Page 2 of 2   <      

Nuns at Virginia monastery find room to forgive while mourning sister's death

As sisters of the Benedictine order gather in Bristow, Va., for a five-day retreat, a crash blamed on drunken driving kills one nun and critically injures two others, adding gravity and emotion to the event.

Police said Martinelly-Montano was intoxicated when the family Subaru went out of control on Bristow Road shortly before 8:30 a.m. and collided head-on with a Toyota Corolla carrying the nuns, who were going from their Richmond convent to the Prince William monastery for a retreat. Sister Connie Ruth Lupton, 75, was driving; Sister Charlotte Lange, 70, was in the front-passenger seat; Mosier was in the back.

Maria Martinelly recalled the conversation with Verchuck and a novice nun when she and her husband visited the monastery. "He had a bad drinking problem, but he's a good man," she told them.

The family entered the United States illegally in 1996, when their oldest son was 8, they said, and spent more than a decade as undocumented immigrants. In 2007, the parents, their daughter and their oldest son got work permits from the Department of Homeland Security, they said, even though they had been in the country illegally. Anthony Guerrieri, a spokesman for the temporary employment agency that hired Martinelly-Montano in April, said in an e-mail that the suspect "successfully cleared the . . . employment verification process and upon hire, was eligible for employment in the U.S."

Federal and local authorities, however, said they consider Martinelly-Montano to be an illegal immigrant.

After Martinelly-Montano's second drunken driving arrest, in October 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials filed papers in immigration court that began his deportation proceeding, ICE officials said.

He was released on his own recognizance while awaiting a hearing. The hearing was set for April 21, 2009, then postponed to May 7, 2009, then delayed until Dec. 3, 2009, then rescheduled for Aug. 19. Citing privacy laws, officials declined to specify the reasons for the postponements.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano "has ordered an immediate review into the circumstances leading to this individual being released in 2008" and why the proceeding was not completed, the agency said in a statement Tuesday.

"Why is it that this individual was driving?" Napolitano asked Monday at an unrelated news conference. "He was in the removal process. Why did the removal process take so long?"

Always by their sides

In the hushed, blue-walled waiting room outside the intensive-care unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital, a flow of relatives and Benedictine nuns has steadily come and gone since the crash.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, Sister Anne Marie Lange, 71, quietly made calls to update others on her sister's status -- critical but stable -- and to share the news that surgery would begin within the hour. Lange said she was optimistic about her sister's recovery: "I know who she is, and she's a strong, beautiful woman."

At the monastery in Bristow, a sign-up sheet was hung for volunteers to spend time with the two injured nuns in rotating shifts of at least two, Lange said.

"They've been here to sit with them, stroke their hands, talk to them," she said. "We don't leave them alone. We love each other very much, and we're always there for one another."

For 20 years, Charlotte Lange was the principal of her old high school, St. Gertrude's, said Susan Walker, who now runs the school. "Sister Charlotte is bigger than life," she said.

Walker said that the impact of the accident has been felt deeply at the school. "We've had students calling all week in tears, just beside themselves," Walker said.

Mary Ann Lamb, 57, was mourning the death of Mosier, her older sister.

"It's hard to encompass everything that she was," Lamb said of Mosier, who became a nun nearly 50 years ago at age 18. She received a college degree in English, taught in parochial schools and was a missionary in Africa. "She was very full of life and had this zest for life, and yet she was very grounded and focused in her direction to serve the Lord."

Staff writers Caitlin Gibson and Maria Glod contributed to this report.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company