Elizabeth Bailey for NPR
Sister Mary Catherine Perko and Sister Mary Emmanuel say they have learned to forgive.
Sister Mary Catherine Perko and Sister Mary Emmanuel say they have learned to forgive. Elizabeth Bailey for NPR
Eight elderly nuns live together in a simple white house on a busy street in Waterville, Maine. A dozen years ago, a brutal crime forever changed the community of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The women have learned to forgive, but they choose not to forget.
The sisters' peaceful lives were shattered in January 1996. Mark Bechard, a 37-year-old man who worshipped with them, stormed into the small chapel and demanded to speak with the priest.
Bechard had a history of mental illness and had stopped taking his medications. He charged along the manicured path that curved between the chapel and the priest's house. The priest wasn't there. Sister Mary Catherine Perko says Bechard then headed next door to the convent.
"So he banged on the door and broke the glass and was able to open the door," recalls Perko, who was not present during the attack. "Came in and found one of the first sisters, Mary Julien, in the kitchen. And she was cutting up some veggies for supper."
Sister Noreen Thome was also in the kitchen at the time. She says, "Sister Mary Julien was at the other end of the kitchen, and she came in and said, 'Call the police.' And I said to her, 'They're on their way,' because I managed to go to the phone and call the police.
"They didn't get here in time to save her life," Thome says. "Mark pulled her from the kitchen and strangled her. I remember she kept saying, 'Stop that! Stop that!' She screamed the most awful scream, and then her cries were stifled."
"Then I went and hid. And I thought, 'I can't stay here hidden. I have to go to the help of those who were attacked.' So I went out, and the medics were just coming in, and Sister Mary Julien and Sister Mary Anna were on the floor. And Sister Mary Anna was choking in her own blood."
When the police arrived, they found Bechard with a statue of the Virgin Mary in his hands, poised to bludgeon Sister Patricia Ann Keane. With guns drawn, police told Bechard to drop the statue or they'd shoot. The officers took Bechard into custody.
Two nuns, Sister Marie Julien Fortin and Mother Superior Edna Mary Cardozo, died from their wounds. Sister Mary Anna DiGiacomo and Keane were seriously injured but survived the attack.
Perko says she was in Rome when she heard the news: "The local superior called me. She said, 'Something terrible has happened.'
"So I booked my passage and came. When we got here, the TV trucks were in front, and as soon as I got out of the car, I was surrounded by reporters wanting to know something, what happened? And I just said, 'No comment. No comment.' I rushed into the house," Perko says. "We went to see his family. And what could we do but just hug one another. We could hardly speak, it was so horrible."
Perko says she was surprised by how quickly individual nuns began praying for Bechard. Within a few days of the attack, the convent issued a statement forgiving him. It's one thing to issue a statement, but how could the sisters make this real?
Sister Elizabeth Madden says she needed to find something that moved beyond words.
"When I came back here in the year 2000, I was so aware. It just occurred to me on Holy Thursday that it would be very fitting if the parents would agree to take part in the washing of the feet," she says.
The washing of the feet is a ritual performed on the Thursday before Easter. It re-creates the moment described in the Gospel of John when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.
"Two of the four victims were still living, and one of them, Sister Mary Anna, I had asked her if she wanted to take part in the washing of the feet, and she was very agreeable to it," Madden says. "And I was so moved at seeing them all together, having their feet washed — one who had been the victim, the others who had grieved so terribly because of what their son had done."
Madden says there was "a need to say, 'I understand. Given the circumstances, it might've happened to me.' And that extends out, because that sort of forgiveness has an effect; it goes out and out like ripples in the water. From Zen Buddhism, there is a wise expression: No praise. No blame. Just so. No praise. No blame. Just so."
Since 1996, Bechard has been in a state-run mental institution. The state of Maine has granted him increasing degrees of freedom, such as taking supervised day trips within 10 miles of the hospital.
Perko fears that Bechard may someday be released back into society.
"Of course I forgive Mark, of course. But I don't want him to be in a situation where he can be doing the same thing again," Perko says. "And I would easily speak to him without rancor in my heart. I would but, yeah, I wouldn't want him to be free."
The order's strength and perspective is matched with an equally palpable vulnerability. Perko says her community is "traumatized," and that while the tragedy bonded them together, it shattered their sense of security.
"When I was living in Rome, at the Basilica, they've got this big bell that moves on big occasions like Christmas and Easter. You could see it was starting, and then all of a sudden — bang, bang, bang," Perko says. "And I always took that bell as my sign, because it must hurt the metal to be struck, but yet it makes this beautiful sound. So I took that as the symbol of my life. No matter what, you know ... no matter how much you're struck and how much it hurts, make it seem joyful, make a nice sound."
The fear from that January day still echoes in their lives, but the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament continue to forgive Bechard. The eight women pray for him daily.