LANSING – It’s been more than a century since the disappearance and murder of a pregnant Roman Catholic nun drew national attention to a small rural community on the Leelanau Peninsula.
The case remains a sensitive topic even now, long after the 1907 slaying of Sister Mary Janina and the 1919 conviction of the rectory housekeeper for Rev. Andrew Bieniawski, who fathered the child.
“My face is not a welcome one in the village of Isadore,” says Traverse City writer Mardi Link, whose new true-crime book (“Isadore’s Secret,” University of Michigan Press, $22.95) recounts what she calls “sin, murder and confession in a Northern Michigan town.”
Isadore is in Centerville Township, west of Lake Leelanau and southeast of Lake Michigan’s Good Harbor Bay.
Link lives 17 miles from Holy Rosary Church, where Sister Janina went missing in August 1907.
Bieniawski left Holy Rosary in 1913 and later served in parishes in Manistee, Standish and Mackinaw City.
After Sister Janina’s disappearance and slaying, the whereabouts of her body were unknown until November 1918, when her bones were found buried under a pile of lumber in the church basement. The building was later torn down and rebuilt.
Housekeeper Stella Lipczynska, who had feuded with Sister Janina, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. At trial in Leland, most of Sister Janina’s skeleton was shown as evidence in the courtroom.
After nine hours of deliberation, the jury found Lipczynska guilty. She received a life sentence but was paroled from the Detroit Women’s Prison in 1927.
The criminal case has long been closed. The Leelanau County prosecutor’s office said the most recent document in the courthouse is the state Supreme Court decision upholding Lipczynska’s conviction, filed on Dec. 31, 1920.
And Link says the jury convicted the right person.
“I think her motivation was fundamentalism,” Link says of Lipczynska. “Her religious faith dictated her behavior. I think she received absolution in confession and in her soul believed she was innocent.
“But she did the deed,” Link says.
Leonard Kelenski, the 79-year-old Centerville Township supervisor, recalls hearing about the case as a teenager. His farm is 4 miles from the church.
The township has changed greatly since them, according to Kelenski, a retired Air Force sergeant who has served as supervisor for 30 years. Isadore was predominantly Catholic in 1907 and most of its residents were farmers, but now “we have so many more newcomers coming into the township.”
As for the murder, “It’s a part of history that nobody’s proud of.”
The Leelanau Historical Museum has never put on an exhibit on the case, but people visit “from time to time” to research it, according to Francie Gits, president of the local historical society.
She said the museum and neighboring library may invite Link to speak about the murder this year.
Link says researching the book was challenging. For example, transcripts of the hearing and trial had been stolen from the Leelanau County courthouse in Leland in the 1970s, but she tracked down one of the only two surviving sets in the state archives.
Isadore still has a large Polish ethnic community, according to Link, with many of the family names on the mailboxes the same as those involved in the case and buried in the local cemetery.
Area residents refused to talk to her about the case, she says, and a local genealogist threatened to put an “evil eye” on her if she pursued the project.
Link attended services at Holy Rosary while she worked on the book and says she felt, as an outsider, that parishioners were “not interested in knowing you.”
Even so, Link says she felt impressed by the community’s “living religion. Our society 100 years ago was not nearly as secular as it is today. In Isadore that secular tide hasn’t shown up there. Their lives still revolve around the church.
“I had no interest in judging a church. I just wanted to tell an interesting story about a part of Michigan history,” she says
One piece of the mystery remains unsolved, Link says—the victim’s burial place.
“Where is Sister Janina now? I lost track of her after they displayed her bones in the courtroom.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.