February 10, 2023

‘Amazing Grace’: From heartbreak and rage, woman answers God’s challenge with a remarkable promise

Page Zyromski poses for a photo in her north side Indianapolis home after the Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner shared her story of responding to one of the hardest challenges she’s ever faced in her life. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Page Zyromski poses for a photo in her north side Indianapolis home after the Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner shared her story of responding to one of the hardest challenges she’s ever faced in her life. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

When 94-year-old Winnie Harman was raped and stabbed to death by Stephen Todd Booker in Florida 46 years ago, no one could have imagined that such a horrific crime would eventually lead to a remarkable promise—a promise that was fulfilled recently inside a parish church in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Back in 1977, the thought that anything even remotely positive could come out of that tragedy was especially impossible to consider for Page Zyromski—the great-niece of Harman, a woman whom Zyromski loved deeply and viewed as her surrogate grandmother.

When Zyromski learned in a phone call that Harman had been brutally murdered on Nov. 9, 1977, the then-young mother was so overwhelmed by wave after wave of shock and sorrow that her three small children rushed to hug and comfort their mom.

In the days that followed, a feeling of rage also consumed her.

“I had never been that enraged,” she recalls. “I hated that feeling in myself, but I really understood how the family members of a murder victim say, ‘I want to pull the switch.’ ”

Yet on Jan. 16 of this year, that rage had long ago faded and was now replaced by a feeling of great peace as the 80-year-old Zyromski walked up the aisle of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Indianapolis, where she soon sat with her husband, two of their children and their six grandchildren.

They were all there to fulfill the promise that she had made.

They were all there to do what Zyromski knows that many people would consider unthinkable—but that she regards simply as living her Catholic faith.

They were all there for a Mass of Christian Burial for Stephen Todd Booker, a Mass that Zyromski had requested and planned, including choosing the readings and the songs.

As she looked at the vessel filled with Booker’s cremated remains, she recalled the letters and visits that connected her to him for 45 years, the friendship they eventually formed, and the promise she made to give him a decent burial.

She also thought of Harman, the woman who had taught her so much about love, the woman she believed “had the best seat in the house” for this Mass.

And mostly, she remembered the challenge that God gave her, the one that he wouldn’t let her walk away from, the one that eventually led to the promise she made to Booker—the challenge to forgive.

It’s one of the hardest challenges she’s ever faced.

‘She was my surrogate grandmother really’

While Zyromski felt a sense of peace as she waited for the funeral Mass for Booker to begin, that feeling was in stark contrast to the sorrow and rage she felt during the funeral services for her great-aunt in 1977.

“An Episcopal priest buried her,” Zyromski recalls during a conversation in her home a few days after Booker’s funeral Mass. “One thing he said was, ‘One day, at the eternal banquet, we and Stephen Booker and she would all be enjoying the heavenly communion together.’ I hadn’t forgiven him yet.”

Instead, her thoughts mostly focused on Harman.

Zyromski’s mom, Mary, lost her mother when she was 8. So Harman raised her. And when Zyromski’s mom had her eight children, Harman became a surrogate grandmother to them. Harman and Zyromski were especially close.

Growing up, Zyromski spent holidays and summer vacations with Harman and her husband, Frank, a couple who didn’t have children. Through the years, Zyromski learned a lot of details about her great-aunt that made her smile: She was a Sunday school teacher when she was younger, she played bridge to keep her mind sharp, and she watched professional wrestling on television because ”the theater and the drama of it” made her laugh.

“She was my surrogate grandmother really,” Zyromski says. “When she retired, she moved to Gainesville, Florida, to be with us. I had my driver’s license, and

I could squire her around. She and I would go to St. Augustine frequently and play. She stayed independent in her apartment until 94, when she was murdered. We were looking for her to be 100.”

The joy of remembering Harman gave way to recalling the horror of what the then-24-year-old Booker did to her in what started as a burglary.

“I have all the clippings,” she says, pointing to a nearby, thick file of newspaper articles about the crime. “For some reason, the matter of rape was harder for me to forgive than the murder. That’s just unspeakable. It was a hurdle I couldn’t get over. She was 94 years old. And she was so little. I don’t think she was 5 feet tall. I doubt she was 100 pounds.”

She pauses for a moment before she continues, “Evidently, he pulled her in when she came home. She was at a bridge luncheon. One of the things she did in her old age was she played bridge with every group in town. She kept telling me to learn to play because it kept her mind sharp. Drugs were in the equation [of what he did to her].”

As horrifying as the killing of Harman was—she was stabbed 14 times with two knives—Zyromski was also unsettled by what she believed God was calling her to do.

To forgive Booker.

‘I kept getting nagged by God’

She resisted God’s call at first.

“I had a period of time where I could not say the Our Father at all because I could not say, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive.’ That little word ‘as’ stopped me cold because I did not want God to forgive me as I was not forgiving Stephen Booker. So I would go to Mass and when we got to the Our Father, I would just clam up.”

Still, she kept hearing God’s voice as she read her Bible, especially when her reading took her to the second chapter of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. She couldn’t turn away from the passage that called people to offer forgiveness and comfort to someone who has personally caused them grief. The passage haunted her.

“I felt God was a monkey on my back, and I hollered at God, ‘Can’t you leave me alone for at least a month to mourn?!’ God gave me almost exactly a month to mourn after this. Then I felt the monkey on my back again.”

She told God that one of her sisters—Sister of Mercy Mary Faith McKean—should be the one to reach out to Booker because mercy and forgiveness “were in her job description.”

“But I kept getting nagged by God to do this,” she says.

Finally, Zyromski relented, writing a letter that she sent to Booker who was on death row in a Florida prison. She shared details about Harman’s life, what her

great-aunt meant to her, and a few comments about Christian forgiveness. Writing that letter, she believed it would be the only one she would ever send to Booker.

“I got this letter immediately back from him, beautifully written, and he says, ‘What are you, some kind of goody-two-shoes?’ So I wrote him back, and I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am some kind of goody-two-shoes.’

“He was so literate, and I was teaching poetry, and I asked him if he was writing poetry. He wrote me back again and said, ‘Yeah I write poems, but no one likes them.’ He started sending me his poetry, and I would tell him what I thought.”

Poetry became the bridge that connected them. Booker kept writing poems and learned how to submit them

to journals. Some were accepted, which drew attention to him from well-known poets. Eventually, he had three books of his poems published, he was featured in

The New York Times, and he became a translator of European poetry through the contacts he had made in the poetry world.

Poetry also became part of the way that Booker expressed his remorse for what he had done to Harman, Zyromski says.

‘You have made a friend of your worst enemy’

“He showed remorse right from the start,” she says. “His first book of poetry, he signed over the royalties to me as an act of reparation. Most poets don’t make much money. I think the total was somewhere around $100. He said, very seriously, he wanted me to use it for the education of my children. So I said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

She and Booker wrote weekly to each other for 45 years before he died at the age of 69. Through those letters and the six or so visits that she made to him on death row, she learned details of his life, including his youth in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“He was a Christian. He was raised a Baptist. When he was younger and still in school, he won a prize for French. His mother died when he was 15. He dropped out of high school. He hit the streets. He did drugs. He lied to get into the Army. And he did a lot of bad things.”

As she read and listened to what he told her, she also remembered the warning that his lawyers gave her.

“His lawyers would tell me, ‘Don’t ever forget, he is a con.’ And I observed that. My full level of trust was never there. I wanted to give him the human dignity that I thought is due any human being. And that was my intention all along.”

That was especially her intention when Booker mentioned one of his fears about dying. He shared that fear with her in 1983, when he came within seven hours of being executed for Harman’s death. It was the first of three times he was scheduled for execution and spared.

“He did not want to be buried in ‘the yard’—the prison cemetery as the prisoners call it,” she says. “The only thing on their grave marker is their prison number. Their name is taken away. Since he was coming up time and time again for execution, that was on his mind. He had no family to claim his body. I made the promise to bury him.”

After Booker died on death row on Nov. 3, 2022, Zyromski arranged with the Florida prison system to claim his remains. She also began making plans for a Mass of Christian Burial for Booker, whom she had come to view as a friend.

She realized the reality of that bond during one of the talks she gave about her story of forgiveness.

“When I was giving one of my talks, a Quaker woman came up afterward and said, ‘You have made a friend of your worst enemy.’ And that made me think it was true. I would say the friendship was based on Christian love.”

The great challenge of generosity

That focus on Christian love—the love that was the essence of Christ’s life and teachings—permeated every part of the Mass for Booker that Zyromski had planned.

For the first reading, she asked a granddaughter to read a passage from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew—“the one about, ‘You have heard it said an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ ” a passage in which Christ instead calls people to “love your enemies” (Mt 5:38, 44).

For the second reading, she chose the passage from the second chapter of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians that had started her on this journey of forgiveness long ago.

“That is the reading that had stopped me cold,” she says. “I read that right after Stephen Booker tried to commit suicide in jail before he was sentenced. I definitely didn’t want him to commit suicide.”

Instead of giving a eulogy, she relied upon Father Robert Sims, the pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, to give a fitting homily.

In his 51 years as a priest, Father Sims has never had a request like the one that Zyromski had made of him—to celebrate a Mass and share a homily for someone who had spent most of his life on death row.

As he prepared for the Mass and the homily, Father Sims thought about how “very touching” and “generous” Zyromski’s efforts were toward Booker. So he shaped his homily around a story of generosity from World War II that has always touched him.

“When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, they were quite ruthless. And one of the major battles was in Stalingrad. Eventually, the Germans ended up losing the battle. They were paraded through the streets, and there were people booing and hissing and spitting. All that kind of stuff. Then one woman reached into her basket and pulled out a loaf of bread. These Germans had been starving to death for at least a week. She gave a German soldier some bread. And then some other women who were along the route were touched by her forgiveness and generosity, and they reached into their baskets and started giving bread to these German soldiers.”

Father Sims went on to say that, like those Russian women, Zyromski was modeling that great challenge of generosity and forgiveness “for all of us, in terms of dealing with whoever in our life we need to forgive.”

The feeling of amazing grace

The stories of the Russian women and Zyromski also reflect one of Father Sims’ beliefs about forgiveness: “I always thought this was a good quote from Gandhi, ‘Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. Forgiveness is a sign of strength.’ It’s an act of will. We just don’t snap our fingers and forgive somebody. We really need to work at it. It’s a process.”

It’s a reality that Zyromski knows well. She also knows that, for her, forgiving someone doesn’t mean forgetting what someone has done, especially when it has caused tremendous suffering. While she forgave Booker long ago, she has not forgotten the horror of his crime toward a woman she loved dearly.

It’s a distinction she arrived at with great help from one source. And she tried to honor the source of that help in one of the songs she chose for Booker’s funeral Mass—“Amazing Grace.”

“This was a story of grace,” she says. “God would give me the grace to do what needed to be done. God gave me the grace step by step.

“And I would say he never gives you one drop more or one minute sooner than you absolutely need this grace. You get right down to the wire and you say, ‘Help,’ and help comes in many ways.”

She felt that grace when she suffered through the loss of Harman, whom she thought of often during the funeral Mass, feeling her presence there.

She also felt that grace in the long journey toward forgiveness toward Booker—a journey that will end when his remains are buried in a cemetery in Indianapolis when the weather turns warmer.

And she has continued to feel that grace in the days and weeks following the funeral Mass for Booker.

“I wanted to give him a good sendoff. He had very little in life that was dignified. Catholics do funeral Masses really great. It’s a beautiful liturgy, and I wanted him to have something beautiful. I think he did.”

Her thoughts also turned once more to God and the challenge he gave her.

“I think he would say to me, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ But I don’t think he would say this is anything special. I think what I did is expected of any Catholic Christian.

“If I can get one other person to think about forgiving, it will be good.” †

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