Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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.

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