Characters in detective novels are called many things, but "Sister" is rarely one of them — except in the detective novels of Carol Anne O'Marie, who died Wednesday. She was a mystery writer, an advocate for the needy and a nun of the St. Joseph of Carondelet order.

O'Marie wrote 11 mystery novels. The protagonist in these books is a gray-haired, crime-solving nun by the name of Sister Mary Helen. The character was based on the principal of a grammar school in Oxnard where O'Marie taught. But most of the stories are set in San Francisco, where she was born Aug. 28, 1933.

San Francisco also is where she was giving a talk about her fiction writing when the inspiration to open a women's shelter came to her. On Jan. 24, 1990, the dream became a reality in downtown Oakland.

"For her, nothing was impossible," said her sister, Kathleen O'Marie.

She opened A Friendly Place for women recovering from alcohol and drug abuse with Sister Maureen Lyons in an old storefront on West Grand Avenue. The need quickly outpaced the building, so in 1994 the duo paid $250,000 for a dilapidated former single-occupancy hotel at San Pablo Avenue and 23rd Street and turned it into a 26-room refuge that opened two years later.

The nuns were honored in 2008 with a Jefferson Award for their community service.

"She was a dreamer," Lyons said of O'Marie. She had faith in God and in herself, Lyons said.

O'Marie joined the St. Joseph of Carondelet order Sept. 15, 1951. O'Marie's decision to become a nun shocked her family, her sister said. But she spent the next decades fulfilling the founding spirit of her order, originally created in France in 1650, by serving the ordinary needs of people around her.

 

In addition to teaching, O'Marie edited the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, and was the development director at Carondelet High School in Concord for many years.

Lyons called O'Marie a warm, generous and strong-willed woman with a magnificent sense of humor. But, Lyons added, "She was serious about helping people, and she had a great devotion to God."

O'Marie suffered from Parkinson's disease for many years, her sister said, but her health worsened dramatically in March 2008. "Her body was just tired," Kathleen O'Marie said.

A vigil will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 2808 Lakeshore Ave. A mass will be celebrated at the church at noon Tuesday.