Agnes of God

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In the winter of 1977, a tragedy was painfully and painstakingly unfurled in the Monroe County, New York courtroom of Judge Hyman Maas. Eleven months earlier, on April 27, 1976, a Roman Catholic nun and school teacher, Sister Maureen Murphy, surreptitiously gave birth to a baby boy at the Our Lady of Lourdes parish convent in Brighton, just outside Rochester. It was alleged that she then shoved a pair of panties into the infant’s mouth, asphyxiating him, and left his remains in a wastebasket. After the body was found, the 36-year-old member of the Sisters of St. Joseph was questioned, but she denied ever being pregnant. Medical examiners at nearby Genesee Hospital concluded that she had, in fact, recently delivered a baby, and had apparently managed to conceal the pregnancy under a traditional nun’s habit, but Sister Maureen claimed she did not remember it. She was charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter along with criminally negligent homicide. It was a high profile case. Ms. magazine dispatched Catherine Breslin to cover the trial, which lasted ten days. The fact that Sister Maureen had waived her right to a jury trial only served to heighten the courtroom drama. Even in the supposedly enlightened days of the late 1970s, some questioned out loud whether a Catholic nun could expect to receive a fair trial from a Jewish judge. On March 5, newspapers around the country carried United Press International’s account of the judge’s verdict. The defense had conceded that Sister Maureen committed the act, but had also argued that blood loss during childbirth along with the overall trauma of the experience had impaired her judgment, that she may not even have been fully conscious during the episode, and that she had not actually meant to kill the baby. Judge Maas agreed and found her not guilty on all counts (see “Nun cleared of charges in son’s death,” The Bryan Times, Bryan, OH, March 5, 1977, 10). A story, thrice told

The plotline was apparently too good to allow it to remain simply a work of journalism. Breslin, a lapsed Catholic who had been raised in a convent, decided to turn it into a book. But given the risk of libel in a case in which the defendant had been exonerated, it seemed prudent to transform Sister Maureen Murphy into Sister Angela Flynn, and to make her a character in a novel titled Unholy Child (New York: The Dial Press, 1979; see “Nun’s Story Becomes a Novel,” New York Magazine, July 30, 1979, 9)—and a rather tedious one according to C. Dennis Moore who recently reviewed it for SFReader.com, although he was apparently unaware that it was based on a true story. In the book, Breslin gives herself the opportunity, through the persona of newspaper reporter Meg Gavin, to vent about the church’s attitudes toward sex. Surely it must have been this oppression that caused Sister Angela (a name that bespeaks her innocence) to do the things she did. Although the prolix (501-page) novel did not exactly electrify the reading public, the premise that Sister Maureen’s story was not so much about what she did but about what someone did to her was beginning to take on a life of its own. In the hands of playwright and screenwriter John Pielmeier, who received his undergraduate degree at the Catholic University of America, Sister Maureen soon received another makeover. Instead of Sister Angela, she would now be Sister Agnes. Pielmeier obviously knew what he was doing by choosing this name. Anyone as familiar with the Latin mass as he and Breslin and Sister Maureen and many others still were in 1982 when his play was produced on Broadway would not have missed the allusion. As someone raised mostly in the post-Vatican II Catholic church and who barely remembers the Latin rite I did not miss it when I learned of the 1985 film version of starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes, which was nominated for three Oscars and won Tilly a Golden Globe. Just in time for the great exaltation of victimhood...
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