Many are familiar with the movie, Philomena and its heart wrenching expose of deception, tragedy and a mother’s persistent love. It recounts the story of Philomena Lee and the adoption of her son to an American couple through the despicable actions of Irish nuns. Though I doubt it is worthy of its Best Picture Oscar nomination, much is praiseworthy about the movie. The film certainly exposes deep emotional wounds with which too many can identify, disgusting behavior by those charged with the care of others, the devastating consequences of lies and half-truths as well as the destruction caused in its wake.
Now 80, Lee attended mass on Wednesday morning with her daughter, Jane Libbteron, before their brief meeting with Pope Francis. Also with them was Steve Coogan who co-wrote, produced and co-starred in the film. “I felt such a sense of relief yesterday for the guilt I carried and that I still carry a little bit today,” said the real Philomena Lee after meeting the pope. “He really made me feel so good inside because I carried the guilt inside me for 50 years, without telling anybody.” For Lee, said Coogan, the encounter was “part of a perfect catharsis”, which few of her contemporaries at Ireland’s mother and baby homes have been able to enjoy.
For decades my own grandmother’s life was locked in similar sadness and secrecy. All we knew was that she and our Aunt Lizzie were two Irish orphans sent to Nebraska from Boston on an orphan train in the 1880s. Grandma, Annie Elizabeth Casey, was seven and Aunt Lizzie was four. It would take more than 100 years before our family learned the truth of her origins and the tragedy that is part of our family story. This was possible because my four years of graduate school in Boston provided opportunities to cull state and church archives. My quest encountered a response quite different from the suffering imposed on Philomena Lee.
We came to know that Grandma was the eldest of three daughters born to William & Ellen Hannon Casey. Tragedy struck when Katie, the youngest daughter died of bronchitis at the age of seven weeks. Then, Annie and Lizzie’s mother died of tuberculosis the following year. Grandma’s Dad would finally succumb to that ravaging plague thirteen months later in a hospital run by the largely Irish Sisters of Charity.
Records made easily accessible to me at the Catholic archives in Boston indicate that William, with the assistance of the priest who had witnessed their marriage thirteen years earlier, turned over care of his two young daughters on December 4, 1883 to the “Home for Destitute Catholic Children” also staffed by the same Sisters of Charity. William died of tuberculosis less than three weeks later. Of special consolation were fourteen yearly notations in the Home’s original ledger which I held in my own hands (my grandmother’s record in #5416) regarding her care and well being in far off Cedar County, Nebraska. These annual reports conclude simply in 1895 noting Annie’s marriage at age 21 to my grandfather, Joseph C. Wieseler.
We also learned that Annie and Lizzie were two of 96 children “placed-out” from Boston to an Irish Catholic community near Yankton, SD in four groups between 1883 and 1884. There they were broadly placed with families in what was then Dakota Territory and northeast Nebraska which had become a state hardly fifteen years earlier. Grandma lived her childhood in foster care – and as an extra set of working hands – in a series of German immigrant homes. How far this all must have seemed from her Irish roots on Boston harbor holding traumatic loss for one so young!
It was an especially celebratory Easter weekend in 1986 — 103 years after Annie and Lizzie Casey were sent West — as my mother, Grandma’s sole surviving child, and my father returned to Grandma’s birthplace, the church where she was baptized, and placed flowers on the shared grave of William, Ellen and Katie in the pauper section of Old Calvary Cemetery. Our pilgrimage was consciously made on behalf of Grandma, Lizzie and so many other relatives who would never know the full, true stories of their ancestory. We prayed at the graveside with profound thanks — a circle had been closed. A persistent wound healed in ways that the movie Philomena leaves open and festering.
Today I pray that Philomena Lee’s recent pilgrimage and the full exposure of her tragic story bring to her the healing, reconciliation and joy our family has come to know.