“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.”