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The Real-Life Philomena: 'You See So Much Hurt Caused by Anger'

Have the ways the Catholic Church has changed in the past several decades made it any easier?

Mari: Yeah, not really. Their attitudes really haven’t changed.

Jane: In Ireland.

Mari: Yeah, absolutely not in Ireland. Here in the States, we tend to get a lot more encouragement and sympathy. In Ireland, it’s still this stubborn willfulness. They’d rather stay silent and take the bad press than issue apologies, because they know that will open them up to legal liabilities.

Jane: My mom still very much has her faith and is still quite protective of the Church, so you find it a bit awkward sometimes.

Philomena: Sometimes. You just believed everything you were told. You didn’t query it, you just didn’t query it. People would say, “Are you against the Catholic Church?” No, I’m not. At the time they did it, they took me in, they gave me a home for my baby. They gave us a home. It was the Church that caused all the problems because the Church made a baby out of wedlock a mortal sin. So we firmly believed we were sinners. That’s the teaching of the Church.

Were you worried people would take an anti-Catholic message away from the movie?

Jane: I don’t think we even thought about the Catholic stance at all, this is just my mom’s story and what happened to her. Obviously people have come out and said, “This is an anti-Catholic film.” It was never intended to be. This is what happened.

Philomena: No! It’s my story.

Jane: There are other Catholic groups that are in support of it, [saying] that it isn’t an anti-Catholic film because she retains her faith all the way through it. We’re just telling the truth of what happened. It was never, ever from the start meant to be an attack on the Church. Steve Coogan [who plays Martin Sixsmith] says the same thing. He’s from an Irish-Catholic family. He spent a lot of time with women my mom’s age when he was a child. He never set out at all to make an anti-Catholic film. It’s just different people who have different views. As mom said, yes, they did take her in. Where else would she have gone? But they kind of caused the problem in the first place. They were part of the solution, but they were part of the problem.

Did you feel surprised that so many people found your commitment to your faith inspiring?

Philomena: We did, actually. People can’t understand how I could have been so forgiving. But I mean, Anthony would have been 61 last year. When he was adopted and taken away, I went to Liverpool, two years I stayed there, and then I went down and did psychiatric nursing for 30 years. Now, you don’t work in a psychiatric hospital and not see some awful, sad faces. You see so much hurt and pain caused by anger. I was angry in the beginning, and I used to think, why did this happen to me? And then nursing the patients, sitting down and talking with them, helping them with their problems—it made my own slide into the background. I’ve seen so much hurt caused through anger. And I thought, “I couldn’t go through my whole life being angry.” It’s just not in my nature to be angry. I was upset and very sad and very hurt. But I just went on with life and got married and had children. Working with psychiatric patients, it helped me to heal a lot of the pain I had.

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is the moment of forgiveness near the end. Steve Coogan, as Martin, seems confused by it, asking, “Just like that?” But Judi Dench, as you, says it actually takes everything inside you to forgive.

Philomena: When my daughter first found out about this story, she was very angry, and I think Steve Coogan took on her anger.

Jane: Martin was a political journalist, and he wasn’t particularly angry. He’s seen all sort of things in his career. Steve asked a particular question of whether you forgive the nuns, and you did. I said, “I don’t,” so he took the anger and put it in his character. Martin wasn’t an angry character, he was a journalist.

Were the nuns as big of an obstacle in learning about Anthony as they appeared in the movie?

Jane: When we went the first time, they didn’t help. They were very pleasant very nice.

Philomena: Lovely.

Jane: We sat down to tea like this. We knew Anthony’s grave was there. But they didn’t give us any information about the American side of things. When we went back the second year, I’d said we found Anthony’s partner and we found Mary, who was adopted with Anthony, and then they went to the cupboard and gave me papers they could have given me before. Without those papers, there never would have been a book. They just weren’t helpful.

Did they not fully understand?

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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