U of M Press
By Elizabeth Buzzelli 10/19/09
In 1907 a young nun was murdered and buried beneath Holy Rosary Church in the Leelanau County village of Isadore. Isadores Secret, by true-crime writer, Mardi Link, captures the despicable crime, and extends the fascination, disgust, and sadness to yet another generation.
It was the summer of 1907. Sister Janina, 33, disappeared from the convent in the bucolic village of Isadore, a town of Polish immigrants devoted to family, priest, and their church. At that time the clergy held sway over people who were superstitious, uneducated, andlike small towns everywhereinundated with gossip. Rumors ran through town. It was said the nun had run off, leaving the convent because she was unhappy with her life there. Soon it was rumored that she was pregnant.
Father Andrew, the parish priest, searched frantically for her. He hired a bloodhound and a detective. He went from house to house. He contacted anyone who might know of her whereabouts. From that day onward, Father Andrew acted like a man possessed; like a man unable to believe what had happened in his own parish, and like a man with secrets so huge one lifetime wouldnt be enough to contain them.
Years later. A new priest has been assigned to Holy rosary, Father Edwardwith moral lapses of his own. Father Andrew has been sent off into one of the limbos of the Catholic Churchpassed from parish to parish, not settling into his own church for years, and never able to shrug off the scandal of Holy Rosary and Isadore. The new priest wanted to build a tall, red brick edifice that would do him and the community proud. There was one problem. Another priest whispered to him, What will you do about the bones buried in the basement?
With that the secret of Isadore began to unravel. A poor womans live burial came to light, and the sins and omissions of the Church and the men and women who were a part of it slowly surfaced.
What Link has shown so well is that there isnt one person to be blamed in this crime. Although someone was arrested, tried, and convictedit wasnt the work of only that woman. At least not morally. Certainly Father Andrew, the tortured priest, has his share to answer for; also the priest who gossiped about a confession which should have been sealed in the confessional; also the daughter who lied on the witness stand, and members of law enforcement who might have tortured the accusedor not. And then there are lawyers who should have been devoted to truth rather than to the man who paid them.
The nuns, who were at the convent when Sister Janina disappeared, were never called to testify as to what the church, and the charged housekeeper, were like at the time; what they knew of an affair between Father Andrew and the nun. Since Father Andrew paid for his housekeepers legal defense, and eventually got her sentence commuted with the kind of fervor only a man with a heavy conscience might display, it is still a mystery what he knew, when he knew it, and if he could have stopped any of the events.
Lying and hiding the truth helped no onenot in the end. The lives of two priests were ruinedand probably for good cause. A murderer paid only a small part of her sentence for her heinous crime. Questions were left unanswered which havent gone away. It seems Sister Janinas soul is not at rest despite the moment in the courtroom when a nun demanded attention.
Judge, said a female voice from the gallery, may we have a moment with our Sister? With every pair of eyes upon her, Mother Antonia stood and faced Judge Mayne. Following the quiet sister came others. Sixteen of her Sisters stood and filed silently to the front of the room, circled the table where the skeleton lay, and clasped each others hands. Their shoulders heaved with silent weeping, and Mother Antonia led them in the recitation of their ritual prayer for the dead.
This was all the ceremony Sister Janina was ever to receive.
In the 1970s, Michigan playwright, Milan Stitt, who had once studied for the priesthood, wrote a Broadway play called The Runner Stumbles, about a priest and a nun, who fall in love. The nun is soon pregnant, then murdered. The priest was tried for her murder. Stitt admitted the play was based on a true Michigan crime. The play became a film with Dick Van Dyke playing the priest. Again, it is the priest who is charged with the crime of passionkilling the nun when she revealed her secret because he couldnt face what hed done and the man that hed become.
Link, after listing the sources she consulted, the reams of records she went through, the people she talked to, has sifted through the myths and the facts, coming up with what is a credible account of the nuns murder and the people responsiblesome in small part, some in large. The story isnt only sad, but contains much of human failing in the face of solemn vows, and much of men in power using that power in cruel and deceitful ways to protect themselves and the institution they served. But the book isnt an indictment of the Churchthe priests involved are few. It certainly isnt an expose of the people of Isadore, who were more duped than involved with what happened there. It is more a chronicle of men, only too human, fighting demons far beyond them.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org