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Horror in a House of the Lord

Crime: A New England town is reeling from the slayings of two nuns, allegedly by a mentally ill man. But the killings have brought out a streak of compassion; sadness, not rage, is the predominant emotion.

February 01, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WATERVILLE, Maine — The nine nuns at the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament convent here were so kind, so generous that they prayed for anyone--and they prayed for everyone.

They prayed for Mary Ann Morency when her son was born 23 years ago, weighing just 1 1/2 pounds. They prayed for Ida Mae Veilleux when she married in their chapel more than 40 years ago. And they prayed for Mark Bechard, a 37-year-old mental patient who frequently came to their chapel for mass.

"They treated him with the same love they did everybody," Veilleux said.

Just after 6 p.m. on Saturday, as nightfall embraced the large white building that houses the convent, Bechard is alleged to have pushed his way through a window in the chapel. Using a religious icon, he allegedly bludgeoned four of the elderly sisters, two of them fatally. Responding to a 911 call from another nun, police surprised Bechard as he prepared to deliver a blow to one of his victims, 68-year-old Sister Patricia Ann Keane. A police report said his weapon was a statue of the Virgin Mary.

In a community where a crime spree normally consists of teenagers out joy riding, the attack was a somber notice that, as a nun from another Maine convent remarked, "God doesn't give us any guarantees."

But, paradoxically, the intrusion of violence brought out a powerful streak of small-town compassion, as residents reflected in sorrow on the serendipitous way mental illness strikes one family's son and not another's. As the shock settled in, there was quiet outrage, but little outright anger and seemingly no talk at all of revenge or harsh judgment. The fact that the accused is one of their own, a graduate of Waterville High, only heightened the sadness.

"I think we all recognize that mental illness is not a voluntary state," said Ruth Joseph, the mayor of Waterville. "People here are torn. We know it's a heinous, brutal tragedy--a massacre, however you want to describe it. But we all have kids, and we all know, as parents, that there but for the grace of God go I."

*

Nestled in central Maine, Waterville is a modest city whose major event each year is a summer lobster festival. Many of the 17,000 residents work in the local textile or paper mills. Colby College, a prestigious, four-year independent school, is also a major employer here.

Generations settle here, giving Waterville a feeling of tranquil solidity. While everyone in Waterville does not in fact know everyone else, it often feels that way. That degree of small-town closeness made the convent murders seem particularly jolting, "like the death of family members," Joseph said.

" 'Hideous' is the word I keep hearing," said Sally Baker, an official at Colby College.

"You know how it is when you try to make sense of things that just don't make any sense?" Baker said. "That's what people are doing here."

The yellow brick chapel of the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament abuts the white clapboard convent where the nuns live. The chapel is open for prayer and silent vigil until midnight each day. A nun from the order is always present in the chapel. The sanctuary is a familiar fixture in an otherwise residential district, so much so that Baker described the chapel as "two doors down from everybody's mother-in-law."

The nuns lead simple lives focused around prayer and contemplation. The small sisterhood in Maine, whose members range in age from 59 to 78, is one of only two U.S. outposts of an international order whose duties center around veneration of the consecrated wafer--or host--that symbolizes the body of Jesus Christ for Roman Catholics. A second convent is in Pueblo, Colo.

"These are proud and self-sustaining women," Joseph said. "They are gentle and loving."

*

Bechard, who entered no plea at his arraignment on Monday, often joined the nuns for mass or daily prayer. Born and raised here, he was known in high school for his outstanding participation in dramatic and musical performances, and once played the male lead in "Little Mary Sunshine."

"The good guy, believe it or not," said his drama coach, Rene Plante.

Bechard was considered a talented trumpet player, majoring briefly in music at the University of Maine during his checkered academic career.

But as recently as last summer, neighbors remembered, his trumpet-playing had turned tuneless--and constant.

"Day after day after day," said neighbor April Flood.

At that time Bechard was living in an apartment leased by the Waterville Mental Health Center. He was unemployed and had been in and out of treatment for manic depression. In 1994, Bechard was involuntarily committed to a state mental hospital. He was released soon thereafter in a broad move by state officials to deinstitutionalize mental patients.

Bechard was subsequently treated at the Kennebec Valley Mental Health Center in Waterville. The center's director, John D. Shaw Jr., issued a statement saying he was "shocked and appalled by the terrible events of the weekend," but otherwise refused to comment on the slayings.

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