How Sandra Bauer got away with it in the 1940s

Written by By Sandra Bauer, CNN

Sandra Bauer was 19 years old when she went to France after being kidnapped and enslaved for two years by the Society of Friends, a religious sect in Newport, Rhode Island, and later, by the Benedictine Abbey of Natick, Massachusetts.

She was kidnapped by the Brothers of Charity after a trip to Dublin in 1939 and held in a series of dank, crowded, hermetic cells, waiting to be reunited with her family and religious community.

For her life in Europe, Bauer’s story is the subject of two documentaries. “Gone: the tale of Sandra Bauer,” by Oscar-winning director and producer Albert Maysles, has been playing in select theaters since last fall. “Slave to Virtue: a 30-year odyssey of faith and courage,” by British director J.C. Cunningham, received limited theatrical distribution and has had subsequent screenings on DVD and in select libraries.

So how did this lost teen know that she would someday live in France, and be taken up by some of the most “well connected, illustrious” politicians in the world?

“I could see the light of the present, of the future, in the future of France,” she says.

Her search started in May 1941, when Bauer (then 24) went on a three-day pilgrimage to a nunnery in Lille, France, where she witnessed through secret glass walls a documentary about the Society of Friends — her host. The bond between the California girl and the leering, handsy nuns there was immediate.

On her second night, Bauer was called home early by the minstrel who came to entertain the nuns. The minstrel asked her to a party in the next room and later invited her back to his apartment. There, he took her up to his room to show her a photograph of a future love.

Her mini-plot to flee Natick, after more than a year in captivity in Ireland, began, according to Bauer, on a trip she made to the bookstore a year earlier. She had found a book about the Brothers of Charity who, when he was 15, had purchased the slave she later met and became her companion.

The book was “As Thieves Go By,” a 1937 work by Sarah Lears, an anthropologist who had discovered a group of high-born Americans, many of them descendants of colonists who enslaved or enslaved Native Americans, in an orphanage and others in France. Her study ultimately led to her 1978 book “Slave to Virtue: a 31-year odyssey of faith and courage.”

In Bauer’s memoir, “Beautiful Beasts: Voices from the Clanies,” she discusses Lears’ recommendation that she should visit a nunnery in France.

She had purchased a ticket for Lille and — on a bus — visited a sick nun at the nuns’ residence, whom she called “Nun Blanche.” It was there that she met Sister Milly Poulin, from a village in Canada’s “Hebron” area. They became friends and spent the rest of Bauer’s time in Natick dressing up in clothes, such as nuns’ habits and cloaks, and performing theatrical readings.

Aha! Bauer’s great-uncle, a diplomat, might have a connection to the nuns in France. So she planned her own voyage. Once home, though, she wasn’t so thrilled to discover that Lears had forgotten to mention anything about “Slave to Virtue.”

Upon arriving in Paris in October 1941, she took a commercial ticket from Amsterdam and headed for Notre Dame Cathedral. There, she was arrested by the French police and taken to the Bastille.

To test her guilt, she was asked to read the Bible. As she sat in a truck, reading, she felt a tap on her thigh. It was Sister Milly, and she learned that she was going to share Bauer’s “masterpiece” with the nuns in the convent.

After a two-hour trial, she was given the alternative sentence of death.

Hadn’t Bauer chosen to return to Ireland?

“My love for France was stronger than France’s love for me,” she explained in the documentary.

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