ABC News’ Freda Kahen-Kashi, Cynthia McFadden, and Jake Whitman Report
Hollywood magic can bring any story to life, but no one saw this ending coming.
When Philomena Lee, the real-life inspiration behind the hit movie “Philomena,” succumbed to the pressures of the Catholic Church and gave her son up for adoption, she never thought that she’d be face to face with the pope 60 years later at the invitation of the Vatican.
“Thank you. I’m very happy to meet you,” Lee said, as she reached for the pope’s hand.
Philomena was only 18 years old in 1952 when she found herself pregnant, unwed, and very much alone. After giving birth to her son Anthony in an Irish home for unwed mothers, she was forced to give him up. One day without warning, mother and child were wrenched apart, and 3-year-old Anthony was taken to America.
“The nuns gave us no choice – we used to ask and ask, ‘can you find us a job outside where we can take the babies?’ They said no, you’re lucky they will be taken away,” she explained.
“I about just went to pieces seeing that little face in the back of the car.”
Shamed by the church, and forced to work off her debt over four years in the home’s laundry, Philomena received no safe haven or refuge from the nuns. She and the other young women “were told [they] were suffering for the grievous sin of having a baby out of wedlock.”
Sadly, Philomena’s story is only one of many. There are an estimated 60,000 women in Ireland who had babies under similar circumstances over the past 60 years, all of them forced into giving up their children.
Over the next 50 years, Philomena periodically returned to the home in search of precious clues that might lead her to her son. Unbeknownst to her, Anthony had been trying to find his mother. Though, with each visit, the nuns would give the same answer, claiming that they knew nothing of either’s whereabouts, refusing to unseal the adoption records.
Eventually, Philomena teamed up with BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith to try and locate Anthony. Their search led them to America, where they discovered Anthony had been a prominent member of the Republican National Committee, chief legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush, and that he had died nine years earlier of AIDS.
In an earlier interview, Philomena explained that her sense of faith did change in the years that followed. But she told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden, she never truly stopped believing.
“You can’t go through life being so unyielding,” she said. “You have got to forgive. You’ve got to.”
Which brings us back to the Vatican, the backdrop of this unexpected and heartwarming meeting. Though the pope himself could not attend the movie screening, he sent one of his top personal aids, Guillermo Karcher, who hinted that the pope might one day unseal those adoption records, closeted away for all these years.
While Philomena’s search has come to an end, she and her daughter Jane Libberton have co-founded The Philomena Project, to help other unwed Irish Catholic mothers reunite with their sons, and find their own happy endings, because sometimes the movies can’t even come close to real life.
For more on the Philomena project, visit their website by clicking here.
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