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A faceless ghost?

View of the north portion of Foley Hall begun in 1860. The art department was housed here on the third floor. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of Providence Archives)

This article was written in 1974 by Dawn Tomaszewski, a senior at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind., for the college news magazine, The Woods. The article was reprinted in 1986 in the January issue of COMMUNITY, the Sisters of Providence newsletter. Today, Sister Dawn Tomaszewski ministers as a general officer of the Congregation.

Foley Hall was built to house Saint Mary’s Institute, which became Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. It was built in three stages: the north portion was begun in 1860; the east and west wings were added in 1871 forming an open courtyard; the front part was completed in 1897. It was razed in 1989.

Editor’s note: Sister Esther Newport died in 1986.

The present “Exorcist” fad has encouraged much speculation at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College about a Foley Hall exorcism complete with mutterings about the ghosts of Foley and, of course, the Faceless Nun.

My attempts to determine whether these mutterings were fact or folklore led me to Sister Esther Newport, who taught in the art department from 1931 to 1964. I was advised that Sister Esther would know since the art department was the scene of the strange phenomenon passed down by tradition.

“What you are asking me to do,” said Sister Esther when questioned about these stories, “is remember.” And remember she did, with calmness and ease. She never hesitated in recalling the “secrets” of Foley.

Sister Esther commented that there was actually no exorcism of Foley, but she offered some explanations as to the origin of the rumor. Part of the Holy Saturday liturgy is the blessing of houses accompanied by the sprinkling of Holy Water. Foley Hall may have been blessed in conjunction with this tradition, giving the impression of an exorcism.

She offered a more viable reason for the exorcism myth, however, one that she actually brought about. In the early 1930s there were “troubles” in Foley; some people became afraid even to go there. Sister Esther appealed to Mother Mary Bernard [Laughlin, RIP], the superior general at the time, for help in clearing up the trouble. Mother Mary Bernard arranged for a Mass to be said for a special intention and that intention, according to Sister Esther, was “to quiet the ghosts in Foley.”

Sister Esther related to me several incidents, as she knows them, of the “troubles” in Foley, troubles that she has come to interpret as manifestations of departed spirits in search of prayer. As she noted, no similar incidents have occurred in Foley since the Mass was said.

With all the charm of a storyteller, Sister Esther narrated Isabel’s encounter with the so-called Faceless Nun.

Sister Esther was working in Foley one night, “in front of the house on the second floor in the room next to the Chapel. It was cold that night,” she recollected. She went around to check on a girl she called Isabel who was working in the big room of the art department.

As she came around the hall to where Isabel was working, she saw her standing outside the doorway, out in the hall. “I said, ‘Isabel, what’s the matter; you look disturbed, or are you just frozen out?’”

Isabel replied, “I’m sick and tired of that nun coming around.” Sister Esther asked her who the nun was. Isabel did not know because this nun always stood between her and the light. “She leaves when I speak to her,” Isabel told Sister Esther, “and I never see her face.”

“And there,” suggested Sister Esther, “is your Faceless Nun.”

Isabel had another encounter with this “Faceless Nun.” Sister Esther entered the big art room where Isabel was working on a watercolor one day. Isabel inquired if she had seen the sister who was looking for her. Sister Esther had not, to which Isabel retorted, “She was here just a minute ago.” Sister Esther asked her who the nun was but Isabel did not know because she had stood between her and the light.

Isabel was not the only one pestered by the Faceless Nun. Sister Esther detailed the story of Anna and Catherine. “One morning around 11, I was in the art department and two girls, Anna and Catherine, were there too, cleaning.”

Sister Esther went to see how they were doing and Catherine then asked her if she had seen the sister who was looking for her. Catherine did not know who she was. She pointed out the fact that this sister had pleats down the front of her dress.

Sister Esther asked Catherine if it might be Sister Celestine, but Catherine said no, she knew Sister Celestine. Sister Esther inquired if it might be the sister from Texas who wore a gimp that had pleats. Catherine replied negatively again that she knew this sister also. “She was a funny looking sister,” Catherine told Sister Esther, “and you know, you’re going to think I’m crazy but this sister didn’t have a face.”

Sister Esther questioned Catherine’s companion about this nun’s appearance but Anna had not seen anything. When requested by Sister Esther at a later date to recall the incident, Catherine said she did not remember anything about it.

Just these three incidents perhaps contain enough information to fabricate any Faceless Nun mystery. But when I described for Sister Esther the present Faceless Nun tale, the story that has the Faceless Nun stalking Foley in search of a self-portrait that she did not complete before her death, Sister Esther just laughed. “That’s beautiful fiction,” she chuckled, “but just rank imagination.”

The incidents that most precipitated Sister Esther’s request to Mother Mary Bernard occurred on two different occasions in one of her figure drawing classes.

“One time in a figure drawing class,” the retired sister began, “I was over in one corner of that same big art room and a girl near the windows looked up and said something. We all looked at her and finally I answered her. Celine looked most startled and said, ‘But Sister, you were right here next to me a moment ago.’ Celine was very embarrassed, and we let it pass.

“About a week or so later,” Sister Esther recounted, “with the same group, there came a loud swish, swish from under the floor. It was so loud that I had to stop talking.”

The class discussed the possible causes of the noise and concluded that it was just someone mending the plaster on the ceiling below, which they knew had fallen several weeks prior to that day. After class, Sister Esther did some investigating and discovered that the ceiling had been mended some two weeks before.

Still another time, Sister Esther was witness to a strange occurrence in the big art room. One night she had a visitor from Chicago, and she took her to the art department to see some of her work. At one point, Sister Esther moved behind a large painting she had finished and turned it for her friend to see. When she looked up, she saw that her friend had her back to her and seemed to be muttering to something or someone in the corner. Sister Esther said something to her friend who whirled around and asked where Sister was. “Are you all over this place?” she demanded to know.

Sister Esther explained that this “vision” was not a question of shadows because a 1,000 watt light bulb hung over the painting to eliminate shadows. “My friend was very embarrassed and laughed the whole thing off. So, we sat down and were talking when all of a sudden my friend grabbed me and said, ‘There she is again.’ My friend pointed to an area behind the picture and her finger followed something into the supply room. I hadn’t seen a thing, and my friend just laughed if off.”

Sister Esther’s friend returned a year later and, as she entered the big room she asked Sister Esther, who had forgotten about the previous incident, if this was the place that was haunted — her friend had not forgotten.

Sister Esther reminisced about several other incidents. Perhaps the most humorous was that of a “stolid German nun from Jasper” who commanded approaching footsteps to “Go away and don’t bother me, I’m busy.”

I told Sister Esther that quite frankly I would have had a heart attack right on the spot. She readily agreed.

The one night that she herself was particularly frightened was one when she heard knocking from the cupboard behind her. “When it happened the third time, I was just a little uneasy.” This knocking was followed by scratching and scraping that seemed to be coming from a little passageway. “I was so scared I couldn’t move! At that moment something swished by the window, and I got out of there as fast as I could.” In looking back on the incident, Sister Esther concluded that it was probably a bird or an owl making noise outside the window, and that she only imagined it had happened inside.

Sister Esther’s calmness in telling these stories is important to note. Sister Esther is not paranoid or hysterical about what took place. And she was quick to point out that no “trouble” has occurred in Foley since the Mass was offered.

Is this just someone’s imagination? “It could be,” she conjectured, “but then maybe it could be true. After all, I do have witnesses, even though one of my chief witnesses, Catherine, backed out on me.”

Perhaps none of us will ever know or understand the psychological and philosophical questions involved in the supernatural. As Sister Esther emphasized in regard to the present exorcist craze, “The supernatural is a latent interest to people all the time. For example, it seems whenever a comet appears there is always speculation about the end of the world.”

And rather than seek to understand these phenomena, people sensationalize them, write scary books, produce gory movies. This story, hopefully, has not sensationalized the words of a very nice woman. It was written to show, as Sister Esther showed me, that there exists a force, a greater spiritual force, at work in the world.

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3 Comments

  1. Sue Weiler on September 27, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    As an Art major (’83) I can tell you there was most definitely activity in Foley when I would be there working!!! I don’t know about the “Mass” they refer to, that isn’t really touched upon, but we all had “events”!!!!

  2. S. Marilyn Therese on September 30, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Dear Dawn, I was only a Novice when i taught at the Village School house. I lived in a private room in Foley Hall. There was a very gentle Sister I only saw a couple of times, Yet i knew she was there for when I came home from teaching I would find something in my room that has been added to it,like a nice doily for the top of my stand, another time a flower, another time something I could use. I smiled to myself and found her a very thoughtful person, yet I never saw her to thank her. I knew she was there and did see quickly at times in the hall. She disappered fast. fast. She had face and was of normal height, but small built. I did not now her name. I would like to have talked to her, but never the chance. S.Marilyn Therese

  3. Lynn Barks on March 24, 2016 at 10:27 am

    I think my mother Ethel Belinger had an Aunt that was a Sister their her name was a sister Stanislous (I’m not sure I spelled it correctly). My granddaughter is a student at St Mary of the Woods, so I was wondering if I could find out any information.

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