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.
tranquilizers in those days,” my aunt recalled. Rose Kennedy displayed photos of all of her children in the living room of the family’s Hyannis Port home. Most of the photos were in full, bright color. The photographs of Joseph Jr. and Kathleen, both of whom died in the 1940s, were in black-and-white. So was Rosemary’s. Although many color photos of Rosemary were given to her, Rose never replaced the black-and-white picture. She presented to guests the picture that best captured Rosemary as
arrived. She was everything to him, but her presence wasn’t enough to drive the depression away. My aunt heard the gunshot coming from the bedroom. One of my mother’s sisters called to tell me. I broke the news to my mother. Later, when lunching with one of my Koehler aunts, she said, “I read the obituary of your uncle. It didn’t say how he died.” Pause. I am my mother’s daughter. No one had to tell me to keep this secret. “He had cancer,” I said. A truth . . . and yet a lie. When
and fearless, she was never shy about expressing her opinions. In 1963, when she spoke to the female members of the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped, Eunice said in no uncertain terms that its record was “frustrating and dismal.” 44 The disabled “. . . have received virtually no attention from this committee . . . yet retardation is as much of a handicap as the loss of a leg, deafness, or an emotional disturbance.” 45 She was so bold, she even criticized her brother,
After my mother passed away in 2002, my father and I cleaned out the basement in my parents’ home. We found the farmhouse bricks, priceless treasures that unleashed a flood of memories. The night before I left Wisconsin for the trip home to California, my cousins held the Koehler family Friday night fish fry—a tradition for many families in Wisconsin, Catholic or not. By that time, Dad was the only one of ten siblings who was still alive. My cousins and I gathered in a large room at a local
Rose reminded Joe all about the haughty women who had refused to invite her to join Boston’s Junior League and the Vincent Club. Joe remembered the stings all too well, too, including being denied membership to the Boston Country Club. They enjoyed a laugh together. Rampant Irish prejudice didn’t diminish much for certain Boston residents even in the early 1960s. While in the White House, Jack remarked, “Do you know it is impossible for an Irish Catholic to get into the Somerset Club in Boston?