The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women
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Rosemary (Rosie) Kennedy was born in 1918, the first daughter of a wealthy Bostonian couple who later would become known as the patriarch and matriarch of America’s most famous and celebrated family.
Elizabeth Koehler was born in 1957, the first and only child of a struggling Wisconsin farm family.
What, besides their religion, did these two very different Catholic women have in common?
One person: Stella Koehler, a charismatic woman of the cloth who became Sister Paulus Koehler after taking her vows with the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi.
Sister Paulus was Elizabeth's Wisconsin aunt. For thirty-five years―indeed much of her adult life―Sister Paulus was Rosie Kennedy’s caregiver.
And a caregiver, tragically, had become necessary after Rosie, a slow learner prone to emotional outbursts, underwent one of America’s first lobotomies―an operation Joseph Kennedy was assured would normalize Rosie’s life. It did not. Rosie’s condition became decidedly worse.
After the procedure, Joe Kennedy sent Rosie to rural Wisconsin and Saint Coletta, a Catholic-run home for the mentally disabled. For the next two decades, she never saw her siblings, her parents, or any other relative, the doctors having issued stern instructions that even the occasional family visit would be emotionally disruptive to Rosie.
Following Joseph Kennedy’s stroke in 1961, the Kennedy family, led by mother Rose and sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, resumed face to face contact with Rosie.
It was also about then that a young Elizabeth Koehler began paying visits to Rosie.
In this insightful and poignant memoir, based in part on Sister Paulus’ private notes and augmented by over one-hundred never-before-seen photos, Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff recalls the many happy and memorable times spent with the “missing Kennedy.”
She looks at the many parallels between Rosie’s post-operative life, her own, and those of the two families.
And, most important, she traces how, entirely because of Rosie, the Kennedy and Shriver families embarked on an exceedingly consequential campaign advancing the cause of the developmentally disabled―a campaign that continues to this day.
Ten years after Rosie’s death comes a highly personal yet fitting testimonial to a sad but truly meaningful and important life.
thought back to the tumultuous times when Zora flew back and forth from California to Wisconsin; a time when she couldn’t help but drain the resources of everyone around her. When drama reigned, lies flew back and forth. I envisioned Aunt Zora now, holding a suitcase, standing on the doorstep of my California home. “Tell Aunt Zora that I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I answered. I never saw Aunt Zora again. My cousin Ellen did. They were both at a shopping mall. Zora was thin as usual, and clean.
safety was at stake. She prayed her daughter would understand. She continued to worry about Rosemary’s naïveté. But Rosie detested the constant supervision and the unequal treatment. She decided to prove to her family that she could manage on her own. When no one was looking, Rosie would sneak away. Once beyond the view of those at home, she barreled across the yard and down the street. More often than not, after Rosemary’s escape attempts were thwarted, her frustrations boiled over—she
absence and thoughts of her missing sister had a profound effect on the direction of her life. Years before her reunion with Rosemary, Eunice had visited institutions, spoken with doctors and experts, and discovered how the mentally disabled were often treated. Seeing Rosemary again must have been a very welcome event, although she had changed. She was a heavy, house-bound forty-three-year-old woman, formerly energetic and now lethargic—a common tendency of the intellectually challenged. But
Rosemary a mink coat while she was living at Saint Coletta’s,” Bob said, shaking his head. “Yes,” I said. “She had no idea what Rosie needed or would have liked.” I flashed back to the image of my mother borrowing a mink coat for the photograph taken of her before marrying my father. Rosie’s wearing that flashy coat among her friends and the plain rural people who worked at Saint Coletta was comparable to my mother sporting a mink while gathering eggs from the family’s hen house. What was
her brothers and sisters knelt and prayed. As Elmer’s fever raged, his little face scrunched up every time he coughed, and he wheezed with every breath he took. But after a time, they noticed a change, and soon enough, Elmer drifted off to sleep. When the Chevy pulled back into the driveway, Stella ran out of the house, the screen door slamming behind her. She jumped on the running board and leaned into the window. “Elmer’s better! He isn’t coughing!” *** For their bird club, Stella’s