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  • Adoptees search out their birth mothers/Magdelene,2265224.stor

    Adoptees search out their birth mothers

    Feb 29, 2004

    BY Anthony M. Destefano
    Staff Writer

    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

    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 doesn't reveal in its chiseled letters 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 Iowa. 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 2003 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

    But long before he got there, Hess' endearing personality as a child would
    shape his destiny.

    Dr. and Mrs. A. Michael Hess of Ferguson, Iowa, 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 21/2-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 [the
    Abbey]," said Sister Margaret Dobbin, the head of Sean Ross Abbey, now a home
    for developmentally disabled people.

    When he died of complications of AIDS, Hess' body was sent to the abbey as he
    had requested. Tom Hess was among the mourners 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

    "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:

    Born: 1949
    Arrived in U.S.: April 1952
    Mary Komorowski remembers many things -- good and bad -- that time should have

    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 in Roscrea, Ireland.

    "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?'" Komorowski recalled.

    Still, her new family, the Cacioppos, 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, Komorowski 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, Komorowski learned that her birth mother and father 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."

    Born: 1954
    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 **** -- so my mother called it -- and worked until 5 or 6 p.m., had
    some more gobbled **** and prayers again, then bed."

    Deasy said she lived for 41/2 years in an adjoining nursery section and was
    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 around to Massachusetts and
    Florida, drifting in and out of depression.

    When U.S. television reported in the 1990s about the exported children of
    Ireland, Deasy was jolted by pictures of her old orphanage and interviews with
    aging 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, her
    daughter said. 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."

    Born: 1960
    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

    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

    Befriended by her two adoptive brothers, McConkey gradually warmed up to family
    life in America -- any memories she had 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 went to live with her
    adoptive mother when she remarried. Still, she's had a lifelong fear of

    "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,"
    McConkey 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 the news programs in the 1990s about the Magdalene laundries and the
    large scale exportation of Irish children to the United States, McConkey began
    a letter-writing campaign to people around the country 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

    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

    McConkey will be reuniting with her birth mother, who ultimately married and
    had other children, later this month in Ireland.

    A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
    be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"