Traverse Classics: Isadore's Secret of The Missing Sister

For over 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we've reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth.com audience.

Traverse Classics: The three-story red brick Holy Rosary schoolhouse has stood in the center of the quiet hamlet of Isadore for 94 years. Until several years ago, the school served generations of the Polish immigrant families of Leelanau County’s Holy Rosary parish. Closed now, the building echoes its emptiness over the rural crossroads that make up Isadore. But in August of 1906—when Sister Mary Janina, a Felician nun from Detroit, first climbed its steps—the building was brand new, ready for its first school year.

The nun had arrived to take a position as schoolteacher and to serve as Mother Superior of the small convent located in the school. Frail and tubercular, we can suppose that she must have been uncomfortable in the brown wool robe of her order as she swept up the schoolhouse steps that summer day. But we know little else about her. Only that Josephine Mezek (her birth name) was orphaned at age 9. She was raised by Felician nuns and grew into a small, plain woman who loved to sing and take long walks in the woods. And that one year from her arrival at Holy Rosary, Sister Mary Janina would disappear—the details of her final hours in Isadore swallowed in the weave of rolling hills, farms and swamp that surround the crossroads.

In the end, the truth about Sister Janina’s fate may have died with one or more of the seven people who lived on the church grounds with her. Foremost was Father Andrew Bieniawski, the 33-year-old parish priest and a stern man known for the odd menagerie he kept, one that included a parrot, two crocodiles and several foxes. Stanislawa Lipczynska, a 37-year-old Polish immigrant, was the rectory housekeeper. Father Bieniawski’s younger sister, Susan, and Lipczynska’s daughter, Mary, also lived at the rectory. A chore boy named Gruba and Sister Janina’s fellow nuns, Sisters Angelina and Josephine—who were, like Sister Janina, tubercular—rounded out the list.

On the face of it, life at Holy Rosary was anything but the setting for a whodunnit. In 1906 nearly 200 children were enrolled at the school and during the winter many of the children boarded there. Everything from feeding to educating their charges was the responsibility of the three frail nuns. Each day, when the work was done, the sisters retired to their cubbyhole quarters on the schoolhouse’s second floor for brief rest and moments to themselves.

When school let out for the summer of 1907, the three nuns decided to stay in Isadore instead of returning to the Felician convent in Detroit, as they’d originally planned. Perhaps they’d hoped the country air would benefit their health. How did the three women fill the long, quiet summer days in Isadore? We can only imagine the hours spent in prayer in the dark, cool church, their chatter as they went about their daily chores. We do know that they napped every afternoon. And that Dr. Fralick from nearby Maple City was often summoned to visit Sister Janina. The convent calls, however, weren’t because Sister Janina was failing—apparently the fresh Northern Michigan air did its work, because the doctor later affirmed that the nun had all but overcome her tuberculosis.

By the end of August the pace of life at the parish quickened. The nuns prepared for the upcoming school year, as well as a much-anticipated visit by Bishop Richter of Grand Rapids to bless the new school. Sister Janina was in charge of toting the artificial flowers out of the church basement to decorate the schoolhouse. Perhaps that was all that was on the sister’s mind on the afternoon of Friday, August 23, 1907, when she joined Sisters Angelina and Josephine in the convent for their afternoon rest. In the yard below, Father Bieniawski, his sister and Gruba were setting out for a fishing trip to nearby Carp Lake (now Lake Leelanau). As their wagon pulled out, the party noticed Sister Janina drawing her shade. That was the last anyone admitted seeing her.

It was a quiet Northern Michigan summer afternoon at the parish. Mrs. Lipczynska was busy around the rectory and her daughter Mary sewed in a back room. Outside, grasshoppers whirred in the fields, and perhaps the clink of crockery from a neighboring farmhouse drifted across the empty landscape—in Isadore, Friday was baking day.

A few hours later, Sisters Josephine and Angelina woke from their nap to find Sister Janina gone. They began to worry when they found the backdoor of the schoolhouse ajar—it was always kept locked—and Sister Janina’s prayer book open on the windowsill. At the rectory, neither Mrs. Lipczynska nor Mary had seen the nun. When the priest returned that evening there was still no sign of her. He gathered the neighbors, and they searched the Holy Rosary grounds by lantern light, from the church basement to the school attic, but found nothing.

When the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported on the nun’s disappearance the following Monday, the story captivated the region: “As the door swung open, there are a hundred things that might have confronted her,” the reporter speculated. “It might have been a lover of her younger days…maddened at his loss, come into Northern Michigan and, taking a desperate chance, kidnapped the woman of his heart…” Meanwhile, the investigation was being bungled. Neighbors trampled the crime scene in their search. And a week passed before the first public authority, Leelanau County Sheriff Martin Brown, stepped in. The searches turned up no clues. But theories about what happened to Sister Janina were plenty. Some thought she’d left the convent—it was rumored that a strange buggy had been seen near the church on the day of her disappearance. Still others speculated that a local drunk had murdered her, but there was no evidence.

Then, nine days after the nun was last seen, women’s footprints were found in the swamp. Some were a few days old; others were fresh. Later in the day, more women’s prints turned up along a road near the church, and a bit of brown wool was found in a barbed wire fence nearby. Three days afterward, a neighboring farmer reported hearing a woman singing from a swamp near his home, and he thought he saw a flickering lantern through the trees. That night, a group of men were posted on the road, near the swamp. They, too, heard the singing, but were too spooked to follow it. Two days later, more tracks were discovered.

Meanwhile, the case was piquing a supernatural interest. A clairvoyant from Kingsley described a house on Glen Lake where he said Sister Janina was being held captive. The Sheriff from Empire searched a house that fit the clairvoyant’s description but turned up nothing.

A more substantial lead arrived at the church a few days later in the form of a mysterious letter postmarked Chicago. It read in part:

“Sister Mary Janina who disappeared from the Convent was not abducted or murdered. She was simply tired of her job and slipped quietly away…”

The letter was signed simply: A Protestant Pup.

As intriguing as the clues were, nothing ever became of them and the search ended with snowfall. In 1913 Father Bieniawski transferred to a church in Manistee. Mrs. Lipczynska moved to Milwaukee with Mary, who had married. A few years later, however, Lipczynska returned to Michigan to serve Father Bieniawski as housekeeper once again in Manistee. Sometime during those years, both Sisters Angelina and Josephine died of consumption. Gruba moved to Canada and was never heard from again.

Meanwhile, Holy Rosary’s parishioners were left to face the mystery alone. Jackie Budd, who grew up in the parish, remembers her grandfather telling her: “They’d light the candles in the church, then have to re-light them. But after they found her, that never happened.”

Yes, they did find her—but not for 11 years.

In 1918, several fellow priests discreetly told Father Podlaszewski, a successor of Father Bieniawski at Holy Rosary, that he had a scandal waiting to happen under his church—and it must be taken care of. The urgency stemmed from the fact that Podlaszewski was overseeing plans to tear down the old clapboard structure and construct a new church on the site. One fall night, with help from the church sexton, Podlaszewski searched the church basement for clues as to the priests’ warning. It didn’t take long for the two to discover a shallow grave in the dirt floor. It contained, as Podlaszewski assumed from information that had been whispered to him, the remains of the missing nun.

The two moved the bones to the church cemetery and there the case would have rested—but the secret made its way to Leelanau County Sheriff John Kinnucan. In April of 1919 Kinnucan went to Manistee with warrants to arrest both Father Bieniawski and Mrs. Lipczynska. Bieniawski, however, convinced him of his innocence. In the end only Mrs. Lipzcynska was taken to the Leelanau County jail in Leland.

It’s no longer used for a jail, but the old brick building with the black bars over the windows still stands. Dwarfed by the adjacent county offices built decades later, it looks like a leftover from a Western movie set. But to the Polish housekeeper the jailhouse must have been terrifying. Soon after Lipczynska was jailed, the sheriff hired a Polish-speaking detective, Mary Tylicka, to pose as an inmate and elicit a confession. A short time later, Mrs. Lipczynska began showing signs of insanity, rolling on the floor and refusing to eat. She was taken to Ann Arbor for psychiatric examination where after a few weeks a doctor concluded she was feigning and sent her back to Northern Michigan to stand trial.

What was Mrs. Lipczynska true demeanor? Memories of the small, stout woman still linger in Isadore, even after so many decades. Michaeline Pleva was in her first years of school when Lipczynska was still at Holy Rosary. Pleva is bedridden now, but her mind remains sharp and she still recalls the rectory housekeeper. “Kids kept away from her,” she says. “They didn’t go to the rectory unless she called for them.”

By the time Lipczynska’s trial began in the fall of 1919, Pleva was in the 8th grade at Holy Rosary. The year is fixed in her mind, she says, because classes were cancelled so the Holy Rosary nuns could attend the trial. Even so, as a child Pleva knew little about the case: “My parents didn’t believe in talking to kids about things like that,” she says.

The murder of one of their nuns may have been too awful for the people of Isadore to speak of, but the rest of the country was enthralled. Stories about the case of the missing nun ran in papers from the Grand Rapids Press to the Chicago Tribune. In Leland spectators brimmed from the 100-seat courthouse.

The audience listened, riveted, as the prosecution depicted a nun’s murder by a jealous housekeeper who later confessed her crime to a priest in Milwaukee. In the course of the supporting testimony a disturbing picture of life at the parish emerged. Mary Gatzke, who lived in the farmhouse across the street from Holy Rosary, testified that Mrs. Lipczynska often stopped at her house to gossip about the sisters. Mrs. Gatzke’s accounts of those coffee klatches with Mrs. Lipczynska included this: “She said that the priest was no priest. He was no more than a man with wives. She called Janina a slut.”

Another neighbor, Mrs. Jacob Flees, testified that on the day of the nun’s disappearance Mrs. Lipscynka had said of Sister Janina: “She was such a light character that she let Father Bieniawski and the doctor go in her cell [room], and they are not allowed to do this even upon their dying bed.”

But it was the testimony of Tylicka, the detective hired to pose as an inmate, that clinched the prosecutor’s case. According to Tylicka, Lipczynska gave her this confession in the Leland jail:

“First I stunned her and then went out into the garden and got a spade. I dug a hole under the church, dragged the body to the hole and put it in. As I was trying to cover the head, it would always rise up. I threw two or three shovels of dirt on the head, but each time it rose up. Then I took the backside of the spade and knocked the sister three times on the head with all my might.”

A Record-Eagle reporter described the scene as Tylicka testified: “With the brown-robed nuns in tears, the large audience fairly gasping at the horrible details, the courtroom presented a dramatic picture as has never before been seen in Northern Michigan.”

The defense attempted to rally the jury from the shocking alleged confession by pointing out the conflicting testimony of the doctors who examined the remains. Two local physicians, Dr. Fralick of Maple City and Dr. Slepica of Suttons Bay, claimed that a fracture on the skull was the cause of death. But a third, a Chicago pathologist, insisted that the fracture was made after the death. Were the local doctors hiding something? The defense may have believed so—they had planned to show through handwriting samples that Dr. Fralick penned the Protestant Pup letter. But during a consultation from which the jury was excluded, the judge convinced the defense not to bring the letter into the case.

By far and away the defense’s most powerful testimony was Lipczynska’s denial of the confession and her account of the coercion by Leelanau sheriff Kinnucan and Tylicka. While jailed in Leland, Lipczynska recounted, she was led into a dark room where bones and a skull lit by two candles were set on a table. As she watched, horrified, the sheriff manipulated wires to work the jaws as he said, “You killed me! You killed me!” then thrust the skull into her face. Afterwards, Lipczynska alleged that Tylicka hit her over the head with a water ladle, then locked her in a box with the bones.

Glaring questions also surround Lipczynka’s supposed confession. If the housekeeper did indeed kill Sister Janina and bury her in the church basement, why wasn’t the body found during the extensive search that followed her disappearance? Covered in only 18 inches of dirt, certainly it would have smelled in the August heat—a scent that would have attracted the tracking dog brought in on the search or alerted Gruba, the chore boy who slept in the church basement. And what of the footprints in the swamp? And did the local doctor know something he wasn’t revealing? Did Fralick, in fact, pen the Protestant Pup letter in attempt to end—for an unknown reason—prying into the nun’s disappearance?

As horrifying as the jailhouse story was, and despite such lapses in logic, the prosecution had already won the jury with its account of the gruesome confession. Lipczynska was convicted and given a life sentence. The Michigan Supreme Court reviewed the case and upheld the conviction. In 1927, after serving seven years, Michigan Governor Alex Groesbeck pardoned Lipczynska. Oddly, after her release from prison, Lipczynska was hired to be a housekeeper by the Felician order of nuns in Milwaukee. She died at age of 92 in 1961.

In 1922 Holy Rosary’s parishioners completed their new church. A red brick, Romanesque structure, it still stands next to the schoolhouse, gracing the rural crossroads with its imposing presence. The church ushered in a new era for Holy Rosary—one of pride and hope that the tragedy of their nun was finally put to rest.

But was it? In 1979, 60 years after the trial, a Polish attorney from Detroit pointed out the gaps in the prosecution’s case and, along with inferences from unrevealed sources, put forth his theory in a curious book called the The Errant Nun (MassPac Publishing). Writing under the name of Natsolim (his surname Milostan spelled backwards), the attorney makes a rambling case for the fact that the nun was pregnant, died from a botched abortion and was buried on a nearby farm. Later, a handyman exhumed her remains and moved them to the church basement.

If that is the truth, who was the father? Natsolim, for one, discounts an affair between Father Bieniawski and Sister Janina. So does the Catholic Church. And the church claims to know the truth about the case, but upholds that the perpetrator revealed the secret in a confession, so it can’t be shared. A church source (who asks to remain anonymous) concedes that church hearsay is that Lipczynska was innocent.

What do the people of Isadore know? If the community ever knew the truth, the details have died with the generation who lived through the scandal—proud, deeply religious folk who, like Pleva’s parents, never spoke of the parish’s dark secret. It’s entirely possible, however, that some community members did know the truth—given the close-knit parish and the fact that Lipczynska’s daughter married a local man. But in the media attention, the people of Isadore united in silence to protect their community.

Even with the passing of that generation, however, more clues may remain in the unpublished Polish writings of a reporter hired by Detroit’s Polish community to cover the trial. Natsolim claims to have read the documents, and some parish elders, including Pleva, also believe they exist.

But in Isadore, still today, silence surrounds the case, and questions about it anger some of the older parishioners. A recently published book celebrating the school’s history omits all mention of the nun. “Some people call it almost a curse on the parish,” says Lucia Novak who helped with the book. “People say, why do they keep bringing it up? Why won’t they let her rest?”

From Isadore to Broadway

In 1965, when Milan Stitt, a young playwright, sat down to pen a drama about the murder of a nun in Isadore, Michigan, he’d never been there. And he hardly dared dream that the play that would become The Runner Stumbles would ever make it to Broadway.

All Stitt knew of the Holy Rosary story is what his (then) wife told him. She’d grown up in the area and had heard a version of the story that had the priest of Holy Rosary Church tried for killing a nun.

Of course, the story wasn’t accurate—it was the housekeeper who was tried. Nevertheless, Stitt is glad he heard the wrong version. “Had I known that story I wouldn’t have written the play,” he says. Named for a verse from the Bible, Stitt’s drama told of the love affair of a nun and a priest and their two polar perspectives of God—the nun’s loving deity and the priest’s vengeful one.

Stitt didn’t visit Holy Rosary until after he’d finished the play.

It turned out to be a déjà vu experience. “For metaphoric reasons I had always imagined that the church sat on the hill overlooking the town,” he says. “Then to see that it actually did was quite a shock.”

There was more. In the rectory he saw the exact wallpaper he’d described in the play. And reading through transcripts of the trial in Leland he came upon the same testimony of one of the witnesses that he’d made up for his play. Word for word. “That was spooky,” he says.

When the play hit Broadway in 1976, Stitt found yet another cosmic connection. The costume designer’s grandfather had been a member of the jury at the Leland trial.

The Runner Stumbles played for six months at the Little Theatre (now called the Helen Hayes). Since then it’s played all over the world. In Mexico they call it Love and Crime in the House of God, in Germany it’s Privileged Communication, the Spanish know it as Beyond Love and the Japanese recently included it in an anthology with Death of a Salesman and the The Glass Menagerie.

In 1979 The Runner Stumbles was made into a made-for-television movie starring Dick Van Dyke as the priest. When the people of Isadore tuned in, the experience reopened the dark secret. “The movie was kind of a catalyst that opened up talk about the murder,” says Jackie Budd who grew up in the parish. “Before that, it was never mentioned.”

Currently, Stitt directs the Play Writing Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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