Up through the muck of current crime stories, another murder case is rising to ascendance in our public discourse. It concerns Father Gerald Robinson, a Catholic priest who is currently on trial for the murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.
The case has a striking parallel in Michigan's criminal history. Father Robinson, you see, isn't the first priest to fall under dark suspicions for the murder of a nun.
It was 1907; the place was Isadore, Michigan, a remote Catholic outpost where a priest and two young nuns worked on a mission to raise the Polish farmers' children into good Catholic boys and girls. Sister Mary Janina was young and plain. The priest may or may not have been intimate with her. In either case, one day in August she up and disappeared.
They looked for her in every farmhouse, in the swamps, in the woods. Not a trace. Did she break her vows, flee her holy orders? Did someone kidnap her? Was she lost? For years, nobody knew what became of her. Everyone assumed the worst of the priest. He must have gotten her pregnant. That was the speculation.
Then someone confessed to bludgeoning the young nun and burying her half-alive in the crawlspace underneath the church. The priest who heard this confession was a gossip, and he told the bishop. It soon became common knowledge in certain Catholic circles that Sister Mary Janina had been murdered. Still, the church covered up the crime.
Then, nearly ten years later, the bones of Sister Janina were found, and the trial began for her murderer -- Mrs. Lipczynska. The person who murdered the nun was not the priest, but the priest's housekeeper, a very old Polish grandmother who was furious that the priest was "treating her [Sister Mary Janina] like a wife." Mrs. Lipczynska was convicted and went to prison.
Meanwhile, the story of the murder has been dramatized as a play written in the 1970s called The Runner Stumbles, which is occasionally produced as community theater to this day.
The lesson in this case from Michigan's past is a motive alone does not a murder make. Even where the truth seems apparent, the reality can be even more diabolical.
The best book about this case is The Errant Nun by "Natsolim," pen name of H. Milostan; a used copy sometimes pops up on Amazon. The case was also the subject of a chapter of the book Butcher's Dozen by Larry Wakefield, about 13 famous Michigan murders and one of this Michigander's favorite books.