Much of the information in this post comes from the well-researched and interesting book, Isadore's Secret, by Mardi Link. Anyone wishing to learn more about this tragic event should pick up a copy.
Somewhere in Michigan - January, 1919Father Edward Podlaszewski was on an unusual mission. Being the only priest at Holy Rosary Church serving the small, Polish farming community of Isadore on the remote Leelanau Peninsula he probably had to preform many roles, but his role on this day was "complex." On the surface, he was performing an act of a charity. One of his young parishioners had become pregnant outside of wedlock. Her parents had come to him for counsel and he had advised them to send her to the St. Joseph's Sisters of Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor where she could give birth and put the child up for adoption. Her parents agreed, and in December, Fr. Podlaszewski had driven the teenage Martha Miller downstate. Now, he was bringing her back to the community. It was a long slow trip, and the two had ample time to talk. One topic of conversation which hung heavy in the air was the paternity of the child. Martha had never divulged this secret, not even to her parents. Only Fr. Podlaszewski knew. It was he.
However, there was a much darker secret discussed that day. This one belonged to Fr. Podlaszewski, and the fact that it was known only by him and other clerics or employees of the Catholic Church gave it the sickly scent of cover-up.
Why Father Podlaszewski felt the need to share this secret is unknown. That he confessed it to Martha showed how much he trusted her ability to keep her silence. However, Martha had gone through a lot in the last two months. Being torn from her family over Christmas only to have her child torn from her arms had changed her. She was no longer compliant and willing to abide wrongdoings. When she reached Isadore and the arms of her family, she disclosed to her parents both the secret regarding the paternity and the other one, the one Father Podlaszewski had confessed to her. The second was, by far, the more shocking. It was a dark secret that carried a web of wrongdoing stretching all the way to Milwaukee and its beloved Polish Auxiliary Bishop. However, the center of the secret was right there in Isadore, in the cramped quarters of Holy Rosary's basement. It was a pile of bones in a shallow grave covered by heap of scrap wood; a pile of bones belonging to a long-missing nun and those of her unborn child.
The story begins in......
Isadore, Centerville Township, Michigan - Fall, 1907
This small, close-knit community is in an uproar. No one can understand what has happened to the young, vivacious Sister Mary Janina. The day in August when she disappeared had seemed like any other. The pastor, Father Andrew Bieniawski, had gone fishing that day, but there was nothing unusual in that. Everyone else had much work to do, and that was certainly not unusual. Everyone appeared to follow their normal routines. However, late in the afternoon, they began to realize the world had tilted - no one could find Sister Janina.
Both Fr. Bieniawski's sister and a church errand boy had accompanied him on the fishing expedition. That had left five people remaining on the church grounds: Sister Janina, two other Felician sisters, the church housekeeper Stella (Marciniak) Lipczynski, and her teenage daughter, Mary Lipczynski. Stella, as always, had much work to do. In addition to her regular chores, she also had to help Mary sew a dress. The nuns also had much work. The Bishop was coming in two days to bless their new brick schoolhouse and they had to clean the school, retrieve the decorations from the church basement, and then hang them about the grounds. However, all three nuns were in weak health. (Sister Mary Janina suffered from T.B.) So, as was their custom, all three went to their separate chambers to lay down for a nap before their afternoon labors.
The first indication that something was awry occurred when Sisters Angelina and Josephine awoke and went to look for Sister Janina. Not only was she not in her room, but she had left behind two items that she should have kept with her.....always. Her long rosary, which should have been cinched around her waist, was hanging forlornly from her door handle, and her prayer book, which should have been in a special pocket of her habit, sat on a windowsill, its pages turned by the unseen hand of the breeze.
Sisters Angelina and Josephine commenced what would be the first of many searches for the missing nun. Each search grew in size and scope from the one that had preceded it. First, it was just the people at the church searching. In the next several days, the local sheriff was summoned and then, volunteers stood watch throughout the night. On the Sunday after her disappearance, four hundred people gathered to do a systematic search of the area. When that proved fruitless, Fr. Bieniawski, out of his own pocket, hired a private detective to help solve the mystery. Becoming more desperate, he also offered a $500 reward and engaged the services of a trained bloodhound. The dog had become somewhat of a legend in the region based on its ability to find missing (or hiding) individuals. The hound followed a scent into a cornfield, through a swamp and across a road, all the way to a second dirt road, where the trail vanished. Some searchers (without the consent of Fr. Bieniawski) even brought in a clairvoyant In the end it appeared every inch of the church grounds and the nearby forest had been scoured.
All these searches revealed just a few, ambiguous clues. The bloodhound had led the men to some footprints wandering around the swamp which may have been Sr. Janina's. A piece of torn cloth, apparently from the habit of a nun, was found attached to a barbed wire fence running along the roadway where the dog had lost the scent. One dark evening, just after the nun had disappeared, the men standing guard at the church, including the sheriff and a newspaper reporter, had heard what sounded like Sr. Janina singing her favorite hymn. The eerie voice seemed to come from the depths of the swamp, and instead of inspiring the men to look for her, it raised their hackles. None of them dared to venture into the night. Later, a woman reported that she had been walking near the swamp that night and had seen Sr. Janina, or at least a nun, wandering about the swamp, It was this nun that was singing the hymn. However, the woman did not approach the nun. Maybe it was because the strange way that the nun's candle remained steady, and did not flicker in the breeze.
One other piece of evidence was found under strange circumstances. Two months after the disappearance another nun had to retrieve the decorations stored in the basement of the church. As she opened the small door to the basement, the sunlight reflected off of something on the ground. They were eyeglasses, perhaps Sr. Janina's. But if they were Sr. Janina's how could these glasses, laying in plain view near the basement door, have been missed by the countless searchers who had scoured every inch of the basement in the last two months? If they weren't Sr. Janina's, to whom did they belong?
In the absence of facts, rumors began to circulate. Sr. Janina had run off with a man. Sr. Janina had returned to her brothers in Chicago. Sr. Janina was held captive in a basement (this the statement of the clairvoyant.) Sr. Janina had been pregnant. This last rumor was given substantiation by the investigations of the Sheriff. He had discovered that despite the rule of the Order two men had been seeing Sr. Janina alone in her bedroom. One was Fr. Bieniawski. The other was her doctor, George Fralick. Moreover, it seemed that lately, Dr. Fralick had been seeing Sr. Janina much more than would normally have been needed by someone suffering from T.B. But all these remained just rumors.
Years passed, and life moved on. In October, 1910, Mary Lipczynski married Joseph Fliss of Milwaukee who had cousins in Isadore. After the wedding, she and her mother, the housekeeper, Stella, moved to Milwaukee. In 1913, Fr. Bieniawski was transferred to a different parish, and his sister went with him. The nuns who had been at the church at the time of the disappearance had left much earlier, just a short time after the event. They had requested the transfer because they were afraid for their lives. In just a few short years, there was no one left at the church who had worked with the nun.
However, Sister Janina was not forgotten. The fact that her disappearance had never been solved haunted some individuals and was a thorn in the side of others. For the sheriff, it may have been a cold case, but it was still open. He undoubtedly would have welcomed any useful information in the matter. There were, in fact, several individuals who had such information. One of these, before his death in 1915, was the Auxiliary Bishop of Milwaukee, Edward Kozlowski. Bishop Kozlowski had important information, including the whereabouts of the remains of Sister Janina. Although he had shared that information with several other individuals, none of them were in law enforcement. In fact, four at least four years, none of the Church officials who knew about the remains of Sr. Janina shared that information with investigators. It could be that was because the source of Bishop Kozlowski's information was not first hand. It had come from an individual who knelt down before a priest, and in a voice that must have betrayed some fear and anguish stated, "Bless me father, for I have sinned...."
TO BE CONTINUED......
*The source of the information regarding the settling of Isadore, Michigan comes from the article on
Centerville Township, Michigan on Wikipeida. It appears to be corroborated by the records. For example, Isadore's Secret states that one of the earliest settlers of Isadore, and the person who chose the site for Holy Rosary Church, was Jacob Rosinski, Sr. The Michigan death record of his son Jacob, Jr., indicates that he was born in Milwaukee in 1872. (Jacob Rosinski, Jr., played a minor role in Sr. Janina's tragedy and is mentioned in Isadore's Secret.) I could not tie these Rosinskis to any family that stayed in Milwaukee. However, records on the Poznan Project indicate that they originated from the area around Smogulec and Kcynia, Poland which is the source of other Milwaukee families. Also, as mentioned above, the Fliss family (sometimes spelled "Flees") had branches in both locations. In addition, Mary Fliss, of the Michigan branch (possibly an aunt of the Joseph Fliss mention above), married Martin Brzezinski who had been born in Wisconsin in 1875. (Their son Andrew married Katherine Rosinski, daughter of Jacob, Sr.) Again, I could not find a link between this Martin Brzezinski and any of the Brzezinskis who remained in Milwaukee, but it is quite possible that there is such a link.