Tony’s best-selling title of three years before, The Holy Spirit: Restoring Respect To the Sacred Feminine.
At Smith, an all-female college and one of the original “Seven Sisters” of higher education for women in America, Heamey, a Jesuit and professor at Loyola in Chicago, had to know the deck was more than stacked against him. Still Heamey had eagerly accepted the invitation, so eagerly that Faith had voiced to Tony her fear the priest might have some secret method to crumple women’s rights both within and outside the church, even within the halls of a Seven Sisters school.
Monsignor Heamey looked typecast from any number of old movies featuring an Irish Catholic priest. He had cottony white hair and plenty of it; blue, only slightly bloodshot eyes; and a commanding overall presence in spite of being a half foot shorter than Tony. What Heamey lacked in literal stature he made up for with a brassy tenor voice and a readiness for combat that did his Jesuit roots proud.
“If it isn’t the former Monsignor Antonio Cupelli himself.”
Heamey bowed, thereby grabbing an immediate tactical advantage by reminding anyone within earshot that Tony was a fallen soldier. He had been permanently suspended from the priesthood, due not to his ultra-liberal church politics, but for his relations with women. Tony had even been a suspect in the murder of his long time secret lover, Maggie Rosario. Though he had been completely cleared of that killing, the ensuing scandal had left him shamed, guilt-ridden, and unable to continue his work for women’s rights within the church. Only three years past Maggie’s death, Tony was actually taking to the podium for the first time since and had hoped Heamey would be unwilling to open old wounds.
Tony nodded. “Yes, it’s good finally to meet you, Monsignor. I appreciate your taking the time to visit with us.”
During the debate itself, Heamey took a higher road, sticking to a presentation of the Catholic Church’s traditional positions with vigor and conviction, despite the clearly unsympathetic attention of his audience.
“Of course, if Christ had intended for women to represent him as priests, he would have named women among his twelve apostles. Professor Cupelli rightly points out that women did have a role, a meaningful role in Jesus’s life. There were his friends Martha and Mary for example. Even more to the point, Mary Magdalene, who far from the reformed prostitute some mistakenly depict her as, was instead a close friend and an even more faithful follower than those flawed men. So, yes, one might even call her a female ‘disciple’ without inaccuracy, but she was not one of the twelve specifically called upon to come and follow Christ. Christ’s intentions seem clear. He sees a different, though not lesser, role for women in the church to be. I–”
“But, Monsignor.” Tony could not stop himself from interrupting his opponent, as his old fervor for righting injustices against women within the church came back to him in full force. “Judas was one of the twelve, so clearly, there is nothing inherently good or priestly in being one of the first chosen. Beyond that, one has to take into account the times Christ lived in and the culture he inhabited. Women are not in the same place in the social scale that they were back in the days of Christ. This ‘separate but equal’ claim you are trying to sell to this audience, this ‘different role,’ makes no better sense than it did for African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights south.”
Heamey shook his head and cast his blue eyes around the room. “It’s clear to me that too many of you in this room want easy answers to difficult questions. But the Catholic Church seeks answers that are not restricted or defined by present politics or fads. Christ selected twelve men, in a purposeful, meaningful way. Unlike Christ, they were flawed men, even as we of the present priesthood are flawed. It has never been the Church’s intent to even imply that men are better suited for the priesthood because they are better than women. When John Paul II reiterated the church’s position on the impossibility of a female priesthood, he affirmed the dignity and absolute equality of women in the Church’s eyes. He pointed out the simple and clear fact that Christ, who had his own perfect mother and a future saint in Mary Magdalen to choose from, clearly decided not to choose a woman for a priestly role. As unpopular as that must be in this room, in this place, it’s the simple truth.”
Tony tried to stay calm. “Please, Monsignor, it’s the truth as promulgated by men for men. Recent scholarship has unearthed how the gospels that made it into the contemporary Christian bible were chosen, making it clear to anyone who looks at things objectively that if Christ had chosen Mary Magdalene or one of his other female followers as an apostle, the men who decided what would remain from Christ’s life for us to read about, could have easily suppressed those choices, even as the early men of the church ignored the female nature of the Holy Spirit, ignored Christ’s use of the feminine word ruach for the Spirit, his references to the Holy Spirit as she, just so they could displace the feminine from a share in the Triune Deity. Since we know that to be true, we can easily surmise they must have picked and chosen that recounting of the events of Christ’s life, which set before us a false image of his selection of men only for the holy priesthood.”
Tony scored applause with this remark, but Heamey pressed on. “If you’re going to question the veracity of Holy Scripture, than there’s little point really left for us in common to debate about. As a former priest yourself, surely you understand that the Catholic Church believes in the New Testament as the Gospel, the good news from God himself.”
“Monsignor, surely you can’t be suggesting that anyone who advocates women’s rights is going against God?” Tony asked. He was beginning to feel uneasy over his overwhelming advantage in the sympathy level for his point of view within the increasingly vocal audience.
“No one who works for the good of his neighbor is in danger of going against God,” Heamey responded with the first hints of anger in his voice.
“But why then do you and the Catholic Church support such inequitable treatment of your female ‘neighbors’? Tony challenged.
“I assumed, Professor, that you had actually read my book, as I have carefully read and reread yours. My support of women is clear throughout those pages, my admiration, for instance, of the leading female doctors of the church, most especially St. Teresa of Avila. And I admit injustice and inequity in the church regarding women over the years. I’m not one who tries to underplay the many errors men have made. Still, there is no getting around Christ’s clear preferences. As Pope John Paul made clear, as so many others before and after him make clear, we have no choice in the matter–we cannot disregard the Lord’s own will on this issue.”
“Where in the New Testament does Christ insist that no woman can ever be a priest?” Tony demanded. “What is a priest, anyway? I have huge doubts that Christ ever would have conceived of the priesthood at all the way the Catholic Church has configured it. And if we’re going to debate those preferences further, can you show me where in the New Testament it shows Christ advocating a celibate clergy? With a female priesthood, you at least have the apparent proof in the New Testament that all of the original twelve Apostles were men. But on what Biblical basis can you support celibacy? How can you possibly invoke Christ’s will on the matter, since the Roman Catholic Church is presently letting in married Episcopalian priests? You can’t have it both ways. If Christ is against a married clergy, show us where, if that is the word of the Lord that cannot be undone, let us see it for ourselves. But then please explain why, in certain special and convenient circumstances, you are now allowing some relatively few Roman Catholic priests to be married?”
“I never maintained a celibate clergy as the will of God, so I don’t have to defend that argument,” Heamey insisted. “As to maintaining a celibate clergy, certainly I’ll agree there is nothing inherently wrong with a married priest. We both know that priests were often married within the very early church, but there are sensible, clear-cut reasons why celibacy is worth maintaining. These arguments are, again, clearly not indictments against women, but instead come from a sincere conviction that celibacy is, in itself, a noble calling, one which both men and women are invited to within the church. The church recognizes and values the married life, but also the celibate life, one which is best for those who want to serve God most directly. No one who loves a wife or a husband or his or her own children aptly can model love for all equally the way a true celibate can. I–”
Tony again interrupted his opponent, his own enthusiasm temporarily getting the best of his courtesy. “Wait, Monsignor, the church’s reticence regarding sex is well established and based on its fear of women and of sexuality. Women are depicted throughout the early Church as temptresses, taking men away from devotion to God. Sex is tolerated, at best, as a necessary evil for procreation. It’s no coincidence that the Catholic Church not only insists that Christ had to come from a Virgin birth, but that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. This deep-seated bias against women is what drives celibacy. Priests can show their purity by resisting women’s snares and nuns can show their shame in their sexuality by covering themselves up and never tempting anyone. It’s a design flaw in the whole fabric of the church, not a higher calling.”
The audience applauded Tony loudly, as they had more and more throughout the debate. When Monsignor Heamey sought to respond, they even began to boo him, until Tony strongly signaled them to be quiet.
“I never called celibacy a higher calling. Though you scoff at the idea of ‘separate but equal,’ I’m saying there is a truth there regarding this topic. It is equally important to have literal and spiritual fathers and mothers. Each is too important, too all-consuming a role, in the Catholic Church’s view, to be attempted by the same person. As to your remarks regarding the Church’s attitude toward sex, I’d counter that contemporary cultural mores, which make sex a cynical thing and allow the procreative function to be aborted at will, are the very kinds of things the Church is proud to stand up against, no matter how unpopular it may be to most of you.”
Monsignor Heamey’s remarks drew more boos from the audience. He tried to ignore them, looked for Tony to help him, then waited another beat before shaking his head again, and continuing. “I don’t mind losing a debate, but it’s the hardening of your hearts, the willful misreading of what is sacred that troubles me, that makes me wish I was more eloquent to take you all to a better, more generous place.”
“Monsignor Heamey, I don’t think you suffer at all from a lack of eloquence. I really believe it’s the church’s inflexibility that is ruining its chances to reach any really sensible person. The archaic rule of celibacy came close to ruining my own life, but it’s the lives of those still within its grip I’m worried about. The church has to stop condemning reasoning adults from making decisions based on their own moral compasses rather than tired dogma.”
The applause got louder as did the subsequent cat calling when Heamey tried to counter. Tony waited longer than he should have to calm the audience down. Martin Heamey looked at him too much like a Judas for Tony not to recognize how much he was letting his fervor for the cause knock out his normal preference for fairness.
“I’m afraid we are making a mockery of debate. No fair exchange of ideas is possible in this atmosphere,” Heamey said as he literally threw up his hands in resignation. “There are only two great commandments–love God completely and love your neighbor, all your neighbors, even old priests, I might add, as yourself. Nothing else really matters. And I will pray for you all, as I wish you would be willing to pray for me.”
Heamey’s last lines caused a loud chorus of boos, hisses, and exclamations to emerge from the overflowing crowd. Tony this time made an immediate effort to quiet down the crowd, but it was pointless. Monsignor Heamey had walked off the podium and hurried away toward the exit. No one tried to get in his way.
Tony sat down at his seat by the podium, feeling far more shame than triumph. Faith struggled through the milling, energized crowd and grabbed tightly onto his hand.
“You beat him, Tony, completely. He had nothing–that’s why he fled.”
“Did he flee or did he just abandon us in despair?”
“That’s crazy. You can be a force again–you beat their best. He ran from you, from the truth. Oh, Tony, I’m so proud.”
Tony felt the fervor of Faith’s pride in him through the firmness of her continued hold on his hand. After her approach, many others followed, all expressing their disappointment in Monsignor Heamey. Eventually, Hank had his turn with his old friend.
“See what happens when we try to bring in the other point of view? That was crazy. Next time let’s forget the controversy and bring in someone the students can relate to.” Hank offered, even as he patted Tony’s shoulder and his blue eyes twinkled with a seeming appreciation for his friend’s victory.
“Maybe Veronica would honor us,” Faith offered as she saw her friend approach the podium.
“I’d be happy to give a talk here, but I’ll leave the debating to you competitive sorts,” Veronica said. “Really, I’m worried about Monsignor Heamey. That just wasn’t like him. He really seemed…I don’t know…just so troubled.”
“You know him, Veronica?” Faith seemed surprised.
“Yes, a little. As a matter of fact, we’ve been in correspondence lately regarding St. Teresa. She’s someone I’ve written about and he’s wanted to talk with me about some of the finer points of The Interior Castle, particularly.”
“Well, I don’t think he’ll be attaining the seventh level any time soon,” Faith joked, showing off her familiarity with the text in question.
Tony, though getting the joke, was in an unusually unfunny mood.
The reception that followed in the adjoining room was far more animated and engaged than dozens of crab puffs, mini cheesecakes, and other appetizers otherwise would have warranted. Tony soon grew weary of all the approbation and longed to get away from any form of celebration. When he and Faith did make it back to her apartment, after walking through a light drizzle that was contemplating sleet, they were only inside a few minutes when the opening lines of the old Spanish love song, “Solamente Una Vez,” signaled a call on Tony’s cell phone.
“Tony, Tony I’m glad I caught you,” Hank cried.
“Hank? What’s the matter? You sound strange.”
“Something terrible has happened.”
“Terrible? What do you mean, I–”
“I tried calling up Heamey, make sure everything was okay, you know. He was staying just over at the Autumn Inn so–”
“Oh, no. Is he sick or something? Veronica Teuma said he was acting strange and–”
“No, no, Tony, you don’t understand. He didn’t answer, but the clerk was sure she saw him go into his room. You know it’s a small place, so when he didn’t answer again, as a favor to me, she went to knock on his door, but, but they found him–he, he was dead.”
“Dead, dead? Oh my God! What, what happened? I mean, did he have a stroke or something? Oh, God, do you think it was the debate?”
“The debate? No, of course not. But, it wasn’t any stroke. He’s been murdered!” Hank shouted.
“Murdered?” Tony gasped. “How can that be? Oh, my God.” He paused to hear more details, but when Hank hesitated he continued. “How are they sure it’s murder? Was he shot or something?”
“No, nothing like that, no blood, but–”
“But what?” Tony shot back. “How do you know it wasn’t just a heart attack?”
“Well, because they’re telling me it looks like he was strangled,” Hank reported in a voice as unlike his normal, calm, kidding tone as conceivable.
“Who told you this? How can they know?”
“The clerk told me, right before she called for the police. She was hysterical, of course, but she told me he had a set of rosary beads wrapped around his neck.”
“Oh my God,” was all Tony could offer.
“Oh my God is right. The monsignor’s been murdered, practically on our campus.”
Tony dropped his cell phone to the floor. Tears welled in his eyes as he worried, suffused with guilt, over how much his uncharitable part in Monsignor Heamey’s last debate had had in inviting this murdering rage.
© 2015 by Joe Benevento
Author, Carol Goodman:
In SAVING ST. TERESA, Joe Benevento shows himself to be a highly talented novelist, unafraid to explore the philosophical and literary boundaries of the mystery genre while, at the same time, weaving a gripping mystery that is the epitome of a page turner. Benevento is a writer of such depth that, even while he goes deep into the history of Catholic mysticism for one plot element, he shows himself to be well versed in all manner of contemporary social issues in other elements. But he is, most of all, a terrific storyteller. Each new and unexpected plot twist will draw you further in. SAVING ST. TERESA is a must read for mystery and non-mystery readers alike. ~ Carol Goodman, author of Hammett Prize winner The Seduction of Water and other novels
Author, Jack Smith:
Saving Saint Teresa, a sequel to The Monsignor’s Wife, is a compelling mystery with an intricate plot, intriguing characters, and complex themes. Tony Cupelli, the protagonist of the first novel, now a professor, no longer a monsignor, is once again a sleuth on a perplexing series of murders with his detective brother, Mike. The two brothers face a labyrinthine puzzle of suspects, centered mostly on a heretical cult based on the secret writings of St. Teresa of Avila. As he becomes increasingly involved in investigating these murders, Cupelli’s life becomes more and more endangered. From page one to the end, Benevento’s novel ramps up the devious, the sinister, the macabre. ~ Jack Smith, author of Hog to Hog, winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize, and Icon
Author, Lee Slonimsky:
Joe Benevento follows up on his brilliant debut in The Monsignor’s Wife with another Cupelli Brothers tour de force that combines an academic element worthy of C. P. Snow with a dexterity in plotting that would do Raymond Chandler proud! The author takes you through authentically described settings as varied as NYC and New England on and off campus, his potent narrative propelled by a cast of vivid and singular characters, and by his deep knowledge of Catholic history, and you will neither leave the edge of your seat nor guess the killer! Saving St. Teresa is an extraordinary blend of visceral action and serious intellect, and another grand tradition in American crime writing is being established before our eyes. ~ Lee Slonimsky, author of Bermuda Gold, co-author of the Lee Carroll Black Swan Rising trilogy, and seven time nominee for the Pushcart Prize in poetry