Where Is Sister Russell Phillips Now? Sister Cathy's Roommate Was An Unusual Piece Of The Puzzle
Netflix is trying to capitalize on the success of its wildly popular true crime docuseries Making a Murderer with another show in a similar vein called The Keepers. Also a true crime docuseries that will unfold in seven parts, The Keepers tells the story of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a Baltimore-area nun and high school teacher who was murdered at the age of 26 back in 1969. The case has never been solved, but one person close to Cesnik was definitely her roommate Sister Helen Russell Phillips. So where is Sister Russell Phillips now? There isn't a lot of information about the nun that isn't connected to her former roommate's murder, but in a January 2015 local story giving an update on the case, she was referred to as "the late Sister Helen Russell Phillips," meaning she likely died before Netflix even picked up the series.
Phillips plays an important role in Cesnik's story, because she was the first one to act when she realized her roommate was missing. Cesnik had been working as a teacher of English and drama at Archbishop Keough High School for Girls when she began taking a lot of time off from school. "To me, she seemed stressed out, perhaps even on the edge of a nervous breakdown," a former student told the Baltimore Sun City Paper in 2013. "She was exhausted and extremely nervous, and she missed a lot of school during the spring months."
Cesnik wound up taking what's called an "exclaustration" — basically rumspringa for nuns who need a break — and taking a year off to live outside her convent, wear the clothing of a layperson, and switch to teaching public school. She moved into a two-bedroom apartment with Phillips, a fellow nun who was also dressing in layperson's clothing and teaching at the same public school. It was later revealed that several Keough students had been coming to Cesnik claiming that they were being sexually abused, allegedly at the hands of the school guidance counselor Father Joseph Maskell (who was never convincted and denied initial accusations until his death in 2001). Her knowledge of this is what makes some believe that her death and the sex abuse scandal could've been connected.
Romper reached out to the Baltimore Archdiocese for a statement regarding the accusations against Father Maskell and his potential involvement in Cesnik's death. The spokesperson commented that "Father Maskell was never considered a suspect in that murder. He was interviewed once. One of the victims claimed that she had a recovered memory of his involvement in her death, but he was interviewed and never charged."
On the night Cesnik went missing, Phillips didn't inform police right away. Instead, she called a nearby Jesuit priest named Father Gerry Koob around 11 p.m., who came to the apartment with Brother Peter McKeon. Phillips, Koob, and McKeon eventually called police between midnight and 1 a.m. and, after reporting Cesnik's disappearance, they decided to take a walk around 4 a.m. to calm their nerves, which was how they eventually stumbled across Cesnik's missing car — though it wasn't parked in the correct spot. Her body wasn't found until two months later.
Sister Russell Phillips is sure to be a key player in what promises to be a deep dive investigation into Cesnik's murder. The Keepers premieres on Netflix May 19.