PHILOMENA Lee: "to Think the Nuns Never Told US My Son Was Searching for Me"
By Catherine O'brien
October 14, 2013
|Philomena Lee: 'I cried out his name, and I didn’t stop crying for two weeks'|
As a teenager in Ireland, Philomena Lee (right) was banished to a convent for the ‘sin’ of having a baby out of wedlock, and forced to give him up. As a major new film about her life is released, she tells Catherine O’Brien about their heartbreaking search for each other
Philomena Lee lives in a neat semidetached house on a quiet Home Counties street. Inside her sitting room are photographs of her children and grandchildren, and on one wall set slightly apart is a portrait of a handsome man dressed in a pinstriped suit and tie. As he gazes at the camera lens, his smile is warm and open. ‘Every day I think, “If only I could put my arms around him one more time,”’ says Philomena. ‘He looks to me like the type of chap who would have wanted that.’
The man in the photograph is Philomena’s elder son. She named him Anthony and loved him passionately, but she was never allowed to know him. Anthony was born in Ireland in 1952 – a time when the children of unmarried mothers were considered by the Roman Catholic church to be ‘the product of sin’. Disowned by her family for becoming pregnant at the age of 18, Philomena was taken in by nuns who allowed her to see her child for an hour a day. Then, when Anthony was three and a half, he was placed in the back of a car and driven out of her life. ‘In my dreams that moment still comes back to me,’ she says. ‘I see his little face looking through the rear windscreen – I’ve relived it so many times.’
No one explained fully to Philomena exactly where her son was being taken; she was just told that, as she couldn’t provide a home for him, the church had found a good Catholic family that could. The Mother Superior forced her to sign a pledge of surrender and warned her that she would ‘burn in the fires of hell’ if she ever uttered a word to anyone about her ‘shameful secret’.
For almost half a century, Philomena didn’t. On Wednesday, however, she will appear on the red carpet in London’s Leicester Square for the UK premiere of the film that bears her name and traces her heartbreaking quest to be reunited with her son. Alongside her will be Dame Judi Dench, who has already been tipped for an Oscar for her brilliantly affecting performance in the title role. Philomena, which also stars and was co-written by Steve Coogan, won the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival and has been receiving standing ovations at previews. ‘For years, I couldn’t talk about my life to anybody,’ says Philomena. ‘And now it is all anyone wants to talk about.’
|Anthony before leaving for America in December 1955|
|And playing on a slide in Sean Ross Abbey, shortly before he was taken away from Philomena|
Philomena’s story is complex and harrowing, and yet the first thing that strikes you about Philomena herself is that she bears no rancour. She’s seen the film twice, she tells me, ‘and the first time was stressful, but the second time I enjoyed it, and I was so glad that they didn’t harp on about the Catholic church because I wouldn’t have wanted that’.
At 80, she is two years older than Dame Judi, and in many ways the two women couldn’t be more different – Dame Judi is a national treasure ‘and I’m a nobody, really’, Philomena says with cheerful modesty, but they got on like a house on fire. ‘She got me to a T – I felt I had known her all my life,’ says Philomena. While at a press launch, Dame Judi enthused about Philomena’s ‘lively sense of humour’ and declared herself awed by her capacity for clemency: ‘I wish I could say that I would have her scope to forgive but I doubt if I would. It’s what makes her story worth telling.’
To understand how Philomena emerged gracious rather than hostile and vengeful from the cruelty she endured, you first have to understand a little of where she came from. Born in County Limerick, the fourth of six children, she suffered her first loss at the age of six, when her mother died of tuberculosis. Unable to cope, her father, who worked as a butcher’s assistant, placed Philomena and her two sisters in a convent, keeping only his three sons at home. The girls visited their family just once a year, but Philomena never felt that they were hard done by. ‘At least we had a dad and that meant people thought more of us,’ she says. ‘If you were illegitimate in those days, well, God help you.’
|Anthony arriving at Chicago airport in December 1955 with Mary, the little girl from Roscrea who was adopted with him and became his sister|
At 18, she emerged from the convent academically proficient, but hopelessly naive, and went to live with an aunt. Shortly afterwards, she went to a carnival in Limerick, where she shared her first kiss with a boy who had bought her a toffee apple. ‘I was very green – I didn’t know what I was doing,’ she says. Six months later, her aunt looked down at her swollen girth and asked if she was pregnant, ‘and I had to ask her what she meant – I had no idea how babies were made’.
In disgrace, Philomena was taken to the doctor, who recommended that she be sent directly to the Sean Ross Abbey, a convent run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in County Tipperary. Anthony’s birth, a few weeks after her 19th birthday, was agonising. He was breech but the nuns refused her any painkillers. ‘They said my pain was my penance. And then, before he came out, they knelt down and prayed because they thought I was going to die.’
Philomena was one of thousands of Irish women ‘put away’ during the 1950s and 60s for the ‘sin’ of getting pregnant out of wedlock. She was allowed to nurse her baby for eight weeks, after which he
was taken to the nursery block and she was set to work in the laundry. Like every other unmarried mother who toiled in washrooms and kitchens, she was unpaid and told that if she wanted to leave, her family would have to give the nuns ?100. ‘There was no way my father could have come up with that sum,’ says Philomena. ‘And anyway, he had told everyone that he didn’t want my name mentioned again.’
|Anthony, now called Michael, growing up as a teenager in America|
To the outside world, the church appeared charitable, but the reality was that ‘fallen’ women like Philomena were providing a bread and butter income. The Irish government paid ?1 a week for every mother in its care, and a further two shillings and sixpence for every baby. And there was another revenue stream to be exploited – in what amounted to an illicit baby trade, thousands of children were given up for adoption to US couples in exchange for ‘donations’ of $2,000 to $3,000 (?1,250 to ?1,900).
A week before Christmas in 1955, Anthony, then a three-year-old with his mother’s dark hair and blue eyes, became one of them. From an upstairs window, Philomena watched, sobbing and helpless, as he was led away by nuns, along with another toddler named Mary who was one of his best friends. ‘I cried out his name, and I didn’t stop crying for two weeks,’ she recalls.
To get the distraught Philomena off their hands, the nuns sent her to Liverpool, where she worked in a school for delinquent boys run by the same holy order. All she had left of her son were a few photos, surreptitiously given to her by one of the kinder sisters. On a return trip to Ireland the following summer, she went back to the convent and begged the nuns to tell her where Anthony had gone – they refused. Her sadness turned to anger and left her faith in tatters.
‘I remember going to confession and thinking, “What am I doing here? I’m not doing this any more.”’ In 1958, she answered an advert for trainee psychiatric nurses and moved to Hertfordshire. There she met John Libberton, a fellow nurse, and they were married the following year. Just before their wedding, she plucked up the courage to tell him about Anthony. ‘I was soiled goods and I thought he should know,’ she says. To her relief, John said ‘what’s past is past’ and never mentioned it again.
The next person Philomena told about Anthony is the woman sitting alongside her now – her daughter Jane. But a gulf of 43 years and an astonishing episode of deja vu separated the two confessions. Today, Jane is a 52-year-old history graduate and NHS administrator, but when she was 17 she, too, became a teenage mum. ‘You don’t have to put that in your article, do you?’ Philomena asks, before Jane reassures her: ‘Really, Mum, it’s fine.’
|Michael at his graduation in 1977|
So how did Philomena feel when she realised history was repeating itself? ‘I was in shock, but there was no way I was letting another baby leave this family,’ she says. Natalie was born in 1979 and Philomena was there to support her daughter. But throughout, Philomena, who by then had divorced John, was still too knotted up by guilt to tell Jane – or her third child Kevin – of her own experience. ‘I thought about it but I just couldn’t,’ she says.
Finally, in 2002, she did. She had recently returned from Ireland, where she still goes to visit her family (Philomena remained close to her siblings for many years, although she never achieved a full rapprochement with her father), and was feeling nostalgic. ‘We sat down over a bottle of wine and she said, “I had a baby when I was 19,”’ says Jane. ‘I immediately knew who she was talking about because in a drawer at home she’d always kept photographs of a little boy – she’d told us he was a distant cousin. I just felt so sorry for her. I think she thought that we were going to reject her.’
Jane and Philomena told Kevin, and Jane then offered to try to find Anthony. But she had very little to go on – just a name, which had undoubtedly been changed when he was adopted, and a date and place of birth. She quickly learned that, unlike in the UK, confidentiality and restricted access are recurring barriers for those trying to track down loved ones in Ireland.
She secured Anthony’s birth certificate and wrote to the Sacred Heart Adoption Society, where the nun in charge professed to have no information. Undeterred, Jane put in requests to the Irish Adoption Board. Several months down the line, the Sacred Heart order got back in touch. ‘I am so sorry,’ the sister told Philomena over the phone, ‘but your son is no longer alive.’ It was a huge blow. ‘I felt like I had lost him all over again,’ she says.
The nun said she could divulge no further information, and the story might have ended there had Jane not been so dogged in her search for the truth. Trawling through the internet, she came across an adoption website with photographs of headstones at Sean Ross Abbey. Zooming in and scanning them, she found one for a Michael A Hess, a name that meant nothing, but with a date of birth that matched Anthony’s.
The inscription declared that he was ‘a man of two nations and many talents’ and that he had died in Washington, USA. Jane Googled him and his obituary bounced back. Michael Hess had been a brilliantly successful lawyer and a leading Republican official. He’d worked directly for Ronald Reagan in the White House, and when George Bush Senior became president, he had made Michael his chief legal counsel. Then, seemingly inexplicably, he had died, in 1995, at the age of just 43. ‘We knew instantly that he had to be Anthony,’ says Jane.
|The nursery and dining room at Sean Ross in the 1950s|
|Philomena with her daughter Jane today|
Jane took Philomena to visit her son’s grave – and to quiz the nuns at Sean Ross Abbey. They revealed that Michael Anthony Hess was indeed the former Anthony Lee and that he had been to visit his birthplace two years before his death. But when Jane asked to be put in touch with his American family, the nuns insisted, regretfully, that they didn’t have any details.
In 2003, through a friend, Jane contacted Martin Sixsmith – a former Washington correspondent for the BBC. He agreed to help and within a couple of weeks he had found Mary, the little girl who had been adopted with Anthony back in 1955, and also Michael’s long-term partner Pete Nilsson. Michael, it turned out, had been gay, and he had died of Aids. ‘I’d worked with gay male nurses all my life. That wasn’t a shock to me,’ says Philomena. What she yearned for was to know what sort of man Michael had been ‘and whether he had ever thought of me, because I had thought of him every day’.
In April 2005, Philomena and Jane met Pete at Martin’s house in London. ‘He was charming, and to be close to someone at last who had known Anthony was such a relief,’ says Philomena. She learned that Anthony had been adopted by a professional couple from Missouri. He had loved his mother, but had a troubled relationship with his father. He had been forced to lead a double life because of his homosexuality and that had troubled him. He had been tormented, too, by an orphan’s sense of loneliness and had first travelled to Tipperary in search of Philomena in 1977, only to be told that she had abandoned him at birth. When he knew he was dying, he asked to be buried in the grounds, ‘because he knew I would find him there’, says Philomena.
|Philomena after leaving Sean Ross|
|Michael on a trip to Sean Ross Abbey to find his mother|
|Philomena just after discovering her son's grave in 2004|
The nuns had had Pete’s contact details all along – and they had accepted a substantial donation for the burial plot. ‘That hurt me,’ says Philomena. ‘To think that they never told us he was searching for me – and that he died believing I’d rejected him.’ But while Jane remains angry – ‘I don’t know how they can live with themselves,’ she says of the sisters at Sean Ross – Philomena refuses to be bitter. ‘Those were the times and the nuns were caught up in them,’ she says. In recent years, she has returned to Catholicism and, although she still never goes to confession or takes communion, ‘I’ll always light a candle and say a prayer,’ she says.
|Judi Dench (Philomena Lee) and Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith) in the film Philomena|
The film Philomena has sprung from a book that Martin Sixsmith wrote about her search, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. There is a certain amount of dramatic licence to the plot line, but there has been no distorting the essence of the gentle, bright and wise Philomena. Today, her left hand bears two rings – the wedding band from her second husband Philip and a Celtic band that was one of Anthony’s most treasured possessions, and that Pete has told her is hers to keep.
‘I would have given anything to have Anthony here beside me,’ she says, ‘but the worst thing all those years was the not knowing. At least now I know that he is at peace and because of that, I, too, can have peace in my heart.’
Philomena will premiere at the American Express Gala at the BFI festival this week and go on general release on 1 November