“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.