These circumstances would be dire today, but imagine now that the year is 1883. Options for women are fewfor girls even fewerand 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 Polishfed her, clothed her, educated and even loved her. Not surprisingly, she became a nun.
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, Ive spent the past year trying to find out what really happened to her. The official story is this: She was murdered by the parishs 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 dont 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 universitys 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, itd be about 54 feet long.
I drove down to South Bend the next day. That was early in the process. Since then Ive found that paper resources like these have been relatively easy to track down its the living, breathing ones that have been much more difficult to access.
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 parishs 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 schools centennial. Though every priest, every nun, every missionary and even the janitors are all mentioned by name, Sister Mary Janinas 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 thats true if you dont 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 Governors clemency and a local farmers suicide. The years were indeed relatively uninterrupted except for those events.
To me, Josephine Mezeks rough start and Sister Janinas tragic end makes her story more worth sharing, not less. True history isnt always quaint and congratulatory just because its local. Instead, often its 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 Links 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.