Philomena Lee (born 24 March 1933) is an Irish woman whose life was chronicled in the 2009 book by Martin Sixsmithtitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The book was made into a film titled Philomena in 2013, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Lead Actress for Judi Dench‘s portrayal of Philomena, and Best Picture. Lee is now an advocate and spokesperson for adoption rights. Lee has created The Philomena Project in order to raise awareness about adoption laws and ways to improve them. She met with Pope Francis to discuss the Catholic church’s adoption policies in February 2014.
Lee was born in County Limerick, Ireland in 1933. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Lee was six. Her father was a butcher, and sent Lee and her sisters Kaye and Mary to convent school while he kept the sons at home. After Lee completed her formal education at the convent, she went to live with her maternal aunt, Kitty Madden.
She married in 1959, had two more children Jane and Kevin, and worked as a nurse. She is divorced from her first husband and remarried.
Lee became pregnant at age 18 at a local carnival by a man named John who worked for the post office. She was then sent to the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, a place for unwed mothers. After she gave birth, she was able to be with her child until she was 22 and he was three while living in the Abbey. As was common practice in Ireland at the time, the church sold him to a Catholic family in the United States. Philomena did not know where her son was sent by the nuns when he left the Abbey, after she was forced into signing the adoption papers. She eventually left the Abbey and moved to England.
Around Christmas 2003, Lee revealed to her family that she had a son when she was 18 and she did not know his whereabouts. She had secretly been trying to find what happened to her son on her own for decades, without success. Her daughter, Jane, decided to approach journalist Martin Sixsmith at a New Years Party a few weeks later, explaining the story and asking if he would be interested in helping them find out the details of what happened to the child.
Sixsmith agreed to take on the story, and spent years with Philomena Lee researching until they discovered her son was Michael Hess, and that he had died of AIDS in 1995 at age 43. They learned he had been put up for adoption by the nuns at the Abbey and was hence adopted by an American couple, Doc and Marge Hess. Michael had tried when he was alive to find his mother without success. A girl named Mary was adopted by the Hesses from the Abbey as well and Mary and Michael grew up together. He arranged to have his burial be at the Sean Ross Abbey, in hopes his mother could find his grave.
A script was developed by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan based on Sixsmith’s book. Stephen Frears directed with Judi Dench cast as Philomena. The film was distributed by The Weinstein Company in November 2013 and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Score.
- Sixsmith, Martin. The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty Year Search. Macmillan Publishers. p. 14. ISBN 978-0230744271.
- “Philomena Lee to tell world conference about her forced adoption in Ireland”. TheJournal.ie. 4 September 2014. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- Buckley, Dan (5 September 2014). “Philomena Lee: ‘I can still see my son’s little face’”. Irish Examiner. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- Child, Ben (31 January 2014). “Philomena Lee starts campaign for law change on adoption rights”. The Guardian. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- “What Is The Philomena Project?”. The Philomena Project. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- “Steve Coogan and Philomena Lee meet Pope Francis”. BBC. 6 February 2014. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- Gritten, David (15 October 2013). “Philomena: behind the scenes with Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan”. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- Midgette, Anne (4 February 2014). “The real Philomena Lee finds Hollywood ending to adoption story”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- Adams, Cindy (10 March 2014). “Philomena Lee speaks about battle with Ireland’s Supreme Court”. New York Post. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- Sixsmith, Martin (19 September 2009). “The Catholic church sold my child”. The Guardian. Retrieved 6 September 2014.