Over a hundred years ago, a frail nun who lived in a remote Michigan village was murdered and buried in a shallow grave in the very basement of the holy grounds where she lived and worshipped. What was uncovered during the subsequent trials spoke of lies, sexual trysts by those holding holy office and the attempt to spare the Catholic Church embarrassment even if it meant covering up a murder.
Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Isadore, Michigan was dedicated August of 1883. Next to it stood Holy Rosary School, a three-story brick building that along with the church served generations of the Polish immigrant families of Leelanau County.
Almost twenty-four years to the date of its dedication, Father Bieniawski the pastor of the church returned from a fishing trip at Carp Lake. It was not long before it was brought to his attention that Sister Mary Janina, Sister Superior of the convent had disappeared. The father took over a week to notify the authorities, however foul play was not suspected, in fact it was believed Sister Mary had forsaken her vows and run away.
Traverse City police duly searched the area but with no success. Wyandotte's police were told to look for her, which is where she had lived up to the age of nine, in case she returned to the area.
The church family at Isadore was small when Sister Mary Janina arrived. It included Father Andrew Bieniawski, his teenage sister Susan, his Polish housekeeper Stanislawa Lipczynska and her daughter Mary and a chore boy named Gruba.
The three nuns, Mary Janina, Angelina and Josephine were all tubercular which is why they had been sent to the small Michigan village, hoping the clean, fresh air would help alleviate their symptoms.
The three sisters slept above the church and the others slept at the rectory except Gruba who went home.
School was not in session for the summer and no students were on the grounds.
A week after her disappearance two things happened. Over 250 men from the Isadore Catholic Church volunteered to search for the missing nun, and the other two remaining sisters left the convent claiming they did not want to meet the unknown but feared fate of Sister Mary Janina. Even when Father Bieniawski pleaded with them not to leave, they left anyway, obviously they did not believe that Sister Mary had forsaken her vows and run off.
The volunteers split up into three groups, and a bloodhound was brought in to help in the search. In a nearby swamp pieces of clothing were found as well as where someone had eaten some berries, but eventually they were no closer to finding where the missing nun was. The searchers still didn’t believe anything bad had happened to her, only that she was wily enough to have escaped from the search group.
Unaccompanied young women were suspected of being the runaway nun, and in October 1907 a woman named Frances Cox who was from Boston was held by Frankfort police on suspicion of being the runaway nun. They didn’t release her until Father Bieniawski came forward and verified that she was not Sister Mary.
The years moved on and the mystery of Sister Mary’s disappearance faded, and many thought she was living under a false name in some other place, possibly having married and had children. There was no pity for a woman who was thought to have forsaken her vows to Christ, but that was to change eleven years after her disappearance.
The events of what happened to Sister Mary on a hot, August day over a decade before was only exposed for two reasons, one the Church wanted to keep her fate and whereabouts a secret, even if her reputation suffered for it, as well as protecting a murderer, and secondly that one of the persons charged with protecting these secrets did not know how to keep his mouth shut.
In 1910 Father Bieniawski was replaced by Father Podlaszewski, and in 1918 as pastor of the church he was making plans to tear down the old church and construct a new one on the site which was the catalyst which set everything in motion.
It appeared that the whereabouts of Sister Mary was a mystery to the general population but not to several fellow priests of the area, who discreetly told Father Podlaszewski that Sister Mary was to be found only a few feet from where she had worshipped at, and that the planned construction would bring scandal to the small church.
They told him she was buried in the basement of the church, and that’s exactly where Father Podlaszewski found her remains in a shallow grave.
Podlaszewski later testified that he had been instructed to disinter the body and rebury it with the utmost discretion, and he asked the local sexton Jacob Flees to help dig her up, and bury her in the church cemetery.
It was not long before the secret of Sister Mary’s disappearance came to the attention of Leelanau County Sheriff John Kinnucan, and by February 1919, arrest warrants had been issued for Father Bieniawski who was then stationed at Manistee, and the woman who had been his housekeeper during his tenure at Holy Rosary, Mrs. Stanislawa Lipczynska.
Bieniawski did some fast talking and was not arrested, however a guard was placed around the parish home he was staying at. Mrs. Lipczynska was promptly taken to jail.
Some newspaper accounts hinted that the secret witness was the sexton and another story claimed that there were two other witnesses, Rev. Father Joseph A. Lempke and Sister Antonia sister superior of the Felician convent in Detroit. Father Lempke testified that he was informed in 1915 by Bishop Edward Kozlowski from Milwaukee, who died shortly afterward that the nun had been killed and buried under the church. He was one of the priests who had informed Podlaszewski of what would be found during the construction of the new church.
Sister Mary Antonia corroborated Father Lempke’s testiomy stating that Mother Mary Veronica Mother Provincial of Milwaukee, quoted Bishop Kozlowski as saying Sister Mary John "did not forsake her vow at Isadore, but was killed by a woman and buried under Holy Rosary church there".
The whereabouts of Sister Mary would have remained undiscovered, had not it been for an indiscretion by Father Podlaszewski. In those months that he was burying a murdered nun in secret he was carrying on an affair with his 19-year-old housekeeper, Martha Miller, whose father was a farmer in the area.
In December 1918, he drove unmarried Martha Miller to Ann Arbor Hospital to give birth to her illegitimate child. She later testified that during that trip he told her the secret of what had happened to Sister Mary and what he had found under the dirt of the basement and that the sexton had helped him in this bit of skulduggery.
This information was wrested from Martha by her father after her return to Isadore, who then notified authorities. Another confession that Martha made was that she had been having an amorous relationship with Father Podlaszewski. What do you think are the odds he was the father of her child?
Eventually Father Podlaszewski made an appearance before the church tribunal where he was stripped of his position, titles, robes and duties. He was shuffled through the years from parish to parish, and eventually disappeared from all records. More than likely this everlasting punishment was inflicted on him for having loose lips rather than betraying his vow of chastity.
Police started their investigation which included locating Jacob who later signed an affidavit that he had indeed helped Podlaszewski with what was left of the poor nun which was a few bones, a rosary, a steel ring and part of a cord used on the nun’s frock. He said that after they had buried her they had covered the secret grave with shrubbery.
Officers dug up the hidden grave in the cemetery and found what Jacob had described inside a small wooden box. They took the remains into evidence to be used later during the trial.
Initially it was not clear why Mrs. Lipczynska had attacked Sister Mary. It was said that she had several altercations with her before the day of her disappearance and she was also said to be jealous of the nun. Jealousy supposedly stemmed from an illicit affair Father Bieniawski was having with not only Sister Mary Janina but all three of the nuns at the convent.
During the initial investigation the police used the ring found in the wooden box to establish if this was indeed the bones of Sister Mary and if the dates engraved inside it matched up to the dates of the sister taking holy orders.
Sister Mary's story was tragic indeed. She had been born Josephine Mazek in 1870 and she had immigrated with her parents and siblings from Czechoslovakia and they settled in Chicago. In August 1880, when she was only nine years old Josephine was turned over to the orphanage run by the Felician sisters in Detroit, Michigan. Her father had died and her mother who suffered from mental illness was possibly unable to care for her and her three brothers. Her mother was committed to the Illinois Eastern State Hospital for the Insane in 1883.
On August 12th, 1890 when she was 18 years old, Josephine received holy habit and her name was changed to Mary Janna or Johns. She took her first vows in August 1892, and the second in August 1901. In 1906 she was sent to Isadore, and she disappeared August 1907 when she was thirty-two years old.
When the police sought warrants for the murder of Sister Mary in February 1919, both Father Bieniawski and Mrs. Lipczynska denied any knowledge of the secret grave or the murder.
Within a day of her arrest, Mrs. Lipczynska posted the $4500 bail imposed by the judge. This money was obtained with help from Father Bieniawski.
Rumors circulated that the police believed Mrs. Lipczynska was really the accessory to the crime and not Father Bieniawski, and they were hoping they could squeeze the 50-year-old woman into providing information on to who was the true murderer.
Father Bieniawski insisted that he had been on a fishing trip with his sister Susan, and the sexton Jacob on the day Sister Mary had gone missing. He told authorities that he had even offered a $500 reward for information and had notified Sister Mary’s brother Frank Mezek in Chicago, who said he would come, but never did.
But as the days passed the plot thickened when it turned out that Mrs. Lipczynska's daughter Mary who had lived with her during the time of the nun’s disappearance was now Mrs. Flees and a cousin of Jacob Flees the sexton who was implicated with assisting Father Podlaszewski.
Justice moved quickly in those days and by March 1919, Stanislawa "Stella" Lipczynska was set to stand trial for first degree murder.
One of the first to give testimony was Jacob Flees, the sexton who said that Father Podlaszewski had told him it had been Mrs. Lipczynska who had killed the nun, but did not offer how he knew this information. The proceedings came to a grinding halt when Mrs. Lipczynska started acting like she was insane, so it was determined she needed to be assessed. All this did was slow down the proceedings, and by the end of October she had been found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life with hard labor to be served at the Detroit House of Correction.
A rumor and a suspicion that circulated amongst those involved but never introduced into the proceedings was that Sister Mary had been pregnant.
Mrs. Lipczynska's conviction in part was based on testimony of an undercover, woman detective named Mary Tylicka who had been placed in the jail cell as another inmate, and later testified that Mrs. Lipczynska had confessed that she had killed Sister Mary with a spade which she used to hit her over the head.
Within a year after the conviction, Mrs. Lipczynska's attorney had taken their appeal of the sentence to the supreme court, claiming that said confession was obtained under duress and that the skeletal remains had never been positively identified as belonging to Sister Mary. The courts denied her appeal, however in Jan. 1927 she was paroled by Gov. Groesbeck and by 1931 she was considered fully rehabilitated and taken off parole. She had rejoined her family in those intervening years, and never made any public statements concerning the murder or the court proceedings. She went on to be hired as a housekeeper by the Felician Order of Nuns in Milwaukee and died at the age of 92 in 1961.
If she was indeed the murderer, it was a secret she took to her grave. One thing was certain, though deeply devoted to the Catholic religion, she had a reputation of being stern and unlikeable, a view shared by residents of Isadore, her few friends and family members.
Father Andrew Bieniawski died in 1964 at the age of 89.
Even after her death mystery surrounded Sister Mary Janina. During the trial, fellow nuns were allowed to perform a brief ceremony over her bones since she had never received funeral rites. This was the last time it was known what became of her remains. Some say that she was buried in an anonymous grave in the Felician Motherhouse in Detroit, others that her anonymity continues but in a grave in the cemetery down the road from Holy Rosary Church, possibly at the foot of a large cross spared from a lightning hit in 1989 that destroyed other trees in monuments around it.
In truth there remains an unsolved mystery regarding the murder of Sister Mary Janina, maybe not as to who did it, but why.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer