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Date Posted: 18:57:42 03/04/04 Thu GMT
Subject: The adopted and Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea (NY Newsday)
One adoptee taken from Ireland as a toddler had long felt a link to his native land but he died before his birth mother could be found
BY ANTHONY M. DESTEFANO
March 1, 2004
In the town of Roscrea in the midlands of Ireland stands the ruined chapel of Sean Ross Abbey. Ivy covers the crumbled walls, near a small, unkempt graveyard.
A visitor has to part some tall grass to fully see a black granite headstone that bears a distinctive legend.
"Michael A. Hess - A Man of Two Nations and Many Talents," it reads. Born July 5, 1952, at Sean Ross Abbey, he died on Aug. 15, 1995, in Washington, D.C. He was 43.
But what the tombstone does- n't reveal is how the burial came to be in the Irish countryside. It is the story of an abiding love of Ireland cut short by an untimely death.
Hess' mother had given birth to him at Sean Ross Abbey, a church-run facility for unwed mothers, and saw him leave at age 3 just after Christmas 1955 for a trip to a new family in Missouri. He was one of the legion of Irish toddlers sent to the United States from the 1940s to 1960s, sometimes without their mother's consent. Some of the mothers, shunned by their families, were consigned to years of labor in harsh church-run workhouses known as Magdalene Laundries, depicted in the 2002 film, "The Magdalene Sisters."
Hess did well for himself. A graduate of Notre Dame University and George Washington University law school in Washington, D.C., he worked his way up the ranks of the Republican National Committee and in 1993 became its chief counsel.
But long before he got there, Hess' endearing personality as a child would shape his destiny. Dr. and Mrs. A. Michael Hess of Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, already had three sons, but they wanted a daughter as well. With the help of a relative who was a local Catholic bishop, they learned that Ireland was a source of children for adoption.
Mrs. Hess spent about six weeks in Ireland in the summer of 1955 and became acquainted with a 2 1/2-year-old girl, Mary Kate, at Sean Ross. She was exactly the child they wanted.
But a dark-haired boy named Anthony seemed always to hover nearby. The Hess family decided to adopt him as well.
Renamed Michael, the young boy continued to be close with Mary Kate. Both seemed to prosper in the new American family and gradually lost their brogues.
"They were inseparable, those two," remembered their brother, Tom Hess, now in Florida, who is about 10 years older.
Despite his bonds to his new family, Michael maintained a lifelong link to Ireland. Mary Kate, now known as Mary Reynolds and also living in Florida, said Michael often traveled to the city of Cork in Ireland, where he felt at home. "A lot of people looked like they were related to him," Reynolds said.
On one of his trips, Hess visited the old abbey grounds where he was born.
"He was here on holiday, looking for his roots, and fell in love with it," said Sister Margaret Dobbin, head of Sean Ross Abbey, now a home for the developmentally disabled.
When he died of complications of AIDS, Hess' body was sent to the abbey as he had requested. Tom Hess was among those who gathered around the grave for a simple ceremony.
Though he tried for years, Michael Hess never found his birth mother. But in recent weeks, the elderly woman, now living in England, learned of his death when a photo of his headstone was placed on a Web site with the date of his birth.
"She was understandably devastated," Jane Libberton, Hess' half sister in England, said in an e-mail. The family of Hess' birth mother was planning a visit to the grave this past weekend.
"This is going to be a very emotional experience for us all, but particularly my mum," she said.
It took decades, but some adoptees, unlike Hess, were able to find their mothers. For many, the memories of Ireland had faded, just quick glimpses of their birth mothers as they were shuttled away from the only homes they knew. Here are three of their stories:
Arrived in U.S.: April 1952
Mary Komorowski remembers many things - good and bad - that time should have erased.
Now 54, Komorowski's earliest memory is of a traumatic day in April 1952 when she saw a person she now believes was her birth mother for the last time at Sean Ross Abbey.
"I remember a lady in a blue dress with a huge white collar," Komorowski said. "My birth mother, maybe, was dressing me for the last time and there were mothers in the background screaming, crying and carrying on."
The mothers of Sean Ross Abbey, some 75 miles southwest of Dublin, knew the grim drill. Although many lived at the church-run home for about two years with their children, for many there eventually came a dreadful day when their child would be wrenched away for adoption in the United States.
"All I can remember is being pulled to the left and then [the nuns] taking a woman ... just pushing her to the side, and saying 'go.'"
Hurried down the grand interior staircase of the abbey and out to a waiting black sedan, Komorowski, then known as Mary O'Brien, was taken to Shannon Airport. She was flown to New York City, where a kind Italian-American couple living on Himrod Street in Brooklyn adopted the Irish toddler.
To a child of rural Ireland, the streets of Bushwick were another world.
"I kept asking 'where are the cows?'" Komo- rowski recalled.
Still, her new family, the Caci- oppos, supported her Irish heritage. When Komorowski was about 10, the family moved to Bogota, N.J., where she still lives. Married and with four grown kids of her own, Komorowski now teaches in Bergen County.
When Komorowski discovered that the Sean Ross Abbey was a mother-baby home, where the young moms actually lived with their children before they were adopted, she was shocked.
"Then I thought to myself 'I wonder if that wasn't the mother who was dressing me for the last time?'"
Encouraged by her adoptive parents and her husband, Henry, she began looking for her mother. Nuns at Sean Ross Abbey, which is now a home for developmentally disabled people, told her the birth mother's name as well as other information useful for a search.
Eventually, she learned that her birth parents had married and had five sons and another daughter, Eleanor. During a trip to Ireland and with the help of relatives as intermediaries, Komorowski reunited with her family in 2002. Her father cried as he held her. Her mother was happy but a bit reserved, Komorowski remembered, worried that bad memories might flood back.
"The five boys and my sister and my birth father feel that the best thing that happened in their family is that I came into it," she said. "Mother was quiet, always had this deep secret and now she doesn't have this secret anymore."
Arrived in U.S.: 1958
For Cathy Deasy, the anger is personal.
At the age of 43, Deasy's mother, Johanna Sheehy fell in love with the son of the owner of a farm where she worked. When she became pregnant, the farm family arranged for a local priest to take her away to a home for unwed mothers run by the Sacred Heart sisters in Bessboro, County Cork. It was a decision that would relegate her to a lifetime of hardship and loneliness.
"She was put to work in the laundries," Deasy said in an e-mail interview, referring to the work homes where some of the unwed mothers at the time were sent to live. "Got up at 4 a.m. for a prayer hour, then ate a meager serving of gobbled gook - so my mother called it - and worked until 5 or 6 p.m., had some more gobbled gook and prayers again, then bed."
Deasy lived for 4 1/2 years in an adjoining nursery section, rarely seen by her mother.
"My mother tells me she was told she was nothing but a black sheep and a tramp and a disgrace," Deasy said, after her mother was caught sneaking into the nursery to put some knit booties on her daughter's feet.
Deasy was put up for adoption in 1958. She said Sheehy was given five photos of her daughter's arrival in New York City as keepsakes before moving to the Sunday's Well facility near Cork run by the Good Shepherd sisters. Sunday's Well gained a reputation for being among the toughest of the Magdalene facilities for the unwed mothers.
Deasy, now 49 and in Florida, lived for much of her life in Elmont. Her life was never easy. She felt out of place. A relative, Deasy said, used to charge a nickel for other children to listen to her brogue. Her adoptive parents, she said, also seemed unsympathetic and distant.
After graduating from nursing school, Deasy bounced arround the country and was in and out of depression.
When U.S. television reported in the 1990s about Ireland's exported kids, Deasy was jolted by pictures of her old orphanage and interviews with birth mothers.
"They interviewed and filmed mothers in Ireland crying and saying they don't know where their babies are," Deasy said
In June 2002, after searching for nearly 15 years, a volunteer in Ireland found her mother, who was 90. She left the Good Shepherd home in 1982.
Johanna Sheehy, now 92, and her daughter are in constant contact. In January, Sheehy fell and now uses a wheelchair, but is still in good spirits. Yet, Deasy remains embittered by her mother's experience.
"My mom was told all her life she will burn in hell for her sins," Deasy said in her e-mail, "but I know and want the world to know my mom is destined for heaven for all she has been put through."
Arrived in U.S.: June 1962
When 2-year-old Rosemary McConkey was pulled away one day from her mother in Ireland in June 1962 and suddenly flown to New York City for adoption, she was terrified.
The terror, McConkey was later told by her Long Island adoptive mother, showed in her young eyes and face.
"She said it took time to finally get me to smile and laugh," McConkey said. "I would not go to my adoptive father for quite some time. I was very afraid of him."
Befriended by her two adoptive brothers, McConkey gradually warmed up to family life in America. Any memories of the birth mother she left at the mother-baby home at Castlepollard faded quickly.
McConkey, now 43, had a happy childhood growing up in Northport and later Stony Brook. After her adoptive parents divorced, McConkey lived with her adoptive mother when she remarried. Still, she's had a lifelong fear of rejection.
"The idea of perfection and not wanting to rock the boat, wanting to be accepted, unconsciously I guess was the fear of being returned or rejected," she said. "I remember in school I was always the teacher's pet, always tried to do the right thing so nobody would get mad at me."
Spurred by news programs in the 1990s about the Magdalene laundries and the large scale exportation of Irish children to the United States, McConkey began a nationwide letter-writing campaign to people who had done their own successful searches for their mothers.
The breakthrough finally came, as it has with many other adoptees, through the Web site of the Adopted Peoples Association in Ireland. Volunteers who discovered McConkey's birth mother in October 2003 set the stage for the Long Island woman to call her in January.
"It was weird," said McConkey, remembering that conversation as being a bit awkward.
But her mother soon launched into the whole story, telling McConkey about how she and the birth father had been in a long-term relationship when she became pregnant. The couple, McConkey said, planned to go to London for the birth but her father backed out and left.
So instead of marriage, her mother ended up alone, and had to say goodbye to her daughter. "I just don't understand, that was torture," McConkey said.
"My view on adoption is, let them leave as infants, don't establish a relationship with the child and the mother and then separate them," McConkey said.
McConkey will reunite with her birth mother, who ultimately married and had other children, later this month in Ireland.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
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