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Real-life 'Philomena' Fights to Help Mothers Find Lost Children

Oscar-nominated 'Philomena' Tells Story of Loss, Forgiveness
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Stephen Frears’ Oscar-nominated drama Philomena tells the true story of Philomena Lee.

Fifty years ago, as a pregnant Irish-Catholic teenager, Lee was disowned by her family and sent to a local convent. There, she was forced her to give up her child for adoption. She never saw him again.

Now, just a few weeks before the Academy Awards, the real Philomena Lee is using her newfound fame to help others find their lost children.

Difficult journey

After losing his job, former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan in the film, teams up with Lee to help her find her lost son and to write an article about it. During their journey, the unlikely pair develops a bond and their mother-son type of relationship permeates the movie.

Dame Judi Dench captures the essence of the real Philomena -- gracious, optimistic, strong. The action by the nuns of an Irish convent more than 50 years ago to take her son away shook her faith but did not destroy it.

"Who could keep up a grudge...I couldn't anyway," Lee said in an interview with VOA . "Especially with my religious teaching I couldn't because you were always taught to forgive and turn the other cheek...I gradually learned to do that."

Lee discovered that her son Anthony, renamed Michael Hess, was a lawyer for the Republican National Committee in the 1980s, and died of AIDS at the age of 43.

“I tell you," Lee said, "it was like I was losing him twice.”

Philomena Project

Now, Lee’s goal is to help Irish women like her locate their lost children. She and her daughter, Jane Libberton, have started the “Philomena Project,” a campaign asking Irish authorities to open the files of thousands of children allegedly sold into adoption by the Irish Catholic church.

Philomena Lee, right, and her daughter Jane Libberton in Rome on Feb. 6, 2014, a day after meeting with Pope Francis.
Philomena Lee, right, and her daughter Jane Libberton in Rome on Feb. 6, 2014, a day after meeting with Pope Francis.
“Yes, they did say they didn't [sell] babies and no money exchanged hands but I know that people do have documents that say something else," said Libberton, adding that thousands of babies were taken from their mothers. “I think there were about 2,000 children like Anthony that were adopted to the United States.”

Dench says telling Philomena’s story was a huge responsibility. She was as awed to meet Lee as Lee was to meet the actress.

“She was sitting right behind me with her hand on my shoulder," Dench said during a screening of the film. "I can’t tell you what I saw on screen because all I was conscious of was the hand on my shoulder.”

Lee said, “I just stood behind her with my hand on her shoulder and watched the funny bit of it when she is on the trolley in the airport. She was so lovely.”

Lee is now leaving her quiet world in Ireland and heading to Hollywood in time for the Oscar ceremony on March 2.