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Prayers Requested for Sr. Eileen Christie, Missing in Austria
By Angelo Stagnaro
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, N.Y. have asked us for our prayers for the safe return of their consoeur, Sister Eileen Christie.
Sister Eileen, 72, has been missing for more than two weeks in Austria. William Freda of Valley Stream, her nephew, speaking directly to the Register, said he had received an email from her on July 6, sent from her iPad mentioning that she had arrived safely at Haus Jodler, a hostel in the village of Hallstatt, Austria.
Freda, immediately suspected something was wrong when he hadn't heard from his aunt for three days after responding to her July 6 email. According to the St. Joseph Sister's travel itinerary, she was scheduled to stay in Hallstatt for six days and then arrive in Innsbruck, Austria on July 9. When Freda called the hostel on July 11, he was informed that his aunt hadn’t registered. He immediately called the Haus Jodler in Hallstatt―her last known location. The innkeeper replied that he hadn't seen her since the first day she arrived. Freda, shocked at the innkeeper's inaction, in turn, alerted the police.
Sister Eileen had vacationed at Haus Jodler for the last three previous summers. She had been traveling alone in Austria, Croatia and northern Italy as had been her custom for several years. The St. Joseph religious sister, also known as a Josephite, had begun this year's vacation in mid-June in Croatia. She was expected to return in August.
"She's been doing this for thirty summers," said Freda. "If she could hike or swim, that was the perfect day for her. She loved to swim."
Hope seems to be slipping away for the missing sister. It's not in keeping with Sister Eileen's personality to refuse to be in touch with her family and the sisters of her community.
According to the St. Joseph Sisters of Brentwood, Sister Eileen had just retired last year after serving for nearly five decades as a teacher in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Her community gathered together for a prayer service on July 20 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in East Northport, N.Y. More than 200 people were in attendance. Sister Eileen had her residence at that parish as well.
Bishop William Murphy of Rockport, Long Island, had directly communicated his concern over Sister Eileen's disappearance to Austrian Nuncio Archbishop Peter Stephan Zurbriggen, hoping to expedite the search for her.
"Everything that can be done has been done and continues to go on," said Sean Dolan, Director of Communications of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Bishop Murphy is in regular contact with Sr Patricia Mahoney, csj who is handling this for the Sisters. Bishop Murphy has been praying daily for her. Last Sunday he began the 11am Mass asking everyone at St. Agnes and watching on Telecare to join him in daily prayer."
"The Austrian authorities have conducted an extensive search for Sister Eileen, but no one's come up with anything so far," according Fr. Joseph Mirro, pastor at the church. "We’re praying for her safe return, along with the Sisters of St. Joseph and St. Anthony’s High School community."
Sister Eileen taught theology at St. Anthony's High School (grades 9-12) located in South Huntington, NY on Long Island. Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn founded the school in 1933. She had been assigned there for 25 years―approximately half of her total teaching career. Sister Eileen first 25 years of teaching was on the elementary school level.
She also volunteers at St. Anthony’s of Padua Church in East Northport as a director of lectors and as a spiritual director, according to Father Mirro.
An unfortunately striking aspect of this case is the abject lack of information and investigative direction. It's simply not in keeping with Sister Eileen's character to not communicate with her loved ones.
"The most likely scenario is that she went swimming at the lake which was about a ten-minute walk," explained Mr. Freda. "However, it's also likely that after swimming, she decided to take a quick walk in the surrounding woods and had some kind of hiking accident. Or perhaps it was foul play,” said Freda flatly. "We really don’t know which of those is the real answer."
"Unfortunately, the fact that we're 4,000 miles away from that part of the world means that the roadblocks that keep getting thrown up against us are all the more frustrating."
William Freda spoke with the Register describing his frustration with the Austrian authorities, the FBI and the State Department, which is responsible for American embassies in foreign countries, for what he understands to be a weak response to his aunt's disappearance.
"No one has offered any help whatsoever. The American Embassy in Vienna sent us a perfunctory email that essentially said they have a hands-off policy for local police investigations—even those of American citizens," explained a frustrated Mr. Freda. "The local police even refuse to post the missing poster we've prepared."
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Austria nor the Austrian police were able to reply to the Register'srequests for comment before the deadline for this article.
Mr. Freda has served as the dispersal point of information for both Sister Eileen and the police action brought to bear to her search. Sr. Eileen's family here in the US has offered a €15,000 ($16,462) reward for Sister Eileen safe return. The announcement will make the major Austrian newspapers on Sunday, July 23.
"Eileen loves the outdoors. Swimming has always been her favorite activity along with walking and hiking. She prefers scenic venues and backcountries. She is more of a country vacationer," explained Mr. Freda.
"Our family wasn’t keen on [Sister Eileen] vacationing alone," said Freda. " When you travel alone like she did, you have flexibility, and she loved that freedom. It allowed her to explore nature wherever she went."
"Those who know Sr. Eileen described her personality as friendly and always being motion. She was quick to laugh at jokes and an avid bridge player. She's 72 but a young 72 in terms of her vigor and athleticism," he added.
The Upper Austria police were immediately notified of the religious sister's disappearance. They've been focusing their search on Lake Hallstatt, a short walk from Sister Eileen's hostel.
Police spokeswoman, Simone Mayr-Kirchberger, told CNS on July 21 that search dogs had picked up her scent near the lake, a popular site for swimming, boating and other recreational sports.
Detectives investigating Sister Eileen's disappearance reported that none of her personal possessions were missing expect for her bathing suit was missing leading them to consider the possibility that she had drowned at the lake.
The case's lead investigator, Gerhard Weichselbaum, said police had been notified of Sister Eileen's disappearance on July 11 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. "The region is characterized by deep lakes, high and sheer mountains up to 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) and forests," added Detective Weichselbaum.
Divers with Austria's special forces unit, Einsatzkommando Cobra, began searching the Lake Hallstatt on July 19. Submersible robotic cameras were employed to search the deepest parts of the lake.
"Because of all known facts, the search actually is concentrated to the lake. The lake's max depth is about 125 meters (400 feet)," said Detective Weichselbaum.
Mayr-Kirchberger added that Sister Eileen's photo "has been [posted] online and in the media [including being] reported in newspapers, on the radio and on TV."
Credit card receipts show Sister Eileen purchased food at 12:45 pm on July 6, the day she disappeared, at a market in Hallstatt. According to Mayr-Kirchberger, the store owner confirmed her visit. Mayr-Kirchberger further pointed out that there's no evidence that Sister Eileen's disappearance was the result of foul play.
"We can't let go of hope and we believe in the power of prayer," said Sister Helen Kearney, President of the Sisters of St. Joseph, in an interview with the Register. "Unfortunately, hope for [Sister Eileen's] safe return to us is harder to hold onto because of the length of time since she was last seen. The reality of all this begins to become deeper for us."
"I've personally known Sr. Eileen for several years. Now that she had retired, she actively volunteered with helping driving the other retired sisters on their own personal errands," explained Sister Helen.
Sister Helen has worked closely with Rockville Center's Auxiliary Bishop Andrzej Zglejszewski, who has been in Europe at the time as the search has unfolded. The bishop has personally coordinated with Interpol and Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, op, the Archbishop of Vienna to help coordinate all possible resources to find Sr. Eileen.
Bishop Zglejszewski has a close personal German Monsignor friend is helping to maintain open lines of communications with all parties. At this point Bishop Murphy prays they find her to bring closure for the family and for the Josephites who are her fa
"We don’t have any certainty at all in this situation," said Sister Helen. "We would like to have closure. It's truly a bizarre situation, admittedly. However, it's brought so many people together to assist us. Especially other religious congregations both here and in Europe. Something for which we are truly grateful."
"God is present even in this horrific, unbelievable situation. We suffer from an ever-present anxiety of wanting to know."
Sister Helen often told her consoeur Sister Eileen about her concern for the latter's solo trips.
"She would walk for hours all around Long Island and hike in the Alps," said Sister Helen. "I told her I was worried for her safety. She always tried to alleviate our concerns saying, she knew what she was doing.'
As far as Freda is concerned, no news is good news. He hopes Sister Eileen is still alive.
"You hope that she's still alive," he added. "She's an unpredictable, free spirit and could be off hiking in the woods. We're all praying for the miracle. There's a small chance of her being alive, but it's not zero."
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