Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 5

The unfortunate women and men in the eastern gallery had a far different task. The windows were a sheer descent, not only of their height above the floor, but of the embankment on which the church stood, and then the way thence to the vestibule, instead of a straight stairway, was around a sharp double angle. And here, in their hot haste, the unfortunate creatures tripped and fell, one upon another, until the hall beneath was choked with a desperate, struggling, writhing mass of humanity. Meantime some had passed toward the rear door that lead to the priest’s house in the rear, but that, too, was speedily invaded by the flames...”

The first toll of the tower bell rang to raise the workers from their beds. Philomene, determined to find work for herself, Armiac, Delina and Fabien, rose to quickly prepare these three children for their first day of labor. Sophia readied herself to receive Calixte from Monsieur Breunier, whom she had offered to care for, along with Theophile and Hermille. She remembered the conversation with Monsieur Breunier during their walk home, “No, Monsieur, you will not pay me to care for your baby, we must all help one another at a time like this. You just bring him to me.”

He had gently held her elbow as they negotiated the crowd, “Fine then, I will bring you bread, eggs, cheese, for I now have fewer mouths to feed. Your needs are great as well.”

Late that night when her mother had returned, she had held Sophia in her arms, “You are such a smart girl! Such a good, good girl to offer Monsieur Breunier your services in exchange for food. We need his help far more than he needs ours. You are such a reliable girl, Sophia.”

Sophia had reveled in the warmth of her mother’s arms, arms that had such little time for nurturing a single child with so many to tend to each day.

The family rushed down the narrow stairs and into the dark street to reach the gates of the mill before the 5 a.m. bell tolled and the gates locked. “Good luck Mama!” called Celina and Angelique as they left the group at the corner of Race Street to head up to the Hampden Mill.

Philomene followed Adele, Charles and Louis to the Lyman Mill, holding the tentative hand of Delina while Fabien and Joseph trailed behind. Never having made this walk with her children, she imagined that with Leopold, the morning walk had been full of chatter and laughter. His absence replaced their animation with sullen silence. “Children, this is a very important day for you, a very special day for you to enter the mills and help your family. I am very proud of all of you.”

The attempt to lift their spirits yielded only shrugs. When they reached the gate, Charles walked swiftly ahead to meet his foreman and ask for a moment to assist Philomene. Monsieur Deri came quickly out to greet Philomene and sent Charles ahead, indicating that he would bring her into the manager’s office.

Lyman Mills had lost only Leopold and two other male workers in the fire. However, many of the families of Lyman laborers were suffering this morning due to the loss of wives and children. Monsieur Deri welcomed Philomene, “Come here with me, up these stairs.”

The children followed their mother up the flight of stairs and into a brightly lit corridor with closed, black doors. Monsieur Deri knocked briefly and opened a door. Placing his finger to his lips, and motioning for the children to sit down in the hall, he turned to Philomene, “Come Madame Messier, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Barton.”

From behind a desk came a bald, red faced man wearing far finer clothing than Leopold had ever owned. Yet, the rolled up sleeves revealed strong arms from which Philomene deducted that this was a working man, like her Leopold. He spoke in English to Monsieur Deri who translated for him while he extended his hand to Philomene.

Mr. Barton, general manager, acknowledged Philomene’s loss and asked her to sit down. Returning to his desk, he pulled forth a piece of paper and read the details of Leopold’s position and cost of the apartment. Because Leopold was a foreman, Lyman Mills would have to actively replace him as soon as possible. If in order to do this, the apartment was needed by a family who could more readily afford it, company policy would require the housing to be provided to the new employee.

He continued directing his conversation to Monsieur Deri, “Please assure her that alternative, more affordable housing would be made available for her family…. And please tell her that Lyman Mills will cover the final month’s rent– and that they can remain there for the remaining four weeks, at a minimum.”

Mr. Barton stood and encouraged Philomene to take her children home and get through this difficult time without the burden of putting them to work. She, herself was welcome to come back at the end of the week. He was sure that one of the women from the folding room had perished in the fire and in time they would need to replace her. With each kind word that was translated, Philomene looked back at Mr. Barton from Monsieur Deri and whispered again and again, “Merci, merci.”

It was known throughout the community that the owners of the Lyman Mills were good people and Leopold had given of himself to them for years. Philomene felt blessed by their kindness as she ushered her children down the stairs and out into the dark street in the direction of their home.

As they ascended the stairs to the apartment, Philomene heard the familiar 6 a.m. bell toll, signifying that her working children would be allowed their half hour break to eat the bread, sparingly spread with molasses, which she had packed for their breakfasts. While the others scrambled back into Philomene and Leopold’s bed, Delina chose to remain awake in order to help with Calixte. Cradling the baby in her arms, Delina nuzzled his head, emulating her older sister’s actions. With the young ones back to sleep, Sophia and Philomene were left with a moment alone at the table. Philomene explained, “Sophia, we need to begin to plan. The mill will let us live here for the month but we need to prepare to leave by July.”

Sophia’s face relaxed at the immediate news but shared her mother’s concern about their future. Reaching for her daughter, Philomene gave thanks for Sophia, who would be her strength and support as she had always been during their days together raising the babies. She assured her daughter while convincing herself of the same, “We have been through difficult financial times and will, again, learn to survive.”

Startled by a knock at the thin, wooden door, Sophia stood as the door opened with the entrance of Father Bourassa, followed by Monsieur Boudreau, his failing eyes squinting in the dim light. Philomene was instantly insulted by the means with which the Father entered her home unannounced, and further, sat down at her table uninvited. In contrast, Monsieur Boudreau warmly shook Philomene’s hand with both of his and touched Sophia on the shoulder before quickly announcing his business.

Monsieur Boudreau, one of the leading members of the St. Jean de Baptiste Society, held a bundle of papers forward, “I am truly sorry for your loss Madame, Leopold was a wonderful man and an asset to our organization and community. I am sorry to come here on such formal business but this is very important. Here is a copy of the life insurance policy that Leopold purchased. The check will be made available to you on Monday. For your convenience, I have directed the check to be delivered directly to Mechanic’s Bank where it may be cashed or deposited. The amount of the policy, paid off some time ago, will be $1,000.” Further, Monsieur Boudreau explained, “These documents include your policy as well. You should make your eldest aware that this insurance exists, in the event that something should happen…”

Philomene had known of the life insurance policies, however, had not understood how the payout worked. Some years earlier, when the Society was establishing itself and raising funds for a civic hall, Leopold had been approached to invest in the policies. Each month he had paid an installment instead of putting the meager amount into a bank account. Confused, Philomene knew that he had not paid more than $100 for each policy. Still, she did not reveal this to Monsieur Boudreau, fearing she would raise awareness of an error, which she could not afford to do. Avoiding his eyes for fear that the deceit would be revealed Philomene took his hand, “Thank you so much for this. Our loss is great and this will provide for our needs for some time.”

“Well, my business is concluded. Please allow me to be of any service to you with regard to this or any other matter. I will leave you now, as Father Bourassa would like a moment with you.” Monsieur Boudreau bent his head as a farewell and back out of the door.

The door closed behind Monsieur Boudreau, leaving Sophia and Philomene standing closely together, still reeling from the news of their sudden prosperity. Father Bourassa, still sitting at the table, slowly removed two small cotton plugs from his nose and stored them in his silk lined pocket. Not used to the stench of the tenements, the Father soaked almond sized fabric balls in Bay Rum and placed them in his nose when walking amongst the buildings or entering the tenements. Now he made an effort to breath through his mouth in order not to inhale the stench of waste buckets and unwashed bodies crammed into this apartment, which had only one small window.

Sophia and Philomene continued to stare in silence at the Father until he softly spoke, “Madame Messier, may I speak with you a moment in private regarding your situation?”

Philomene turned to her daughter hesitantly, “Would you prefer to take a short walk with Calixte and Delina? The others are still sleeping and the baby would benefit from the air.”

Sophia reluctantly gathered Delina and the baby from within the bedroom and left the apartment. With their removal from the room, Philomene felt cautious and vulnerable in his presence.

The Father had rehearsed his persuasive argument late into the evening. Reviewing the records of the St. Jean de Baptiste Society, Father Bourassa segregated the fire victims’ families who would receive insurance funds from those who would not. Utilizing the church baptism records, he further segregated the families with young children from those with laboring children. The Messier family was in the minority, having lost Leopold, and he anticipated a greater challenge convincing Madam Messier to relinquish the children to him than he would experience with the many widowers within the congregation.

Based upon his records and analysis, Father Bourassa determined the potential funds to be in the thousands if his adoption service succeeded as planned. Without an organized orphanage in the region, the state farm in Monson was the only alternative for impoverished families. Upon entering this facility, most children were separated from their parents and placed as indentured servants. Some were returned with horrific stories of abuse and neglect as there was no system in place to oversee the arrangements with any regularity and standards. His interest in creating an orphanage in Holyoke had led him to observe the recent hearings in Northampton regarding the indentured system. He had compiled a number of specific stories of neglect which he would offer if necessary, in support of his option, to place children in secure, loving homes.

He continued, “Please sit down Madame Messier. I want to speak with you about your family, a large and young family. Have you plans to support all of these children without Leopold?”

Philomene remained speechless and involuntarily shook her head. The Father reached out his cool, white hand and placed it over her warn chapped knuckles, “I am here to offer the church’s assistance.”

Then he retracted his hand in order to pull a small folded paper out of his pocket where he had stashed his nose plugs. Oil from the Bay Rum had created translucent spots on the paper and smudged the ink writing.

“Hmmm… Hermille, just 2 years old and Theophile, 3. Then Prudent, 5, Joseph , 6, Fabien, 8,and Delina 9. I assume the older children are working very hard to help make ends meet. Philomene, I can help you with your six youngest children. There are families willing to take in children like yours. I can place them in very good homes for you where they will be fed, educated and skilled in a trade, a life outside of the mills, Philomene. The hardship you will face with these young ones...” He paused and shook his head in exaggerated disbelief at her plight, “They will never have a chance at a better life now, without Leopold. Because they are young, they can adapt to new surroundings. It will be in their best interest and your own…. And for this, I would only ask for a contribution to assist in the cost of providing for the transportation, some clothing and the legal documentation required for such assistance. My calculations reflect $100 per child for a lifetime of care and assurance that they will be happy and healthy, outside of this squalor. That will leave you $400 of the policy left to insure the future of you and your older children, who are quite sufficient – and I can imagine a great comfort to you.”

Father Bourassa knew that the offer of $100 to place a child was a legitimate charge. During one of the hearings in Northampton, the advocates for the creation of a formal child welfare department complained about the commerce associated with the private sale of children, the rate charged between $100 and $150 per child. His services would be better monitored. He had a connection with a priest in the Berkshires where wealthy families might take these children into servitude. As he looked around the cramped rooms, he tried to envision thirteen children and two adults eating, playing, sleeping… he thought, “They’d all live better as servants than remain here.”

Rage filled Philomene, a welcomed emotion, which paled the pain of her loss. She stood and stared down at the monster she blamed for her loss. “Father, you will leave me with my grief and loss this minute. I will not loose anymore of my family than I have lost already. We will find a way to survive together.”

Then fearing that she has spoken too harshly to this man whom she feared and revered, she lowered her voice as she clenched her stained apron, “Perhaps I am too overwhelmed with grief to recognize your intentions at this time. I would like you to forgive my abruptness but leave me to my thoughts.”

The strength in the diminutive stature of this haggard woman, Father Bourassa had not anticipated. As he stood, Father Bourassa experienced a rage of his own enflamed by embarrassment and disappointment at his failure in his first appeal. Could his ambitions be transparent through his guise of charitable work? He chastised himself for his poor delivery and execution. Turning his rage upon Philomene, Father Bourassa lashed out beneath his breath, “You Madame are worth more to your children dead than alive!”

He slammed the door behind him and hurried down the stairs into the street where he mistakenly inhaled the rot of the sewer in through his unblocked nasal passage and gagged at the stench.

The whispered message he left at the doorway to the Messier apartment echoed within the walls of Philomene’s world as she saw, for the first time through Father Bourassa’s eyes, the “squalor” her family lived in. As her eyes stung with tears and hands clenched a dry rag, she scrubbed furiously at the wooden table, causing no affect, only scraping her knuckles as she bore down on the wooden surface.

As she cleaned, she committed to the changes she would institute so that Father Bourassa could never again insinuate that she and her family lived in filth. The waste bucket sat just below the window, where in the winter months it was emptied twice daily into the courtyard. With the warm months upon them, the bucket was to be removed and dumped before every meal and before bed. The single toilet on their floor had been insufficient for four families when in operation but had been out of service since the winter and they had become reliant upon their waste buckets and the make shift outhouse to the rear of the courtyard. While the warm weather brought stench, it also brought free flowing water from the public faucet located on the street corner by their building. Hence, water frozen in the tap all winter long, was now available for washing and she vowed to scrub her children with greater routine, and their clothing as well.

She turned to the nearly empty pantry and remembering the pennies she had used for the newspaper, could not vow to feed her children better than they had been fed as she did not know where their next meal would come from. Yet, there was the insurance check to come and she, Sophia and Charles would determine how best to utilize those funds in order to maintain the family.

Looking around the small apartment, Philomene fell into the chair and laid her head on the table, washed over by a drowning sense of defeat. Philomene could not envision moving her family of thirteen children back to the one bedroom apartment. The ruminations returned as she considered the wages of her five able children, just barely enough to pay for a smaller apartment. Her future wage added, would barely feed them. To use the insurance money to pay for their rent would be to deplete their future and they would find themselves in a desperate situation once the funds were gone. That is not how Leopold would want them to utilize the money. Philomene’s head ached as she attempted to think beyond what she knew, to stretch her thoughts to a level of comprehension she did not possess. She missed Leopold, his wisdom, confidence and protection…and did not wish life without him.

Chapter 4

In the gallery on the western side many leaped from the windows upon the scaffolding of the new brick church building, beside the old one, and most of the people on the floor chose windows or the inside front doors to escape. All those in the western gallery did escape, for the stair way leading thence to the vestibule was direct and easy…”

Alec Breunier clutched his newborn, Calixte, to his chest, his burly posture hunch over in grief, as he merged with the crowd descending into the newly constructed basement of the future church of Precious Blood. Rows of benches, an alter, and risers for the choir were erected during the early hours, all brought over from the St. Jean de Baptiste Hall. Alec entered a row and sat amongst his neighbors and fellow parishioners, searching for missing faces. The basement, made ready for the day’s funeral service, was complete when the last temporary board was placed upon the floor beams of their future sanctuary, creating a wooden canopy to block the warming sun above their heads. The basement remained cool despite the unseasonable warmth of this Memorial Day weekend.

Calixte, born two months earlier, was now his only family. The baby boy survived only because Alec had stayed home from the service to care for him, to give his wife, Amilda, and their two older daughters, Rosalie and Olive, an evening to themselves. The girls had planned an evening walk along the canal after the service, before returning to their stifling apartment in the Lyman tenement building. With no other family to turn to, Alec had not yet determined how he would tend to Calixte and work too. This morning, as he prepared Calixte’s bottle, the quiet of the room made his heart ache more intensely than ever. Gone were the two daughters, five and eight, squabbling about who had pulled on who’s braid, or taken one’s apron. He missed the authoritative Amilda pointing her finger at his two little girls and demanding quiet while she fed the baby. Then she would look at Alec and demand that he fetch the diapers from the line hanging from their small balcony. Always serious and authoritative, he rarely broke her exterior severity but caught the glimpse of her warm brown eyes or a slight smirk if he pushed her far enough. That was all gone. Only this tiny, pink bundle of baby boy, who he barely knew, remained of his family.

He was not alone in his predicament. Of the announced dead, most were women and children, wives, mothers, daughters and sons. He saw the sorrow in the reddened, wet eyes of his fellow laborers. Then he recognized Madame Messier, not first by her face, but by the trail of children following after her. Fabien and Delina were school mates of Olivia. Dear God, how would she carry on without Leopold. He had not particularly liked Leopold, some years his senior and a bragger. The Messiers lived in the adjacent tenement. Alec recalled the morning that Leopold arrived bragging of his obtainment of his two bedroom apartment in the newer building. It would have been nice for the girls to have their own room and for Alec and Amilda to have more private time but such an extravagance was not affordable until the girls were old enough to work as well. Now, as he recalled Leopold, with his thick curling hair and broad smile, he held no grievances, only sorrow for the loss to Philomene and her family.

Alec’s thoughts were interrupted by the sudden crash of the supporting structure, which held the forty- eight caskets. The members of the St. Jean de Baptiste Society and the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, who were guarding the dead, quickly shirred up the structure, supporting the caskets with arms and hips until additional construction beams were brought down into the basement. Once the commotion subsided, the service commenced. Alec did not listen to the words of the visiting priests and reverends but thought only of his loss and wrestled with his guilt at not being with his family during the fire. He prayed for a reprieve from his self loathing. He knew that he should go to Father Bourassa and ask for forgiveness but Alec was not practiced in the Catholic ways. His marriage to Amilda had been his first experience with formal religion. More importantly, Amilda and the children were his first and only experience with family.

When the sermon had ended, Alec, jostling his now inconsolable infant, headed out into the street with the other twenty five hundred parishioners attending the mass. Madame Brisson appeared by his side and urged him to hand over Calixte. “Monsieur, I live just a building over from you. I am Madame Brisson. I have not suffered a loss today. Let me help you with your young one. You go on and come to me afterwards. Third floor, building 2. I will be taking care of the Messier children and they will help me with your little one.”

Alec, at first clutching his only tie to Amilda, then realized the blessing of Madame Brisson’s warm offer and handed Calixte over. He apologized for having nothing to give her and she shushed him with her gloved hand. Alec saw Philomene heading toward them and he was reassured that Madame Brisson spoke the truth and felt greatly relieved with the arrangement. Madame Brisson was gathering the younger of Philomene’s children while the older girls and boys waited aside for Philomene.

The crowd filled the street, the more affluent members obtaining carriages for the procession. The pedestrians moved to the sidewalks, awaiting the loading of the caskets. Alec removed his hat and shaded his eyes with his free hand, counting as six hearses and twenty-one wagons passed before him. His insides churned with a helplessness and urgency wishing to know which caskets his children and wife were in. On foot, just trailing Madame Messier and her eldest daughter, he began the four mile walk to the Precious Blood Cemetery over the river into the rural countryside of South Hadley. The procession wound up Main Street to Dwight Street, then High Street to Lyman, down passed the factory, to Canal Street where a cooling breeze gently blew off of the waterway. The bridge between the city and the country side seemed such a short stretch between two different worlds. Alec immediately noted the freshness of the air as they left the canals and tenements behind. With the warm weather, the open sewers surrounding the tenements had begun to fill the air with the fowl smell synonymous with the summer months in the Flats.

When they reached South Hadley, the workers from Carew Manufacturing and Hampshire Paper had gathered on the river bank to show respect for the lives lost. While Mayor Pearsons had requested the closing of Holyoke’s mills and businesses on this day, the request did not extend across the river. Still, a large black swag of fabric had been draped across the sign at the top of Hampshire Paper, expressing the sympathy of its owners.

As the journey up Granby Road continued, the rolling landscape was densely wooded, broken by fields freshly tilled and fertilized. The warm air carried the foreign scent of cow manure to Alec’s nostrils. Having been raised in New York City, there had been few opportunities to see the countryside and Alec found himself enamored by the patchwork texture of the crops, separated by stone walls. The procession came to a halt as the carriages stalled. Alec, now drenched with perspiration, welcomed the rest from what had been a brisk walk in order to maintain a pace with those assisted by wheels. At the moment he deemed most appropriate, Alec addressed Philomene. “Excuse me, Madame Messier…” The eldest girl quickly interrupted him, “Sir, my mother does not speak any English.”

Her brow was raised and the creases across her forehead and her nodding head implored him to speak through her, though she then bowed her head, visibly embarrassed by the boldness she exhibited.

“Yes, tell your mother that I am Alec Breunier, laborer with your father. I am very sorry for your loss today.” Sophia patted her mother’s arm and spoke in the beautiful language of his Amilda. After a moment of conversation, Sophia answered, “My mother thanks you and wants to console you for your loss today. May she ask?”

Alec had not yet spoken of his loss. Forming the words brought the grief reeling back and tears welled in his eyes. Philomene instinctively waved a hand at him and embraced him in a manner unconventional, excepting the present. Philomene spoke urgently to Sophia who took Alec’s arm as Philomene took his other. Sophia spoke quietly as tears began to well in her downcast eyes. “My mother says that you are not to be alone. We will walk together.”

At the cemetery, the sea of people surrounded the grave. Philomene, Alec and Sophia, at the rear of the crowd, were unable to witness the burial. The caskets were being unloaded and placed into a mass grave while strangers held one another, witnessing loved ones being placed into the ground. When the caskets were unloaded and the wagons removed, people moved in to fill the space lingering as the earth was filled in over the bodies. The heat became overwhelming and Alec suggested they move into the shade of the trees, on a hillside slightly elevated above the heads of others, though Father Bourassa had not completed his sermon.

From the shade of a perfectly formed elm tree, Philomene watched as a simple wooden cross was secured into the ground. The crowd stood with bent heads in prayer.
Alec broke their silence, “The names of the buried are not even included on a stone or a plaque. Only the barren, rough cross will signify our loss. This is a disgusting mistreatment of our families.”

Sophia placed a hand on her mothers and mustered enthusiasm, “Father Bourassa has promised that within the new cathedral there will stand a memorial for the dead as a lasting memory. Right now there is not the money to do more. This has been a heartless day. He will, someday, pay for this.”

With bitter disgust, Alec retorted, “The man could do without his tea and cordials for a month, live like the rest of us for a time and save enough to pay for it himself!”

Philomene felt overwhelmed by the swarming crowd below and the banter of Monsieur Breunier. Longing for a quiet moment and space to be with her thoughts of Leopold, she turned to Sophia and whispered, “Child, I need to be alone with my thoughts. I would like to walk to a place I remember being with your father, once, long ago. Please, walk home with Monsieur Breunier. I will come home behind you in a while.”

Sophia was struck by the sense of abandonment to this stranger with whom she would be required to return. She whispered, “But Mama, what about…”

Placing a finger to Sophia’s lips, Philomene “Please Sophia, ask this nice man to walk you back as he must collect his child at our tenement.”

Philomene embraced her daughter and asked Sophia to thank Monsieur Breunier before she turned away from the crowd and her buried husband to wander the open street behind her. Philomene’s clenched fists held her anger . Mons. Breunier was correct - not even a marker for her husband to be remembered by his family and their children some day.

Philomene did not have an exact sense of where she was heading, however, heard the bells of a church within South Hadley and headed in that direction. Remaining in the shade of the elms lining the street, she continued until she reached the intersection with a well worn road heading north, away from Holyoke. Ascending a hill slowly, she stopped to rest against an intricate wrought iron fence. The smooth metal was freshly painted shiny black. She let her palm press against the arrow head fennel until the pain became unbearable. She craved the pain, to share that of Leopold’s. Ahead, she watched young girls dressed in pressed, black dresses congregate with books in hand. The seminary for girls, surrounded by the iron fence, held such promise for those lucky young women. Walking passed them, Philomene resented the workmanship of their dresses, the pleating, and the smoothness of the fabric. Stiff bonnets were tied neatly below their chins, their faces lit with energy and excitement at a world Philomene would never know - a world of knowledge and privilege, which now, her children would be denied.

The voice in her head resumed, recanting the plight of her family, for which there was no resolution. Each child would enter the mill as soon as work could be found; schooling would not be an option for any of them, not even Charles. For her family to ever leave their cramped tenement life, they would one day need to leave the life of the laborers. Charles was no longer the answer. As the man of the family, he would be committed to working the long days of his father. Anxiety consuming her, Philomene leaned against the fence then slid down on to her hunches, sobbing in solitude. Clenching at the grass, her head screamed with pleas to God, “Please bring Leopold back to me, please don’t leave me to this alone. I can’t manage without him. He is my life. Please God, please bring him back to me.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chapter 3

“Then all was panic. The assault was instantaneous; it gave no time to deliberate, no time to appreciate the fearful scene. The survivors of the disaster hardly know what happened. It was all too swift for thought. The flame ran along the tinder roof as quickly as a man could run. Hardly one was there who did not obey the blind instinct of self-preservation…”
(continued Springfield Daily Republican)

Father Bourassa wiped the perspiration from his shining forehead. The morning’s heat was unbearable beneath his cloak. Nothing compared to the heat his parishioners had experienced in the flames of the prior evening. Damn them for not listening to his sermons. Over and over again he had preached the need to offer one’s gifts so that a permanent home, a shrine to the French Canadian culture and religious worship, could be built. Already, with just the basement completed, the construction on the new cathedral would stall if additional funds were not procured. But his people had not listened and given more of themselves as was expected from, not only him, but God. It was God who requested this house of worship, he was only a tool to procure God’s wishes.

Kneeling at his mother’s bedside, Father Bourassa bowed his head. She slept quietly now, but her moans continued to haunt his ears. “Oh Mother, what have I done?”

He rested his head on the bed, allowed his forehead to saturate the sheet before sitting up to gently pat her damp, loose skin with a cloth, matting her fine, silver hair to the pillow. The smoke damage to her lungs, unknown by her son, resembled exhaustion from the shear terror of the event.

He stood and paced the floor, “Mother, I didn’t tell you, how could I? The bank refused a construction loan. They sent over this idiot apprentice who could not make sense of the tithing schedules. I had to act, you understand?”

Though she did not respond, he heard the words she spoke so often, “My son, you did not leave your parish in Canada behind to support these people from within a pine building. It is a disgrace. No, you will build a grand cathedral, then the schools, not just elementary, but also a school of advanced learning, and a convent. Your works will be remembered long after you have expired from this earth and your rewards will be great. You were my chosen son, chosen to do God’s work. You will succeed, whatever it requires of you.”

Holding his head in his hands, Father Bourassa argued, “Don’t you see what is happening? I am left with the poor, as the successful leave my parish to move up on the Hill. Even a laborer can afford a modest home north of High Street! They are more interested in blending into the established American social class than preserving our heritage! I am in need of funds or I will fail!”

St. Jerome was growing under Father Harkin’s efforts; already he offered schooling for both boys and girls of the parish. It was rumored that Father Harkin would be overseeing the erection of Sacred Heart Church and the opening of a hospital. Father Bourassa’s rage flared, “How can I compete and keep this French Canadian parish thriving, keep my community in tact without a proper place of worship? It is not possible!”

Tearing at his robe, he undressed and splashed his head and upper body with the stagnant water from the wash basin. He spoke to his reflection in his mirror, one of the few furnishings he had moved into his mother’s rooms in anticipation of last night’s devastation.

“I have invested a small fortune in this new city! I have done my part, Mother. I have asked for God’s intervention, Mother. You must understand, I have done all that I can on this Earth.” He stomped the floor like a frustrated child, pounding his fists on the wash stand. Only his reflection, caught amid his tantrum, stopped his tirade.

Looking at his reflection, Father Bourassa smoothed his hair, continuing to run his hands down his cheeks and leaned into the mirror at his own piercing eyes. He thought of all of his wealth and property holdings in St. Hyacinth. These had been purchased back from him by the church when he left for the states. He had reinvested it here, for the people, in a cemetery for the French Canadians in the rural countryside of neighboring South Hadley and purchased the land for the cathedral under construction.

Replacing his robe, he pulled a chair to her bedside. Still, she did not move, but her breathing was even, no longer labored. Folding his hands on his lap, Father began, “Mother, God handed me my answer when I prayed for guidance and I must share all of this with you. He has spoken to me, Mother. I believe you are right, I have been chosen.”

Though she showed no sign of hearing her son, he laid out the scene for her just as it had taken place and in those moments, convinced himself that he acted with the Holy Spirit within him, around him, leading him. God had handed him his answer as he prayed for guidance just two nights before. In the sweltering evening air, the windows wide open, Father had prayed while a candle on the side table illuminated his reading for the evening. In one moment, as he begged for the strength and courage to continue with his campaign to unite his people, an alarmingly gust entered the window, as though carrying the Holy Ghost. As it did, the muslin curtain, before dangling limply by the sill, was lifted into the flame of the candle and at once was set on fire. Instinctively, the Father lunged for his wash basin, flung the water on the curtain, extinguishing the flame. All became still, not even a gentle breeze removed the idol smoke which now hung in the air.

Collapsing back into his chair, the Father examined the event and clasped his long, thin fingers together. Then as the revelation came to him, the sweat of his body turned cold despite the heat of the night air. The Father held his breath as he allowed God’s desire to enter his consciousness. He shook his head with understanding – God wanted him to set a fire.

Of course, it would be a divine act of God. He would only set the stage and if it were truly God’s will, the plan would be set in motion. There would be insurance on the building to claim for immediate relief. The temporary parish building was insured for $2,000 with Parks & Brown and $2,000 with Globe of Worcester, both through the Diocese. Privately, he had insured the building for an additional $2,300 with a local agency. This included his private dwelling and all that he owned. This $6,300 was a sizable amount relative to that secured through the weekly tithing. There would then be a much greater bargaining tool with his parishioners to quickly build their cathedral, once the pine building was destroyed. The insurance proceeds would be sufficient to secure the masonry work for a time.

The heat returned to the Father as he began to envision the many prospects, which awaited him. He would address the St. Jean de Baptiste Society for funding of the church. Many parishioners had invested in this society, for its life insurance and other benefits promised. The Society would have no choice but to lend him the funds needed to complete the project. In addition, the tragedy would bring about donations and possibly the sympathy of the banks, which refused him thus far.

The Father’s peevish, dark eyes, widened as he considered the St. Jean de Baptiste Society life insurance that many of the parishioners owned. Although poor, most had committed to the purchase of these policies, with more zeal than he had been able to inspire for the extra collections. Would additional funds come from this source? No! He quickly retracted the thought. There would be no casualties as all would quickly escape through the many entrances available at the front and rear of the building. He would be sure that all doors were left open before each mass started to insure this. God would not want for any casualties, further if he did not intend for the fire, it would not ignite. Father Bourassa fell to the floor, kneeling with his forehead pressed to the wood floor boards, “God, I beg you to use me in the fashion you deem most useful for the good of your people.”

Now, two days later, looking upon his own mother, a victim of the fire, Father Bourassa, fell from his chair, bent on both knees, his head held in his hands. He asked, “God forgive me for any misinterpretations in your great plan. I hope that I have done as instructed and will continue with your task in memory of all who have died. I beg that such a tragedy never befall my people again!”

Burning tears left his eyes as he ached with guilt and doubt. Had he erred in his judgment? He wept, “Oh God, what have I done?”

As quickly as the tears appeared, they ended, as the weak Father was turned upon by a righteous Father. He exclaimed out loud, “No, you fool! The Holy Ghost entered your window just as it did at the Corpus Christi service. This was no mistake! This was God’s will!”

Thinking back now, the fire had truly been a fantastic horror, God’s work at hand with such a mighty, powerful rage. Father Bourassa had prepared late Wednesday night, emptying the church of half of the hymnals, bibles and their few precious religious artifacts and church documents. Sharing of books was the norm during crowded services and the deficiency was necessary to ensure that resources were available for services after the fire. He had stored his own property in his mother’s apartment.

Early in the morning, Father Bourassa entered the church to set the alter in preparation for his first of four Corpus Christi services to be provided throughout the day. He did not know which service God intended to act upon, however, prepared for it to be the very first and would continue his day with the same zeal throughout each service as he awaited God’s actions. Opening the windows to allow in adequate draft, he set candles in each window and then realized how odd that would appear in the light of day. For a moment the Father was puzzled to conceive of this fire without the candles. Then, as he opened the protective rice paper with which he carefully preserved a special veil for the Virgin Mary’s statue, the plan revealed itself in the fine linen cloth. Draping the creamy, smooth fabric over the seven foot statue, the veil reached the alter below. Placing the candle just beneath the statue, the Father blew gently on the veil. When his breath did not billow the veil, he fanned a hymnal with all of his might and the fabric sailed across the table, directly over the unlit wick. The Father became giddy as he fanned the veil from a variety of directions. Having set the stage for God’s almighty plan, the Father set about his preparations for a full day of services.

Not a breeze filled the church during the first three, stifling services. Father Bourassa began to question his interpretation of the experience in his room the night before. Then, during the most attended evening service, just after the Tantum Ergo, the Holy Spirit entered the window and blew the veil into the lighted wick. When the flame did not immediately ignite the entire curtain, he implored young Lena Blair to extinguish the fire with her fan, which she instinctively beat. Just as a billow encourages the flames of a blacksmith’s coal fire, the fan caused the flame to rise higher and quickly engulf the entire statue, then extend to the rafter.

Father Bourassa, glorified in his understanding of God’s intentions, seized his bible from the alter. Smoke quickly engulfed the congregation as he sought out his mother, hurried her from her pew and pulled her though the rear door.

He turned back briefly and to his horror, gaped at the impoverished parishioners in the upper galleries trapped by the collapse of the narrow stairs. To the rear, a hoard of burning bodies was pinned against the east door, which was closed.
It was only then that he recalled Madame Vieut leaving the building just before the service began. She must have closed the door when she left and now the church had become a death trap. His shouts for parishioners to follow him out the rear door were unheard in the commotion of screaming hysteria. Just as he resigned to leave the sanctuary, the center beam collapsed upon the empty pews. He could not comprehend how this had been intended.

Now, as he prepared to leave his mother to open the morgue for viewing, Father Bourassa thanked God for sparing him, providing for his escape. For this, he promised God that he had chosen correctly in him to lead this needy parish that would one day be the envy of the Catholic community of Holyoke, and beyond. He would stay by the sides of the dying and support the families in their losses during these tormented hours.

Chapter 2

“The catastrophe was so sudden, so swift, so pauseless, that few were cool enough to observe its' minutise. The ruins of the church lie now a heap of charred timbers and arches, over a hidden floor quite untouched by fire. The priest’s house adjoining it in the rear, a mere shell, stands to mark more emphatically the spot, and in the basement of the Park Street school house, a little ways south, lie rows of hideous, black effigies, that were women and men, only a few hours ago, covered with white cloth, that only brings out more clearly the horror of the scene…”

Friday, October 28, 1875
Springfield Daily Republican

At dawn, the crier’s voice carried the news of the fire and viewing of the dead. “The doors of Park Street School are to open at eight a.m.” The repeated message woke all to the realization that last night’s horror had not been a mere nightmare.

Rose came through the door with warm bread and she began rousing the children with kisses. Philomene felt immense gratitude toward this young woman, whose years seemed to surpass Philomene’s, although twelve years her junior. Rose lost many children and while pampered the four which survived birth and illness, doted upon Philomene’s as though they were her own.

Philomene entered the kitchen and pulled the coin jar down from the top shelf of the pantry. Handing the five pennies to Charles, she instructed him to go to the paper boy and fetch the news. Charles slid into his britches, accelerating his motions as he awoke and realized the urgency of the task.

Charles had been the most scholarly of the elder children and although he entered employment after elementary school, continued to read and find great interest in the happenings of the city and world beyond their growing community. Normally this newspaper would be a treat that Charles would consume column by column until the family could afford another one.

Moments later, a breathless Charles returned with the Springfield Daily Republican and spread the sheets on the table. He moved his finger through the column of words, all foreign to Philomene, and began to read accounts of fellow parishioners. “Widow Daigneau, just 36 years old left four children orphaned when she did not survive. The Daigneau children lost their father just a year earlier in a brick fire. Widow Goyette left seven children upon her death. Mrs. Forgue left nine children and Mrs. Dupont left six children, each in the care of their laboring fathers.”

Philomene prayed thankfully to God for sparing her for her children’s sake, yet questioned how she would provide for them. Would it not have been better that Leopold had been spared? The stories of loss continued but no sign of Leopold’s identity had been made and hope remained that he had been taken some where and cared for during the night.

Charles continued, “A coroner’s jury has been established and the doors to the Park Street School will open at 8 am, only to family members, for identification of the dead. Upon completion of the identification process, general viewing will be available. Can I come with you, Mother…to the viewing?” Charles looked up innocently at his adoring mother.

Philomene looked upon her thirteen year old boy who was bravely assuming the role as man of the family in his father’s absence. His smooth face still held the softness of a boy, but his deep brown eyes had seen far more of life in the mills than a boy his age should have. He had experienced human exhaustion, injury, and witnessed brawls and brazen behavior which only weekly confession purified. His hands matched his eyes in their experience, already hardened and scarred.

She took those hands in hers and kissed them, “Charles, I need you to remain here with the children. They need you in place of your father, here with them. I will take Sophia and Celina with me. Angelique, you and Adele will help Charles with the children. Madame Brisson will be with you but she also has her four to care for. While we are gone, Charles, you may take Armiac and Fabien down to the canals for a walk if you wish. Just please, stay away from those Irish boys on Race Street. We don’t need any trouble today.”

The three Messier women hurried down the narrow tenement stairs to the street. One on each side of their mother, the two girls instinctive took her hands. From West Street to Bowers Street, they observed others moving with similar urgency along the sidewalks, few speaking as they converged onto Lyman. A swarming crowd moved onto Park, met by additional crowds from the other direction. Atop the stairs of Park Street School, the orders were shouted by Mayor Pearsons, “In just a few moments the doors will open to family of the deceased only. Once all are identified, general viewing will be allowed. Please show your neighbors patience and compassion during this process and God bless us.”

A line formed from the base of the stairs where two officers were accompanied by Mayor Pearsons. The line continued along the side walk of Park Street. When the Messiers reached the base of the stairs, a policeman with fire orange hair blazing out from beneath his cap appeared in front of Philomene. He began to address her and was interrupted by Celine, the bolder of these two daughters. “Excuse me officer, but my mother does not speak any English.” Apologizing, he turned to Celine and began again, allowing her a moment to translate his instructions to Philomene before continuing.

Celine took her mother’s hand and explained, “Mother, this is Officer Sullivan. He will escort us through the viewing and help to identify Father.”

Officer Sullivan, removing his hat to reveal his full head of copper hair, hung his head while being introduced and offered Philomene his hand as he shared his condolences and asked for the details of Mr. Messier. “Any details of his clothing, wedding band, shoes would be of help, Madame. It will not take long as there are very few men to be identified.”

Officer Sullivan, supporting Philomene’s arm, escorted her up the stairs as they slowly awaited the opportunity to enter the building. Celine and Sophia remained closely behind. Once within the building, they waited to descend the stairs to the basement. The line moved one step at the time, the soft cries of both men and women became audible and the stench of the burned bodies entered their nostrals.

Once inside the basement, Officer Sullivan guided the women to the far section of the room, passed rows of white clothed bodies already tagged with identification. He began by slowly pulling the clothe back from the first body to expose the feet as Philomene had described Leopold’s brown, warn boots and grey, wool trousers. There would be mending along the back of the left leg of the pants where Leopold had caught his pants on a piece of machinery. Officer Sullivan gently explained that most of the victims had received terrible burns to the upper body and if she preferred, they would search for Leopold’s boots and pants. With horrific anticipation Philomene watched as each sheet was slowly withdrawn from the feet and legs of the bodies before her. At each body, she prayed for a stranger’s clothing to appear. Sophia gasped and cried before Philomene when the fifth body was exposed. It was not the pants but a small hole on the bottom of her father’s left shoe, which Sophia recognized. Having repaired the hole with an insert of newspaper, Sophia had temporarily mended the shoe for her father two nights before.

Celina crumbled into Sophia’s arms and the two fell to the ground, while Philomene remained motionless, only her finger slowly tracing the hole of the sole of Leopold’s shoe. She motioned to the officer to remove the sheet so that she could be sure of Leopold’s identity and understanding her gesture, he led her to Leopold’s side and slowly pulled back the sheet to reveal just a small portion of a charred skull. He shook his head and pulled the sheet back over the head and motioned her to back up. Philomene’s eyes filled with urgency to see his face, too look once more upon his ruddy, flushed complexion and bury her own cheek in his thick, briskly whiskers. Again, the officer shook his head, himself queasy from the stench and image of the disfigured, charred skull. Instead, he bent down to the body and sought beneath the sheet for some part of Leopold to reveal to his wanting wife. First he attended to Leopold’s right side, and then left. Here, he pulled forth Leopold’s left hand. The thumb and index figure were badly burned but the remainder of the hand, though blistered, had not disfigured.

Officer Sullivan stepped back and allowed Philomene time with her husband. Philomene gently took the hand and, though cold, warmed it with her own. She felt his thin, wedding band and twisted it until it came loose. The familiar bump of gold, where the ring had been expanded to fit his enlarged, laboring hands, assured her that this was Leopold and she placed the ring on her own hand with her matching band. She kissed his fingers gently and then placed the hand below the sheet. Leaning down to the covered face, she kissed the clean cloth, which separated her from the disfigured remains of her only love and then fell to his chest. Philomene felt her energy drain from her as she lay for the last time with her husband, wanting to fuse to him, to be absorbed by him. Her insides shattered and the warmth that Leopold’s love generated within her was no more. There was nothing left.

Officer Sullivan patiently waited, then Philomene felt his strong arms tenderly lifted her back off of Leopold with words she did not understand but the sensitivity in his tone assured her he understood.

Philomene willed herself against her desire to remain with Leopold’s body. Turning to gather her daughters, she allowed Officer Sullivan to lead them up the rear staircase and out into the street. Father Bourassa consoled family members as they retreated from the horror of the basement. Philomene turned her daughters in the opposite direction of the gathering and headed out toward the crowded street.

Chapter 1

Feast of Corpus Christi, Thursday, May 27, 1875
Precious Blood Parish, Holyoke, Massachusetts
800 parishioners in attendance

The Messier children, led by Madame Messier, crowded the last church pew of the west gallery as the mass began. Passing the six youngest children amongst the oldest until all were settled on approving laps, the eldest six children followed their mother’s example as she distracted the youngest with a hymnal. In all, Philomene and Leopold Messier had been blessed with thirteen children, losing only young Pierre to small pox. Philomene’s blessings abounded with four strong girls, Sophia, Celina, Angelique and Adele before giving birth to her first three sons, Charles, Louis and Armiac. Each nurturing in their own way, her daughters had been of great assistance rearing the remaining nine siblings who would follow before loosing Pierre. Delina, Fabien, Joseph, Prudent, Theophile and Hermille at times seemed a tangle of small limbs as Philomene, and her eldest, Sophia, managed their daily routine.

The children squirmed, agitated by the heat as this unusually warm evening added to the discomfort of their best dress. The windows were thrown open to allow a breeze to pass through the poorly erected temporary pine church building, complimenting the efforts of the clicking fans of the more refined women in the front pews. The Messier family earned just enough to rent one pew, in the west gallery, granted the last row. The fee required by Father Bourassa was $5.00 per quarter, in addition to the monthly $1.00 tithe. When in attendance, Leopold usually stood, without charge, in the balcony, along with others unable to afford seating below.

As Father Bourassa took his position behind the alter, Philomene recognized the clearing of a throat as that of Leopold, signaling that he had arrived. With standing room only available to the rear of the first floor, Leopold ascended the stairs to the balcony where he secured a position from which he could observe his family below. Squeals of recognition, emitted from his youngest, were stifled by the hands of the older siblings in charge. Leopold looked on with great pride at the Messier family below, sitting shoulder to shoulder, as the mass began. Though many of the French Canadian families of Precious Blood Parish were able to fill a pew, none were doubled on laps as his. Leopold felt the envy of many, as his offspring reflected the love he and Philomene felt for one another and the blessings that abounded in their small tenement apartment in the “Flats” of Holyoke, Massachusetts. He had cloned himself in his boys, each with their tousled, chestnut brown hair, large boned and rugged. With the exception of fair Sophia, a younger version of Philomene, the girls were a blend of their parents, with his hair coloring and her green eyes.

Were it not Corpus Christi, this Thursday evening mass would have held little importance to Leopold, who normally retired from his shift at Lyman Mill directly home to bed. Given the importance of this holy event, the foreman had allowed leniency to those attending the service, though many of his fellow workers chose to leave with him and head home instead. Lyman Mills had been Leopold’s sole source of employment since bringing Philomene to Holyoke in 1853. Their apartment, one of 205 tenements for the families of the workers of the mill, was considered one of the larger with two bedrooms and a kitchen area, another source of great pride.

Leopold could smile now at the financial hardship they had once faced, feeding and clothing their growing family. As soon as each of the eldest, excepting Sophia, graduated from elementary school, employment was sought and today, the family benefited from the wages of Louis, 12 years, Charles, 13, Adele, 15, Angelique, 16, and Celina, 17. Armiac, Delina, Fabien and Joseph each attended the district school and would follow their siblings into the mills after elementary school. Only Prudent, Theophile and Hermille remained at home with Philomene and Sophia. He sighed, “Thank God for Sophia,” now 18 years, she had remained Philomene’s support through the raising of each child. He gazed down at her below, her dress tailored by Philomene to fit her left arm, stunted in size similar to a toddler’s. Philomene still secretly harbor blame for Sophia’s deformity as she had been inexperienced in birth and the labor had been difficult, believing the injury occurred at birth. Sophia’s arm had precluded her from working in the mills with the others, however, her proficiency with children and housework would some day make her a wonderful wife to the right man, who would overlooked this physical challenge.

Theirs was a good life, filled with laughter and love and health. It was all that he could ask for and he gave thanks as the voice of Father Bourassa began his sermon in his rich, native language. Here, in church, Leopold felt the comfort of his community as the French spoken service recognized his people as an active society of men and women with a valuable culture worthy of its own place of worship. As the sermon continued, Leopold allowed his thoughts to drift to the day he and Philomene arrived in Holyoke. They had been amongst the first to travel from Province Quebec to the new city with Nicholas Proulx. Nicholas Proulx, a noted recruiter for the mills, promised housing and a fair wage. They had packed only what they could carry, newly wed and with little else but their clothing and a few house wares. The covered wagon held 45 girls and women, the men and boys walked. Together they had entered a foreign city.

However, they found themselves immersed within a forming community of other Canadians and until the children began to speak English fluently, Leopold and Philomene managed on the few words which Leopold acquired through his daily shift.

The first stanza of the Tantum Ergo broke Leopold’s thoughts. Gazing up from his hands where he had momentarily bowed his head, Leopold was one of the first to react to the flames that engulfed the statue of Mary at the alter. Instinctively he leaned over the balcony railing to his family below and shouted, despite the hush which remained over the congregation. To Philomene he boldly shouted, “Philomene Messier, take the children at once, leave this place!”

Philomene, mesmerized by the flickering flame on the alter, watched without alarm as a gentle breeze fluttered the window curtains as it entered the building and billowed the Virgin Mary statue’s lace vale into the flame of the candle set before it. As the flame shot up the statue and caught the timber above, Philomene heard her husband’s urgent cry and stood at the end of the pew, clutching young Hermille in her left arm. She wrenched each of her children out of the pew and through the rear door of the vestibule and out the west door, which had been left open. Philomeme struggled with her children down the hillside, avoiding the steps, as a swarm of people pushed behind them, spilling out into the street. Philomene frantically called for Leopold as she watched with horror as people fled the building, clothing and hair ablaze.

Inside, Leopold remained frozen hanging over the balcony until he had seen the last of his children withdraw from the pew and disappear beneath his extended body. The flame had ignited the rafters and a raging blaze reached the rear of the building faster than any parishioner could have run, if free of the crowd. The smoke seared his lungs and flames surrounded him.

Screaming and chaos ensued; Leopold remained stranded at the rear of a mass of bodies, mostly women and children, pushing their way down the narrow stairs to the first floor. When the stairway collapsed and people fell one on another, Leopold was left stranded on the balcony, now emblazed in lethal flames. Leopold could not see his frantic family sobbing and screaming for him from behind a line of patrolmen. Outside, a frenzy of parishioners tried to force the doors back open which were now pinned closed by the crowd leaning against them, burning in a mass of flame.

Philomene, restrained by Officer Fitzpatrick, fought to free herself, screaming uncontrollably for Leopold, as her eldest held the little ones away from the scene of char and smoke. For mere moments after their escape, parishioners flooded out of the west gallery door but none could escape from the east side, where the doors, which opened into the church, rather than out, were pinned shut by the crowd forced against it. Angelique cried out at the sight of bodies leaping out of windows. Officer Fitzpatrick released Philomene as the crowd surrounding them had formed a human wall which neither Philomene nor her children could penetrate in search of Leopold. Sophia placed her hand instinctively over Prudent’s face as the firemen began pulling burned bodies from the building. Additional off duty firemen, playing ball in a nearby field south of Canal Street, raced toward the burning building to assist the firemen and control the crowd.

The mass of onlookers expanded along the peripheral as families of those attending the service heard the fire alarm bells and saw the smoke billowing into the evening sky. Philomene and her children were now surrounded by a mass of hysterical family members and curious on-lookers. She could no longer make her way back to the parish, and within moments, the building fell to the ground, the fire extinguished. What followed was a gruesome display of charred bodies placed on the lawn as a search for the living amongst the dead continued. Bodies, which were not completely deformed and unrecognizable, were quickly moved to Peter Monat’s store. As the number of dead grew, the basement of Park Street School was opened.

Still Philomene did not give up hope that Leopold would come through the crowd to her, having found some escape route which no one had thought of. Madame Coache, who had attended alone and escaped just ahead of Philomene and her children, now consoled Philomene, “Come love, you must take the children home now. This is no place for them.”

Philomene stared past her neighbor at the remains of the building, “No, I cannot leave Leopold. Please, see that Sophia gets the children back to the rooms for me. I must remain here until I know something of him.”

Philomene embraced each of her frightened children and took Sophia aside, “Sophia, take the children home with Madame Coache. I will come as soon as I know something of Father. I will find him and bring him home.”

Sobbing, Sophia clung to her mother, “No, Mother. Come home with us now. Father is gone.”

Angry tears filled Philomene’s eyes as she held her daughter back, “Your father is a survivor. I will find him and until we know otherwise, you father is alive and you will go home and pray to God for his return to us this very night.” Then regretting her harshness, she embraced her grown daughter and led her back to the others. Now numb with exhaustion, most of her children were staggering or being held by another. She gathered them to her, “Take care of your brothers and sisters and listen to Sophia and Madame Coache. I will be home soon.”

As the crowd slowly dissipated, Philomene stood frozen on the grass across the street from the leveled parish. The firemen and police continued to move bodies to the grass areas along the side of the rubble. Soon her sole silhouette stood against the lowering sun as bundles of cotton were brought from the direction of Lyman Mills and bodies were covered in cloth as they lay waiting to be moved. Philomene’s paralysis remained until Father Bourassa approached her. He took both hands in his. “Madame Messier, you must go home to your children now. There is nothing left to be done tonight. We have had a great loss today, but with God’s help we will go on.”

Unable to speak, Philomene glared at the priest, who she had watched leave the parish through a door near the alter with his bible and church records in hand, moments after the fire broke out. If they’d had sufficient funds to afford a weekly seat for Leopold on the floor with the family, he would not have been in that balcony with most of the mill workers when the fire broke out. Though her throat was constricted and her breath nearly gone from the grief welling inside of her, she contained her distain for the priest as she thanked him and turned to walk home. They had forgone milk at times to afford their seat in his parish, and for what?

The streets were still crazed with activity as she walked amongst the small gatherings, most speculating on the catastrophe. Those directly impacted had returned to their homes and those who spoke now had a tone of excitement in the details. Andrew McCain, note pad in hand, was scribbling as he spoke with a group of firemen, gathering the news for the next day’s publication of the Springfield Daily Republican. He watched the lone woman leaving the scene and controlled his urge to follow her for any details she might offer.

Philomene stopped along the small bridge that passed over one of the industrial canals. She looked out upon the towering, five story, brick mills where Leopold dedicated six days a week to labor. For the first time that she could remember since marrying Leopold, she felt completely alone. Despite the muggy air, Philomene felt a chill and pulled her shawl closely around her shoulders, hugging herself with a memory of his embrace and willed him back to her. The distance bells of St. Jerome parish chimed nine times. Philomene Messier had been alone in the world for less than two hour and already it felt like an eternity.

When Philomene reached the mill housing, she climbed the stairs to the third floor and slowly opened the door, less any of the children was asleep close to the threshold. Though each child had prepared his or her bed for the night, there had been no sleep. Charles was the first to reach Philomene with questions of Father. Soon, she was surrounded by her brood and sat at the kitchen table while trying to reach out to each one in turn. “No, Father was not found, yet. Tomorrow morning Charles, you will go down to the stand and get the newspaper and read it to us. Until then, I do not know what we are to do but wait.”

Philomene managed Theophile, Hermille and Prudent into the bed she shared with Leopold, then returned to hush Fabien who sat at the single window, staring out into the darkened night. With much urging and exhausted by tears, Joseph, Fabien, Delina and Armiac were cuddled into their bed in the second bedroom. As the elder children prepared their bedrolls on the kitchen floor, she kneeled with each for a moment and when Prudent came crying from the bedroom, it was Celina who reached for her and pulled her down onto her bedding.

Prudent remained inconsolable, held tightly to Celina. Her whimpering was joined by sniffing and cries of her younger siblings, though their understanding of the loss was beyond their young years. Philomene remained sitting in the kitchen staring numbly at her lot. Fighting the ache for Leopold, she struggled to fathom how she would face tomorrow and all days following without his solid, strength and worldliness. Like most of the women in her community, Philomene had not learned English and rarely left her neighborhood, relying upon Leopold to translate for her when necessary. He handled all affairs outside of the home and now she would struggle without him in what suddenly, after twenty-two years of residence, was a foreign place to her.

With so few material things, she searched the room for a piece of Leopold to cling to and only found the wooden figures he had whittled for Joseph. Gathering these in her hands, she felt their smoothness, then tugged his winter scarf from a peg, not worn in months, and wrapped it about her neck. In their bedroom, she searched for his night shirt and slipped into it, scarf still around her neck. Returning to the table, she clutched the wooded figures to her chest and began to rock as she silently screamed with pain.

Madame Brisson, from across the hall, entered the apartment quietly and placed a mug of tea in front of Philomene. Then from behind her, wrapped her arms around Philomene and held her without a word. It was then that the silent tears of loss began to stream down Philomene's cheeks, dropping unattended onto the wooden table. Rose Brisson swayed Philomene in her arms as a mother would a child, never discouraging the grief. After a time, Rose left her to move into the bedroom, inched aside the sleeping children who shared the marriage bed and assisted Philomene onto the mattress, removing the sweat drenched scarf.

She whispered, “I will watch the little ones for you tomorrow so that you can attend to matters. Now rest.” Stepping around the cuddling bodies on the floor, Rose made her way silently out of the apartment.

Philomene reached her arm over and around the bodies of both Hermille and Theophile and carefully pulled them into her body as she curved herself protectively around them. Hermille’s damp curls reminded Philomene of Leopold’s mass of coarse, chestnut hair and she buried her face into his locks. These were their creation, their babies and all that she had left of Leopold. In her grief and exhaustion, her mind replayed the night’s events as though she were Leopold. Philomene tried to imagine his escape route, where he had stumbled to, injured, perhaps cared for by friends and in great pain. Throughout the night, she lay in a half sleep, half conscious state of delirium searching the streets for Leopold.

* An interesting side note: Following the fire at Precious Blood Parish, building codes were changed to require all exterior doors to open outward instead of inward in order to avoid future fatalities similar to those of the parishioners trapped against the doors.


In 1869, Father Dufresne arrived in the new city of Holyoke, Massachusetts, assigned to parish boundaries within the Flats of Holyoke. The Flats were characterized by rapidly expanding mills and overcrowded tenements, cramped with French Canadian workers. His official assignment arose in response to the religious needs of this growing community. His personal mission, however, was the preservation of the French culture despite the social and economic changes facing his people in this new country. During his tenure, Father Dufresne did not learn to speak or read English, nor did he recognize the laws of this country, relying only upon the experiences reaped from his success in St. Hyacinth, Canada, where his leadership and power reached far beyond the pulpit and into all facets of his parishioners’ lives.
The rapid expansion of industry brought new populations to the city. Religion flourished and grand cathedrals were erected throughout the city to meet the needs of the neighborhoods. Father Dufresne’s parish boundaries limited the affluence of his parish to a laboring class. In order to keep pace with the other parishes, and retain his parishioners, he required a cathedral in keeping with those in more affluent neighborhoods. His empire was erected upon the backs of a poor laboring class. His pulpit was a place of manipulation, slander and excommunication of those opposing his authoritarian style.

The thoughtful comment of a local reporter, reflecting upon the legal actions taken against Father Dufresne, gave birth to this story.

“This experience, as well as some that the Irish Catholics have gone through, is teaching these people a little independence. It is encouraging to see the superstitious veneration for the priests weakening, and when the people learn that a priest is to be blamed when he does wrong the same as any other man, the priests themselves will be more apt to do right.”
Springfield Daily Republican, October 26, 1879

The Father Bourassa of this novel is a fictional composite and does not reflect the true character of just one historical figure. Rather the fictional character of Father Bourassa evolved through the discovery of a series of stories appearing in the Hampden County column of the Springfield Daily Republican newspaper from a period of 1875 to 1880, all pertaining to dissatisfaction with the clergy of the region.