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

By Michelle Boorstein, Kevin Sieff and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; A01

About 8:30 Monday night, the doorbell rang at St. Benedict Monastery in Prince William County, and Sister Andrea Verchuck, the sub-prioress, rose from her desk to see who was there. On the slate front porch stood a man and a woman.

"They looked contrite," said Verchuck, 81, who has lived with other nuns in the wooded monastery for 66 years. The visitors' hands were at their sides, their eyes cast down, as Verchuck greeted them.

"They said, 'We'd like to talk with someone about the sister who was killed,' " she recalled.

The day before, Sister Denise Mosier, 66, riding in a car with two other nuns in Prince William, had died in a collision with an alleged drunk driver. The other nuns, 70 and 75, were critically injured. The man and woman at the monastery door were the parents of the driver charged with manslaughter in the crash. They had come to seek forgiveness for him.

The suspect, Carlos A. Martinelly-Montano, 23, is a Bolivian national whose family says he entered the United States illegally in 1996 but was currently working legally. His status has become a flash point in the heated debate over immigration policy. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security began deportation proceedings against Martinelly-Montano in 2008, after an earlier drunken driving arrest. But immigration officials, citing privacy laws, have declined to explain why his case still remains unresolved.

Amid the tangle of legal issues and cauldron of emotions surrounding Martinelly-Montano's recent case, a moment of simple purity unfolded Monday night, Verchuck said. Alejandro and Maria Martinelly stood sobbing, telling Verchuck how sorry they were, saying that their son, a father of two young children, is a heavy drinker and that they had tried to set him straight.

"I said, 'Please get help for him so he can stop, or he won't be a good parent,' " Verchuck recalled. And true to the spirit of her religious order, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia, she said what they had hoped to hear:

"We wanted to let them know we hold no grudges."

'He's a good man'

Martinelly-Montano, who has a record of numerous motor vehicle offenses in recent years, including drunken driving convictions in 2007 and 2008, was not seriously injured in the crash near Bristow. Besides manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, he has been charged with drunken driving and driving after a license revocation. He is in custody at a hospital and has been ordered held without bond, said Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert.

When Maria Martinelly learned by phone Sunday morning that her family's Subaru Outback had collided with a car carrying three nuns, killing one of them, she thought of Carlos Martinelly-Montano, the oldest of her three sons, she said in an interview.

"Oh my God -- how did he find the car keys?" she said.

The parents, who live in Prince William, said they had been hiding the keys because of his drunken driving convictions. They said that after an early morning drinking binge, Martinelly-Montano found the keys in a closet and left.

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.

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