MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Eight nuns live together in a simple white house on a busy street in Waterville, Maine. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are elderly, the youngest 69 years old. They divide their time between meals, chores, and prayer.
A dozen years ago, a brutal crime changed their community forever. The women have learned to forgive, but they choose not to forget. Independent producer Jessica Alpert has their story, and here's a note, this story includes some graphic descriptions of violence.
Unidentified Woman: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.
JESSICA ALPERT: The sisters' peaceful life was shattered in January of 1996. Mark Bechard, a 38-year-old man who worshiped with them, stormed into the small chapel and demanded to speak with the priest. Bechard was severely mentally ill and off 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 is a member of the community. She said Bechard then headed next door to the convent.
Sister MARY CATHERINE PERKO (Nun, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament): So he banged on the door and broke the glass and was able to open the door, came in, and found one of the first sisters, Mary Julian, in the kitchen, and she was cutting up some veggies for supper.
Sister NOREEN THOME (Nun, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament): And Sister Mary Julian 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.
ALPERT: Sister Noreen Thome was in the kitchen.
Sister THOME: They didn't get here in time to save her life. 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, and 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 Julian and Sister Mary Anna were on the floor, and Sister Mary Anna was choking in her own blood.
ALPERT: When the police arrived, they found Bechard with a statue of the Virgin Mary in his hands poised to bludgeon Sister Patricia Ann Keane. Guns drawn, police told Bechard to drop the statue or they'd shoot. The officers took Bechard into custody.
Sister PERKO: The local superior called me. She said something terrible has happened.
ALPERT: Sister Mary Catherine was in Rome when she heard the news.
Sister PERKO: 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 of what happened, and I just said, no comment, no comment, and I rushed into the house. We went to see his family, and what could we do but just hug one another.
(Soundbite of crying)
Sister PERKO: We could hardly speak. It was so horrible.
ALPERT: Sister Mary Catherine was surprised by how quickly individual nuns began praying for Bechard.
(Soundbite of nuns praying)
Unidentified Women: Glory to the father and to the son...
ALPERT: Within a few days of the attack, the convent issued a statement forgiving him.
Unidentified Women: Bend you ear to my prayer.
ALPERT: It's one thing to issue a statement, but how could the sisters make this real? Sister Elizabeth Madden had defined something that moved beyond words.
Sister ELIZABETH MADDEN (Nun, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament): When I came back here in the year 2000, I was so aware that it just occurred to me on Holy Thursday that it would be very fitting if the parents would agree to come and take part in the washing of the feet.
(Soundbite of organ music)
Sister MADDEN: Two of the four victims who are still living, and one of them Sister Mary Anna, I had asked her if she would like to take part in the washing of the feet, and she was very agreeable to it.
(Soundbite of choir singing)
ALPERT: The washing of the feet is a ritual performed on the Thursday before Easter. It recreates the moment described in the gospel of John when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.
Sister MADDEN: 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.
We need to say, I understand. Given the circumstances, it might have 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.
ALPERT: Since 1996, Mark Bechard has been hospitalized in a state-run mental institution. The state of Maine grants him increasing degrees of freedom, such as taking supervised day trips within 10 miles of the hospital. Sister Mary Catherine fears that Mark Bechard may someday be released back into society.
Sister PERKO: 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. And I would easily speak to him without rancor in my heart. I would, but yeah, I wouldn't want him to be free.
ALPERT: The order, strength, and perspective is matched with an equally palpable vulnerability. Sister Mary Catherine describes her community as traumatized. While the tragedy bonded them together, it also shattered their sense of security.
Sister PERKO: When I was living in Rome at the Basilica, they've got this big bell. It moves. On big occasions like Christmas and Easter, you can see it was starting, and then, all of a sudden, bang, bang, bang.
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 like a nice sound.
(Soundbite of church choir)
ALPERT: The sisters' grace doesn't equal amnesia. The fear from that January day still echoes in their lives, but the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament continue to forgive Mark Bechard. The eight women pray for him daily. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Alpert.
BRAND: That story came to us with help from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.