A Community Heals by Sally Baker Accused murderer John du Pont, who had holed up in his Pennsylvania home for much of the week and kept police at bay, turned himself in on January 28, a Sunday. If he'd held out longer, a story datelined Waterville, Maine, would have led every national television and radio newscast that day. It got second place.
Colby alumni in every part of the country and most of the world found Waterville on the front pages of their newspapers the next morning--not because of anything that happened at the College but because one of the worst crimes in Maine history had been committed in the Elm City.
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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 buildings.
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 the sisters."
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 appropriate.
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 headquarters.
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."