Two weeks after a recently retired nun from Long Island, N.Y., disappeared while vacationing alone in Europe, more than 200 people gathered to pray for her at an evening service on 20th July at St Anthony of Padua Church, where she lived.
While the event was promoted as a “prayer service for the safe return of Sr Eileen Christie,” most in attendance harbored thoughts that, given the amount of time she has been missing, they probably would not see her alive again.
Sr Eileen, 72, a member of the Sisters of St Joseph of Brentwood, N.Y., has not been heard from since 6th July, when she notified her nephew in Long Island via an email from her iPad that she had arrived at a hostel in the Alpine village of Hallstatt, Austria.
“In faith you don’t let go of hope and you believe in the power of prayer,” Sr Helen Kearney, president of the Sisters of St Joseph, told Catholic News Service in an interview before the prayer service. “Hope for her safely returning to us is harder to hold onto because of the length of time. At this point in time, the reality begins to become deeper for us.”
According to her family, Sr Eileen — who retired last year after serving for nearly five decades as a teacher in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre — enjoyed trips to Austria, Croatia and northern Italy. She had begun this year’s vacation in mid-June in Croatia and had a plane ticket to return to the U.S. in August.
“She’s been doing this for many summers,” said Bill Freda, her nephew. “If she could hike or swim, that was the perfect day for her. She loved to swim.”
The family was “not keen” on Sr Eileen vacationing alone, Freda said, but understood the joy it gave her. “When you travel solo, you have flexibility, and that’s what she loved. It gave her the freedom to explore the mountains, the rivers, the lakes.”
Sr Helen said she has repeatedly shared with Sr Eileen her uneasiness about her solitary adventures.
“She will walk for hours on Long Island and hike in the Alps,” said Sr Helen, who heads the largest community of religious sisters in the dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre. “I told her that it was a concern that she was doing this by herself. She was always very emphatic, saying ‘I know what I’m doing.’
“Eileen is someone who loves being outdoors. She’s a very fit person for her age and has done this for years. It was her space to be with God and nature.”
The Upper Austria police were focusing their search below the surface of Lake Hallstatt, a short walk from Sr Eileen’s hostel, Haus Jodler.
A police spokeswoman said dogs picked up her scent near the lake, a fjord-like setting and popular site for swimming, boating and other recreational sports, including scuba diving. Upon inspecting Sr Eileen’s room earlier in the investigation, they determined that her bathing suit was missing, though her other possessions remained undisturbed. There was no indication that an intruder had entered the room or harmed the nun, police said.
Divers with Austria’s special forces unit, EKO Cobra, began searching the lake on 19th July. Submersible robotic cameras were to be used for areas that the divers cannot reach, Upper Austria police spokeswoman Simone Mayr-Kirchberger told CNS.
Asked if the police believe that Sr Eileen’s disappearance is the result of foul play, Mayr-Kirchberger responded, “At this point, no.”
Credit card records show Sr Eileen purchased food at 12:45 p.m. at a market in Hallstatt on 6th July. The store owner confirmed the nun’s visit, according to Mayr-Kirchberger.
Freda, who kept in periodic contact with his aunt during her vacations, suspected something was wrong when he did not hear from her for a few days after receiving her email on 6th July. According to Sr Eileen’s itinerary, she was due to arrive in Innsbruck, Austria, on 9th July. When Freda called the hostel there on 11th July, he was informed that she had not registered. Growing more concerned, he then called Haus Jodler — where she had stayed in three previous summer visits to Hallstatt — and learned that the innkeeper had not seen his aunt since the day she arrived there, on 6th July. Upset and concerned, Freda alerted the police.
In an email to CNS, the case’s lead investigator, Gerhard Weichselbaum, said police were notified of the disappearance on 11th July and began a search the same day. He said search efforts have included alpine police officers, local police officers, divers, K-9 units and a helicopter, adding “the region is characterised by deep lakes, high and sheer mountains up to 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) and forests.”
“Because of all known facts, the search actually is concentrated to the lake. The lake’s max depth is about 125 metres (400 feet).”
Freda told CNS he is upset with the authorities for what he perceives to be a weak response to his aunt’s disappearance. He said posters featuring Sr Eileen’s image should have been displayed prominently throughout Hallstatt and the surrounding region to draw the attention of people who may have seen her.
Freda also said the U.S. Embassy in Vienna “has not been helpful.”
But Mayr-Kirchberger said Sr Eileen’s photo “has been online and in the media … It’s been reported in newspapers, on the radio and on TV.”
“(The situation) is definitely frustrating for the family,” Mayr-Kirchberger added. “I can’t imagine what it must feel like for them.”
Asked for a comment on the embassy’s role in the investigation, the State Department responded in an email: “The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas. If a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities and cooperate fully in their search efforts. Due to privacy considerations we have no further comment at this time.”
While admitting his aunt’s situation is grave, Freda, who did not attend the prayer service at St Anthony of Padua, said he wants to believe that Sr Eileen has not perished.
“You hope that she’s still alive,” he said. “She’s unpredictable enough that she may have met a group of people and ended up in a mountain cabin.
“We’re all praying for the miracle. There’s a small chance, but it’s not zero.”
Others, however, were not as hopeful.
“I feel, sadly, that she’s lost her life somewhere,” said Franciscan Brother Gary Cregan, principal at St Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, N.Y., where Sr Eileen taught theology from 1990 to 2015. “I fear that she’s gone.”
Br Gary attended the prayer service along with four friars from his community. His prayers did not focus on her safe return. “I’m praying for her immortal soul,” he said.
Picture: Sr Eileen Christie, second from right, is seen chatting with fellow members of the Sisters of St Joseph of Brentwood, N.Y., during a gathering of consecrated religious from the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre, N.Y., at St John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y., in 2009. Police have been searching for Sr Eileen since 11th July. She was reported last seen on 6th July while vacationing in Hallstatt, Austria. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz).