On January 27, a windy, stormy evening, Waterville resident Mark Bechard, 37,
broke into the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament convent on Silver Street and
beat and stabbed four nuns whom he had interrupted in prayer. Bechard's weapons
were a knife, a religious statue and a cane owned by one of the nuns.
Neighbors, including Colby's Catholic chaplain, John Marquis, who lives across
the street in the Notre Dame parish residence and was entertaining the Colby
Eight for dinner that evening, didn't know anything was wrong. The storm kept
most people inside and was loud enough to drown out any noise from nearby
The attack took less than 10 minutes, and the Waterville Police Department,
alerted by a 911 call from the convent, responded almost immediately. But two
of the women, Mother Superior Edna Mary Cardozo and Sister Mary Julien Fortin,
both in their late 60s, died. Two others, Sister Patricia Keane, 68, and Sister
Mary Anna DiGiacomo, 72, were injured, DiGiacomo so severely that she was
hospitalized until mid-March and now is living in a Waterville nursing home.
Bechard has been in and out of the Augusta Mental Health Institute for much of
his life, but on the night of the murders he was without supervision, off his
medication and probably using alcohol or drugs. His mother knew he was in
trouble and twice tried to call a mental health emergency line for help. A
power surge caused by the storm knocked out a machine that should have routed
those calls to a case worker on duty. Mark Bechard was lost in Maine's
understaffed, under-funded mental health care system.
As members of the national and international media flocked to Waterville, city
people tried to come to grips with the crime. It was a blow to the innocence
that allows Elm City residents to leave their cars unlocked, walk home after a
late movie and open their doors when a stranger knocks.
Marquis says many Colby students and staff members approached him to discuss
their feelings after the women were killed. "They talked about the situation
and how it affected them in terms of personal safety," Marquis said. "If two
nuns aren't safe in their convent, none of us is safe."
Those sentiments, along with the pure shock the killings fostered, were echoed
across the city in the days following the attack. Letters to and articles in
the Morning Sentinel revealed the depth of the murdered women's
influence and of Waterville's pain and confusion.
Members of a small, poor, contemplative order that relies on donations and
rummage sales to survive, the Blessed Sacrament nuns numbered only nine before
the slayings. But extraordinary numbers of Waterville residents--from State
Rep. Paul Jacques to Mayor Ruth Joseph to convent neighbors--came forward with
story upon story of the sisters' kindness and compassion.
"They spend their time praying for people and for the world," Marquis said.
"And of course the thing that was so ironic, so tragic, was that those who pray
for others should end up in this violence."
The people of Waterville were angry and sad, but their response was anything
but hostile to Bechard. He was forgiven immediately by the surviving Blessed
Sacrament nuns and other Catholic clergy, and his case sparked state-wide
debate about mental health care reform. Bechard was seen as almost as much of a
victim as the women he attacked.
"Enough people in any community have been touched by mental illness to
understand that he didn't know what he was doing," Marquis said. "And this
isn't like a big city. This is a small, close-knit community where people know
the Bechard family. There is a lot of sympathy for the family, as well as for
Bottles and jars appeared on store counters across Waterville to take up a
collection for the convent. At the Shop 'n Save in Elm Plaza, the tall, deep
Community Fundraiser bin near the door was stuffed with dollar bills, fives and
tens a day or two after a placard that read "For the Servants of the Blessed
Sacrament" was attached to the top. Local churches and civic groups pitched in
with money. Individuals donated food and helped in any other way that seemed
The nuns' funeral was attended by many members of the Colby community, as was
an interfaith service at Notre Dame church the night before. Marquis says both
were times of "grief and healing" for the city.
"It was a tragedy that began with a truly senseless act but ended with a
ritual in the packed church on Silver Street that made sense of the lives
before they were lost," wrote Sentinel columnist Gerry Boyle '78. "It
began in a crescendo of rage and ended on a note of the most plaintive and
gentle forgiveness. The week that began with horror ended with hope."
In March, nuns from one of two other Blessed Sacrament convents in the United
States came to live in Waterville, which is now the order's provincial
Mark Bechard, who is represented by Michaela Murphy '78, has pleaded not
guilty by reason of insanity and will be tried in the Maine Superior Court. He
is being held in the Augusta Mental Health Institute's forensic unit. The
legacy of his actions continues.
"I've heard from various people of things that have come about as a result of
this," Marquis said. "People are paying more attention to caring for their
families; they are attending church; they are taking a look at their spiritual
lives. Some families are healing because of this. It wasn't just a media story
that went away the next day."