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Published: Sunday, 5/2/2004

Slain nun's piety obscured in details of bizarre death

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Black clouds churned overhead the day they buried Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.

Violent winds swept over the St. Bernardine chapel in Fremont, rattling the metal cross on the roof, throwing open the chapel's double doors, and whipping dead leaves onto the red print carpet.

"It wouldn't have surprised me one bit," brother-in-law Paul Casebere recalled, "if that roof had come off the church."

Yet the stormy weather on April 9, 1980, seemed a tragically appropriate finish to a life dedicated to God that ended violently three days earlier.

Now, 24 years later, her murder has been somewhat overshadowed by the recent arrest of the 66-year-old priest who police say ceremonially killed her, and the unrelated allegations in June of satanic rituals and sadomasochistic sex that led police to reopen the case.

The Rev. Gerald Robinson, one of two priests who said Sister Margaret Ann's funeral Mass, remains in the Lucas County jail while supporters try to raise bond: $200,000 in cash or $400,000 in property.

The arrest on April 23 came many years after Sister Margaret Ann was found strangled and stabbed in the sacristy of a chapel at Mercy Hospital. It was Holy Saturday and the day before her 72nd birthday. At the time, Father Robinson was one of two chaplains at Mercy.

The case was reopened last year after a woman testified before Toledo's Diocesan Review Board and wrote a detailed statement alleging years of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Among her abusers, she named Father Robinson.

She also told the board she had been the victim in satanic rituals. The startling allegations triggered a crush of media attention.

But while everyone seems caught in the bizarre accusations, family members say the bigger story of a woman who spent her life helping others as a nurse, friend, and sibling is being missed.

Sister Margaret Ann's surviving sisters both live in their native Edgerton, a tiny Williams County farming community 65 miles west of Toledo.

"She was wonderful," Mary Casebere said of her older sister. Above all, she added, "Sister was completely devoted to God."

Margaret Ann Pahl was born April 6, 1909, the fourth of nine children of Edgerton farmers Frank and Catherine Pahl.

The recent media crush surrounding the arrest of a priest who authorities think may have been involved in the 1980 killing of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl has her family wondering if her life of good deeds in the church is being buried by the lurid details of the killing and recent arrest. The recent media crush surrounding the arrest of a priest who authorities think may have been involved in the 1980 killing of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl has her family wondering if her life of good deeds in the church is being buried by the lurid details of the killing and recent arrest.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Her family was devoutly Catholic, with cousins who were nuns; so it surprised no one that the young teenager announced she was going to become a Sister of Mercy after finishing school.

On a bright day, Margaret packed a few belongings and, with her parents and younger sisters, climbed into the family's Buick touring car. They made the long trip to Our Lady of the Pines, a convent and retreat on 63 acres off Tiffin Street in Fremont that had opened in the mid 1920s as the Sisters of Mercy Novitiate.

Her parents and sisters cried on the way. But Margaret had no second thoughts.

"She'd been called to be a nun. She just knew," said her younger sister, Catherine Flegal, now 90.

It wasn't surprising, when the family returned home, to find Margaret's belongings tidily laid out in her room. Clearly printed name tags denoted to whom each item was destined.

For younger sister Mary, she'd left an intricate red jewelry box. Mrs. Casebere recently pulled it out of a dresser to show a visitor - a surprise to her husband of 70 years, who had never seen it.

Mary Casebere shrugged: "It's always been there."

She smiled, remembering the tidy piles of her sister's belongings. "She was always neat like that, everything just so."

A leather-bound photo album, claimed from Sister Margaret Ann's belongings in the days after her murder, lays out in neatly arranged photos and handwritten captions the happy milestones of her life: visits with other nuns, days spent in Edgerton, a vacation to Niagara Falls.

Four of the five Pahl sisters became nurses. Laura Marie joined Margaret Ann and became a Sister of Mercy.

For her part, Sister Margaret Ann was trained as a registered nurse. She became director of Mercy's school of nursing and later administrator at St. Charles Hospital in Oregon and Mercy Hospital in Tiffin.

Sister Margaret Ann, in white, was from a Catholic family that sent several of its daughters into the service of the church. Pictured from the left is a cousin, Mary Leontine Froelich; her sister, Laura Marie, and another cousin, Mary Martha Schick. Sister Margaret Ann, in white, was from a Catholic family that sent several of its daughters into the service of the church. Pictured from the left is a cousin, Mary Leontine Froelich; her sister, Laura Marie, and another cousin, Mary Martha Schick.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

By 1980, she had trouble hearing and considered retirement. Still, she cared for the two chapels at what was then called Mercy Hospital, where her attention to detail was as unwavering as her devotion to God, according to those interviewed by police after her killing.

"She demanded everything to be done exactly as she wanted it done, and on time," one detective wrote, after interviewing a nun who called Sister Margaret Ann "old school."

A housekeeper agreed. On Good Friday, the day before her death, the housekeeper told the detective that Sister Margaret Ann was distraught "because the chapel was not as perfect as she wanted it."

Even more horrifying for her, a priest - it is unclear who - had shortened the Good Friday service. Sister Margaret Ann, very upset, took the housekeeper's hand and cried: "Why did they cheat God out of what was His?"

The hours before Sister Margaret Ann died would be carefully documented in the days after her murder.

She had set her alarm for 5 a.m. Holy Saturday in her room in the upstairs living quarters at Mercy Hospital. She made her way to the switchboard downstairs and then to the dining room by 6:15 a.m. She took a dining-room tray, walked a short distance to a storage closet, and gathered cleaning cloths and incense. She placed them on a tray, which she put on a chapel pew.

Returning to the dining room by 6:20 a.m., she had a quick breakfast of grapefruit, cereal, and coffee, then told a cafeteria worker she was heading up to St. Joseph's chapel.

She left the dining room for the last time at 6:45 a.m., presumably returning to the chapel, where she prepared the altar for Easter weekend services.

Shortly after 8 a.m. a young nun walking to the chapel picked up what appeared to be a folded linen in the hallway. She dropped it on a chapel pew, momentarily paused at the organ, and then decided to make a phone call in the sacristy, an 11 foot by 17-foot room to the side of the altar.

She screamed.

On the sacristy's polished marble floor was Sister Margaret Ann's body. She was partly disrobed and had been stabbed repeatedly in the neck and torso - up to 32 times.

A blind had been lowered. One door to the sacristy remained locked. In the second, a skeleton key remained in the inside lock.

A coroner's investigator would say she believed the sister had been strangled from behind by someone with large hands.

Investigators later collected what they hoped would provide clues to the killing, including the cloth that the nun had picked up on her way to the chapel that morning and a unique "sword-like" letter opener with a medallion. That later was retrieved from Father Robinson's quarters at the hospital, according to documents obtained by The Blade.

The linen from the hallway, unfolded later, appeared to have bloodstains on it. In fact, several pieces of cloth were seized, in part because it appeared Sister Margaret Ann was stabbed through an altar cloth.

The more her siblings learned of Sister Margaret Ann's death, the more horrifying each detail became.

"The only thing I had left to hope for was that she was strangled " Ms. Flegal said, abruptly tearful, " before, before she was stabbed."

Two days after Easter 1980, more than 200 mourners crammed inside a chapel at St. Bernardine's Home at the Fremont retreat where Sister Margaret Ann had planned to soon retire. Father Jerome Swiatecki, another Mercy Hospital chaplain who helped celebrate her funeral Mass, called the death "not only blasphemous, but patently absurd."

Perhaps it was poetic coincidence that the storm outside subsided by the end of Sister Margaret Ann's Mass of Resurrection, but Mrs. Casebere does not think so.

She remembers her sister's draped casket being taken to the back of the church. Someone opened the doors. The sky had abruptly calmed.

"It was so quiet," Mrs. Casebere said. "To me it was like God telling us not to worry. That she'd made it to heaven."

As for the rest of the case, even today, Mrs. Casebere and Mrs. Fleger say they are not so concerned.

Neither plans to attend court hearings as the legal case unfolds. Both said the killer, whether it was Father Robinson or someone else, will have to answer to a much higher power than earthly courts.

"I know Sister's soul is in heaven and that she's free," Mrs. Fleger said. "For me, that's what's important."

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.



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