John Kinnucan, Sheriff of Leelanau County, Michigan, had a problem. He actually had a multitude of problems, but one was of over-riding concern.
There had finally been a break in the case of Sister Janina who had gone missing twelve years earlier in August, 1907. Thanks to information supplied by young Martha Miller, Sister Janina's bones had been located. The information regarding the whereabouts of the body had been told to Martha Miller by Father Podlaszewski. How he had come by the information was a story that was shocking because it implicated the past Auxiliary Bishop of Milwaukee, Edward Kozlowski, in a blatant disregard of both the civil laws of the State of Michigan and the canon laws of the Roman Catholic Church.
Upon questioning by the authorities, Father Podlaszewski had confessed that in the Fall of 1918, he and the church sexton, Jacob Fliss*, had dug up the bones of Sister Janina from the basement of Holy Rosary Church and reburied them in the adjacent Holy Rosary Cemetery. Father Podlaszewski had not been anywhere near the area at the time of Sr. Janina's disappearance, so he was not a suspect in her murder. However, he had not found her bones by accident. At least three different people in the Church had told him where the bones were buried. The last had even gone so far as to instruct Fr. Podlaszewski not tell anyone and to move the bones from the basement to the cemetery in the dark of night. Upon further investigation, it appeared that the source of the information regarding the Sr. Janina's bones had come from Edward Kozlowski who had been a priest in Michigan before he had been appointed as the Auxiliary Bishop of Milwaukee in 1914. Bishop Kozlowski had said more than where the bones had been buried. He had also stated that Sr. Janina had been murdered by a woman. He did not state how he had come by this information, but it must have been through a confession. How else could he have obtained it?
|Milwaukee Journal 2/27/1919|
Sheriff Kinnucan had arrested Stella almost immediately. She had been once again serving as the housekeeper for Father Bieniawski, but now they were working at St. Joseph's parish in Manistee. However, despite several days of intense grilling (without an attorney present), she had refused to budge from her position that she knew nothing about Sister Janina's death. He then tried to trick Stella into signing a blank affidavit on which he could later fill in her "confession." However, the person impressed to translate for Stella saw that the affidavit was blank and told Stella not to sign it. Sheriff Kinnucan decided he had to try a different tack.
|Milwaukee Journal, 2/27/1919|
The second method chosen by Sheriff Kinnucan to extract Stella's confession was psychological intimidation. He noticed how much Stella relied on her religion to help her in her time of troubles. She was constantly in prayer. So he tried to take that support from her by confiscating her rosary and prayer book. When that failed to do the trick, he took more drastic measures. According to what Stella later told her doctors, the Sheriff tried to frighten her into submission. In one instance, he shoved Stella into a dark room where the bones of Sister Janina were laid on a table and illuminated by two glowing candles. The skull, moved by invisible threads, turned toward Stella and the jaw began to move as if trying to speak. Then Mary Tylicki, hidden somewhere, shrieked, "You killed me! You killed me!" The Sheriff kept Stella in the room, alone with the bones, for two hours, until Stella fainted. In another instance, Mary Tylicki turned off the lights in the cell and pulled down the shades. She put on a long black robe and a mask with the face of the devil. She began to make eerie sounds. She approached Stella and pulled two bones out from behind her robe. "These belonged to Josephine Mezek [Sr. Janina]. You must tell me all you know about her murder," she demanded. If all this is true, it is no wonder that Stella became slightly unhinged.
The doubts about Stella's sanity increased so much that her trial was delayed so that she could be sent away for psychological testing. In the end, she was deemed to be sane enough to stand trial.
Her trial, which finally started in October, 1919, was a dramatic affair. By this time, the murder of the nun had reached national notoriety. The spectator area was continually packed, and those who were able to get seats were usually not disappointed by the spectacle. Much of what went on in the courtroom would no longer be allowed under today's standards of judicial fairness. Bishop Kozlowski's statements regarding Sr. Janina being killed by a woman were heard by the jury. Although the judge latter struck them as hearsay and admonished the jury not to consider them, it was bound to leave an impression. The judge also allowed some fellow nuns of Sr. Janina to hold a prayer session over the bones of Sister Janina in the courtroom during the trial. This must have erased any possible doubts that those were, in fact, the bones of Sr. Janina and not some other poor soul. The glaring omission from the trial was any mention that Sr. Janina had been pregnant at the time of her death. Sheriff Kinnucan and the other four men who had been present at the time the bones of the fetus had been discovered had all sworn to keep this matter a secret. None of them had bothered to tell Stella's attorneys of this crucial fact which may have had an impact on the defense.
Of course, the dagger to the heart of the defense was the testimony of the "spy," Mary Tylicki. When placed on the stand, she stated that Stella had confessed the crime to her. Not only that, Mary Tylicki was able to fill in much of the story that was otherwise missing from the prosecution's case. For example, in regard to how Father Kozlowski came to his knowledge, Mary Tylicki testified that Stella told her, that she (Stella) had gone to confession in Milwaukee. The priest who had heard the confession was Father Nowak. When he had heard Stella's confession, he had been unsure as to whether he could give Stella absolution. He had told Stella to wait in the church while he consulted with Bishop Kozlowski. This explained how the Bishop had learned the information. [If true, Mary Tylicki's story does not explain why both Father Nowak and Bishop Kozlowski would then break the seal of the confessional, supposedly one of the most inviolate rules of the Roman Catholic Church.] She went on to state that Stella was confused as to why she had been arrested because Stella believed once the Church had given her absolution, she could not be prosecuted by the civil authorities. Finally, Mary Tylicki testified that Stella's mental illness was all feigned in order to avoid jail.
Stella took the stand in her own defense. She denied killing Sr. Janina. She denied confessing to Fr. Nowak. She denied confessing to Mary Tylicki. She denied telling Mary Tylicki that she was going to pretend to be crazy.
Her denials were not enough. In the end, the jury took six ballots to reach a unanimous guilty verdict for murder in the first degree. The judge sentenced Stella to life imprisonment with hard labor. However, she was pardoned after serving only seven years. She moved to Milwaukee to be with her daughter. Just a month after leaving the Michigan prison for the murder of a Felician nun, she was hired by the Felician Order in Wisconsin to work as a cook, and she remained there for the next 30 years. Stella died in 1962 and is buried in St. Adalbert's Cemetery.
Ironically, the bones of poor Sr. Janina appear to have been lost. They were first buried in the basement of Holy Rosary Church. Then Fr. Podlaszewski and Jacob Fliss had dug them up in the dark of night and re-buried them in the Holy Rosary Cemetery. When this secret had become known, the civil authorities had again exhumed the bones. They were then used as props to scare Stella Lipczynski, as an exhibit in the courtroom, and as the subject of prayer by fellow nuns. What happened to them after the trial is not known. It would have been nice if they had be reburied at Holy Rosary, but there is no record of this every having been done.
Coming Next: Sin, Confession, and .... Cover-up? (Second Guessing)
The facts of this case formed the loose basis for the play, The Runner Stumbles, by Milan Stitt. (I have not seen the whole play, but it appears that storyline merges the roles of Father Podlaszewski and Father Bieniawski, or at least assumes Father Bieniawski was the lover of St. Janina. Moreover, it appears that the pregnancy of the nun forms the whole focal point of the play, whereas, in real life, it was a closely guarded secret that was not mentioned at all in the trial.) The play was made into a movie of the same name, starring Dick Van Dyke, which was filmed near Roslyn, Washington. The town now celebrates the event with an annual cross-country race.
*Jacob Fliss is stated to be a cousin of Joseph Fliss, husband of Mary (Lipczynski) Fliss. It is possible the parents of Jacob and Joseph were siblings but I could not document the exact relationship.
**There are several possible choices as to whom this Mary Tylicki may be. Three possibilities are all daughters-in-law of Joseph Tylicki. (The numbers in parenthesis are the age they would have been in 1919.) They are Maire (Kuranki) Tylicki (60), wife of Felix; Mary (Paluczak) Tylicki (57) wife of Frank, and Mary (Drzewuszewski)[Woods] Tylicki (40), wife of Nicholas.
Mary Lipczynski Fliss had a daughter Estelle Fliss. Estelle's first husband was Stanley Bembenek. He appears to have been the uncle of Laurie Bembenek (aka, "Bambi" Bembenek). Thus, Estelle may be in the unique position of being both the granddaughter of one woman convicted of a nationally famous murder, and the aunt of another.
"Church Politics May Enter Leland Trial," Luddington Daily News, October 21, 1919, pg. 6
"Death Secret Buried With Bishop Here," Milwaukee Sentinel, March 1, 1919, pg. 9
"Killing of Nun Described," Milwaukee Journal, October 18, 1919, pg. 12.
"Late Milwaukee Bishop Named in Nun's Death," Milwaukee Sentinel, March 2, 1919, pg. 11
"The Law of the Seal of Confession," on the Catholic Encyclopedia
Link, Mardi, Isadore's Secret, University of Michigan Press, 2009
Link, Mardi, "Where is Sister Janina?", on Wonders and Marvels
"Probe of Death of Michigan Nun May Center Here," Milwaukee Journal, February 26, 1919, pg. 2
Saunders, William, "Secrecy of Confession is Absolute," on CatholicCulture.org
"Seal of the Confessional and the Catholic Church," on Wikipedia
"Witness in Nun Death Found," Milwaukee Journal, February 27, 1919, pg. 1