fb-pixel Skip to main content
Kevin Cullen

Helping adopted children learn about their roots

For an 80-year-old, Philomena Lee gets around.

Last month, she spoke at the Golden Globes before a television audience of millions. A few weeks ago, she met the pope in Rome. He was very nice, she said. And that was after she met in Washington with a bunch of politicians, including US Representative Joe Kennedy.

On Sunday night, Philomena Lee will be sitting in the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood with her BFF, Dame Judi Dench, who plays her in the film named after her. Dench is up for an Oscar as best actress.

Philomena Lee is thrilled that the film based on her life has done so well and garnered so much attention, mainly because it has given her a platform to advocate for something close to her heart: opening records so adopted children can learn about their biological parents.


For those who haven’t seen the movie: When Philomena was a teenager, she got pregnant by a young man who wasn’t her husband, which in the Ireland of her youth was considered so scandalous that her family disowned her. She was delivered to a convent, where the nuns delivered her baby boy and treated her as a sinner, forcing her to work. When her son Anthony was 3, the nuns gave him away to an American family behind Philomena’s back. Then they sent her back to work in the laundry and told her nothing.

For a half century, Philomena had no idea what had become of her son. She and her daughter Jane Libberton, with the help of a BBC journalist, eventually learned that Anthony grew up in St. Louis as Michael Hess, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee who died at 43 of AIDS.

Now the Philomena Project aims to make it easier for people to learn their roots. Only six states, including Maine and New Hampshire, have open records.


“If by adding my name, I can help someone, I’m for it,” Philomena says.

Mari Steed, whose mother worked in a laundry in Ireland run by nuns, was adopted by an American family and sees her mom Josephine in Philomena. Steed accompanied Philomena and her daughter Jane on her rounds on Capitol Hill.

“We wouldn’t be here without the film,” Steed says. “She’s become such an ambassador.”

Steed wears two hats, working for the Adoption Rights Alliance, which champions open records, and Justice For Magdalenes, which advocates for women who like her mother were used as unpaid, forced labor at the for-profit Magdalen laundries run by nuns in Ireland.

Those women, many in their 70s and 80s, are still waiting for redress from the Irish government, which indemnified the religious institutions. One of them used to live in Lowell, and is being given the runaround. Jim Smith, a professor at Boston College who wrote a book about the laundries, and Imelda Murphy, a New Hampshire woman who has advocated for the Magdalene women, are trying to help her.

“This poor woman, 79 years of age, has waited and waited,” Murphy said. “She has not received her health insurance, which the government promised. And she needs it, urgently. She has been promised many things.

In the meantime, she waits. It used to be deny, deny. Now it’s delay, delay, until they go away to the cemetery.”

Mari Steed’s mother Josi died a few months ago. Another of the Magdalene women died in Ireland Sunday before receiving promised redress. Smith is furious.


“I need not to take this so personally,” he said in a plaintive e-mail to Murphy, “but every lady we lose I feel we let them down.”

Philomena’s story has pushed so much into the open. But the needed changes, both for access and justice, lay in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, not Hollywood.

When the woman who Imelda Murphy and Jim Smith are helping moved out of her apartment in Lowell, she took with her only her books. She gave everything else to Catholic Charities.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.