Letters

Letters 10-20-2014

Doctor Dan? After several email conversations with Rep. Benishek, he has confirmed that he doesn’t have a clue of what he does. Here’s why...

In Favor Of Our Parks [Traverse] City Proposal 1 is a creative way to improve our city parks without using our tax dollars. By using a small portion of our oil and gas royalties from the Brown Bridge Trust Fund, our parks can be improved for our children and grandchildren.

From January 1970 Popular Mechanics: “Drastic climate changes will occur within the next 50 years if the use of fossil fuels keeps rising at current rates.” That warning comes from Eugene K. Peterson of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

Newcomers Might Leave: Recently we had guests from India who came over as students with the plan to stay in America. He has a master’s degree in engineering and she is doing her residency in Chicago and plans to specialize in oncology. They talked very candidly about American politics and said that after observing...

Someone Is You: On Sept 21, I joined the 400,000 who took to the streets of New York in the People’s Climate March, followed by a UN Climate Summit and many speeches. On October 13, the Pentagon issued a report calling climate change a significant threat to national security requiring immediate action. How do we move from marches, speeches and reports to meaningful work on this problem? In NYC I read a sign with a simple answer...

Necessary To Pay: Last fall, Grand Traverse voters authorized a new tax to fix roads. It is good, it is necessary.

The Real Reasons for Wolf Hunt: I have really been surprised that no one has been commenting on the true reason for the wolf hunt. All this effort has not been expended so 23 wolves can be killed each year. Instead this manufactured controversy about the wolf hunt has been very carefully crafted to get Proposal 14-2 passed.

Home · Articles · News · Books · Finding Isadore‘s Missing...
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Finding Isadore‘s Missing Sisiter

Mardi Link - November 3rd, 2008
Share this scenario with just about any woman and you’re sure to get a shudder: A nine-year-old girl from a big city in the Midwest is orphaned after her mother is committed to a psychiatric hospital and her father is killed in a traffic accident. The country is facing economic strife, her parents were Polish immigrants and no relatives come forward to claim her. Her two teenage brothers are left to fend for themselves. They manage to make their way in life, barely, but are not equipped to care for their sister. It was as if bad luck and doom crossed paths one day and she was standing at the intersection, all alone in the world, even before her 10th birthday.
These circumstances would be dire today, but imagine now that the year is 1883. Options for women are few–for girls even fewer–and for orphaned girls like this one, there are none at all except for this: the convent.
This hypothetical lost little girl was a real person. In the end, the Catholic Church in Detroit took her in, and the Felician Sisters there –many of them Polish–fed her, clothed her, educated and even loved her. Not surprisingly, she became a nun.

SISTER MARY
Before she took the habit her name was Josephine Mezek, and when she was in her 30s she was sent to teach at a Catholic school founded to serve a Polish settlement in Isadore, located on the Leelanau peninsula. Then, on August 23, 1907, she disappeared and became the infamous Sister Mary Janina, the missing nun of Isadore.
Talk about a cold case. For a non-fiction book about this mystery, I’ve spent the past year trying to find out what really happened to her. The official story is this: She was murdered by the parish’s housekeeper and church leaders hid the crime until circumstances, beyond even their control, made the story public. The housekeeper was arrested, tried, convicted and given a life sentence. End of story.
Well, not exactly. Over the years this mystery has inspired a Broadway play (The Runner Stumbles), a Hollywood movie of the same name, magazine articles, a newspaper series and the signature chapter in a book about Michigan murders.
And yet, more than 100 years later, I found that the full story of what happened to that young woman, and to the village of Isadore after her murder, still remains in pieces. The true story had been hidden away inside library archives, old photo albums, prison correspondence, newspaper clippings and the memories of local people who were children themselves when the case went to trial.

SIFTING THE PAST
I don’t know if this is true for all writers, but for me, the research is the fun part of writing a book, especially historical research. Each new fact leads to two more, which then doubles again and again. Paging through old file folders of original letters, arrest warrants, scraps of notes and rare photographs, I felt like my hands were touching the lives of the people in this story. Thankfully for nosy writers like me, we are a society that values and documents our past.
Through an Internet search, I found out that the University of Notre Dame has an extensive collection of materials on Polish Catholic immigrants in Northern Michigan, and part of this collection was related to the murder of Sister Janina. I called the university’s archivist to get more information about what exactly the collection consisted of. Was there enough source material to make it worth the five-hour drive and a personal visit?
“Well,” the archivist told me, deadpan, “if we took out the whole collection, lined it up on the floor and measured it with a measuring tape, it’d be about 54 feet long.”
I drove down to South Bend the next day. That was early in the process. Since then I’ve found that paper resources like these have been relatively easy to track down – it’s the living, breathing ones that have been much more difficult to access.

MISSING NUN
Pay a visit to the four corners of Isadore, go to mass at Holy Rosary Church, walk through a century of history in the cemetery, line up for one of their famous chicken dinners and it is as if no time has passed. The fate of Sister Mary Janina is still not spoken of. Not in conversation, not on a headstone for her grave, and not even in the parish’s official history.
A well-researched, heavily illustrated and lovingly compiled book about Holy Rosary School was published by the parish in 1998 to celebrate the school’s centennial. Though every priest, every nun, every missionary and even the janitors are all mentioned by name, Sister Mary Janina’s is nowhere to be found within its 175 pages. According to the editors, time leapt from 1904 to 1919 with only this statement: “The succeeding years proceeded relatively uninterrupted.”
I suppose that’s true if you don’t count the murderess who faked insanity, the female spy, the jailhouse confession, the skeleton assembled in front of a jury in the old Leland Courthouse, the Michigan State Supreme Court appeal, a Governor’s clemency and a local farmer’s suicide. The years were indeed relatively uninterrupted except for those events.
To me, Josephine Mezek’s rough start and Sister Janina’s tragic end makes her story more worth sharing, not less. True history isn’t always quaint and congratulatory just because it’s local. Instead, often it’s twisted, chaotic, and even violent. How our predecessors untangled what the fates of the past hurled their way is exactly what makes their lives interesting and their stories worth remembering. And yes, even writing down.
Mardi Link’s book, “100 Witnesses of Isadore,” will be published in July 2009 by The University of Michigan Press. Her first book, “When Evil Came to Good Hart: an up-north cold case,” details the 40-year investigation into the murder of a Detroit family. It was also published by The University of Michigan Press and spent four weeks on the Heartland Bestseller List.
 
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