Friday, February 1, 2008


MY BAD DECISION: I decided to help her fund-raising by doing some off-key
PR work. Knowing the fascination U.S. Protestants then felt for sinful
nuns, I spread the word that she was really known as 'Hot Phil', and ran
guns which she cadged from American soldiers--she smoked cigarettes, and
showed a little leg.

This ploy worked: soon, many GIs and officers were trudging up the hill to
the orphanage out of curiosity; there they didn't meet 'Hot Phil', but
they met this interesting woman who served tea and cookies (to the
officers who were likely to make real contributions)--she herself drank
only the tea: "We don't eat between meals."

This PR work (and her own personality) brought in a lot of money; soon she
was able to build a big new orphanage which was finished just before I
left; I heard later that the orphanage in later years handled at least 400
orphans, with 33 nuns.

Indeed, the movie featured a tough 'Sister Philomena' who played poker
with the sailors; I figured that this legend was my doing. However, I
should have expected that such a bizarre story would eventually have some
unpredictable bad results.

As the money came in, the awful Korean government got interested, and a
functionary showed up to announce the orphanage would be taxed. Philomena
looked down at him, and said, "You tax this place and I hop a plane to
Belfast the next morning, leaving you with all these orphans." He backed

She didn't win every battle. Other 'orphanages' nearby complained that she
was getting all the lucrative garbage from the hospital ship--U.S.garbage
was incredibly rich!-- whereupon, of course, the ship commander heard
about this deal to his horror and ordered all the garbage to be thrown
into the sea. "Ordinarily, I would never wish spiritual misfortune on
anyone," she confided bitterly, "but I really resent those phony
orphanages who interfered, and that officer who took the easy road."

She and the Koreans didn't get along very well. "I've been here for 20
years, and they still won't admit I can speak the language!" she would
say, and then shout "EEDEWAH!" (COME HERE!) to some hapless child, in a
heavy Irish brogue.
TOUGH STANDARDS: She held the American army in genial contempt. "No
discipline", she remarked drily..she admired the Japanese army which ran
things efficiently until 1945 (even though they had half-starved the

For instance, the Japanese just rounded up any wild children in the
streets and sent them to a 'pound'; the parents could reclaim them;
otherwise they were raised with iron discipline.

The GIs on the other hand, would hand out food and candy to the kids in
the street--so the wild boys would not stay in any orphanage; they ran
away and then perished in the streets from malnutrition and the cold.
"These soldiers love the admiration they get from the children," she said,
"just like they'd get from dogs."

She thought the American Navy was foolish not to have a 'grog ration',
since the sailors showed up in Inchon obsessed with alcohol. "Over the
years, I saw the French sailors head right for the whorehouses; but the
Americans get so drunk so fast they often never get to the whorehouse;
they're piled like cordwood and loaded back on the ships."

"I hear that every Christmas all your sentries are drunk," she said.
"These GIs have apparently never heard about George Washington and the
Hessians! You're lucky I hate the Communists; I could tell them how to
take Inchon back. When I think that this army is all that stands between
me and the Communists-- I have my running shoes ready beneath my bed."
(After all, she had narrowly escaped once before.)
AFTER THE WAR: After 16 months I was able to leave Inchon and return home.
My family and I continued to send her supplies for a while. We didn't hear
from her, so we eventually lost interest. I heard from another ex-soldier
that, after the war, she had come through Boston, on a sort of triumphal
tour of all her fans there, and also to place five half-breed orphans
there for adoption. Then the story was that she returned to Inchon. (He
sent me her picture, which has an honored place on my wall.)
But around 1957 I was in Chartres to see the cathedral, and my eye fell on
a building labeled, in French and English, "Sisters of St.Paul de
Chartres: Motherhouse". I went right up and asked for a nun who spoke
English; I asked her whatever happened to Sister Philomena who ran the
Star of the Sea orphanage in Inchon, Korea.

"It was terrible," the nun replied with a grave face, "Some awful person
spread the rumour that she was a criminal, a gun-runner--after all her
good work there, she was expelled from the country!"

Receiving this fist in the belly, I staggered off, wallowing in shame and
guilt. I hadn't foreseen the intensity of American bigotry and Korean
resentment, which used my preposterous myth to eliminate her.

Indeed it was years before I could tell anyone this story. I didn't even
think to ask what happened to her later; I did find out much later that
she worked for years in America before she died.

Later I consoled myself that this way, Sister Philomena didn't die on the
job, but spent her last years in comfort. But she didn't return in
triumph. Not that the nuns believed the slander, nor her family, but
I plan now to send this shaming story to her Order, to clear her name
altogether. (Only the nuns of that Order never replied to my inquiry.)

I can only hope that, facing this final humiliation from my bungling,
Sister Philomena grew from a hero into a saint.
posted by daniel at 10:10 PM

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