THE LOURDES OF NEW ENGLAND
by Annick de Bellefeuille
Chapter One: Woonsocket, Rhode Island, 1928
On the afternoon Monseigneur Carol Prince came to town, the snow had been falling for weeks. So much snow that, overnight, trains were canceled and roads became impassable, trapping the Monseigneur, along with a dozen travelers, for as much as a week. All the rooms at the St. James Hotel were booked, but that was no concern for the Monseigneur. Mgr. Carol Prince, as French Canada’s best-known literary critic, was touring French-speaking towns in New England to promote his newest book of essays. He was already expected as a guest at the presbytery of Précieux-Sang Church. A horse-drawn sleigh had met him at the train depot to take him up the unplowed streets of the hillside parish.
For The Woonsocket Call, however, the drama of the blockade was irresistible, unleashing the paper’s pent-up lust for alarm with headlines like “The Siege of the Century.” For the city engineer, calling the avalanche of snow ‘a siege’ was no exaggeration. In private conclave with the mayor, the engineer would confide his worries that the spring thaw would trigger a titanic flood that would destroy the mills along the river in lower town and drown the workers who lived in the nearby tenements.
For these workers, though, the blockade was more than a major inconvenience or even a potential threat. The snow was a sign from God. Being devout French Canadian Catholics, they saw the siege as the living symbol of the deadlock between the Irish American Bishop of their diocese, His Excellency Evan Conroy, and the French Canadian rebel, Edouard d’Avignon, he was threatening to excommunicate.
For a French Canadian Catholic, excommunication was a far worse sentence than merely being forbidden to take communion. The grocer would not sell you any food, and neither would the baker. The paperboy would not deliver the paper to your door. No one would want to be seen talking to you. Everyone would avoid you, literally cross the street if they saw you, as if you had the plague. You would never recover, without an official Church pardon, from this social death.
For these Catholics, only a saint could reconcile their Irish American Bishop with his fractious French parishioners. Only Blanche Taillefer, the locally-famous mystic they called la couronnée d’épines, could break the logjam. Taillefer, The One Crowned with Thorns, was said to have borne, at one time or another, besides the crown of thorns, all six of the wounds of Christ. Opinions differed widely as to the actuality of Blanche’s stigmata. But to her followers, Blanche and her wounds were endowed with the power to perform miracles.
The next morning, while it was still dark, Blanche Taillefer was asleep, dreaming about Bishop Evan Conroy. She recognized the bishop from his purple sash and gold miter and from the aspersorium with which he was sprinkling holy water onto the heads of his kneeling flock. Among the crowd, one man was standing, and she recognized the proud Edouard d’Avignon, leader of the French rebels, from the fiery red X, the mark of the condemned, crossed over his heart, and the vision frightened her awake.
She lay, as always, on her hard plank bed, the bed onto which she had been strapped for over a decade to prevent the wracking muscle spasms from the tetanus infection she had contracted from a dog bite at the age of twelve. In contrast to her withered and deformed body, which remained hidden under a white shroud, her youthful face was round and appealing. The house was quiet, except for the familiar sound of her brother adding wood to the kitchen stove, and she drifted back to the vision from her dream. She couldn’t help feeling sorry for this man, M. d’Avignon, whose fate was about to be, even despite her constant suffering, worse than her own. In a casual tone, she pleaded with Jesus:
“Ask your Father to convince M. d’Avignon to soften his words against his bishop; ask Him to inspire Bishop Conroy to change his mind about the rebels.”
At the very same moment Blanche was reciting her prayers, the actual Bishop Conroy was at his desk in his office in the Bishop’s house in Providence. Dressed in his purple velvet dressing gown, he was writing a letter to his old friend Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI. He would be in Rome in the first week of Lent for the ordination as cardinal of a former colleague, and hoped he could see him, Achille, during his stay. In passing, he mentioned his little problem with some unruly parishioners, but avoided the thorny issue of excommunication. As Achille and he had been friends since their student days at the Gregorian, he felt confident that, in person, he could more easily obtain the Pope’s support.
Also invoking the Pope at this same instant in her own prayers, was Antonine Savard, one of Blanche’s fervent believers, mother of ten, whose husband worked at the Globe mill. Antonine was on her knees imploring la couronnée to intercede with His Holiness to save the rebels from the Bishop’s excommunication. This threat of total banishment was especially alarming to Antonine because every morning, after she had fed her brood, sent them to school or to the mill, and entrusted the care of the little ones to her oldest daughter, she would set off to work as the housekeeper at the home of the leader of these French rebels, Edouard d’Avignon.
Edouard d’Avignon, who was unaware of the collusion of the pious to save him, was already at this early hour at work in his study. A journalist of some renown among French Canadians, both here in New England and in Canada, he lived in moderate ease in the sedate Victorian house he shared with his wife Yvette and their grown daughter Gabrielle, the house where Madame Savard was expected later that morning, the house which was in the same hillside parish of Précieux-Sang where Monseigneur Carol Prince was the curé’s guest.
Edouard was poring over yet another chapter of his ever-growing tome (Les limites du pouvoir diocésain sur la paroisse: The Limits of Diocesan Power Over the Parish), which, at four hundred and seventy six pages, made the exhaustive case against their Irish American bishop. From Edouard’s perspective, the conflict was simple: Bishop Evan Conroy’s demands for more and more money from the French Canadian parishes, money these parishes needed to run their French schools, money the people had labored for in the mills, every spare penny of which they had donated to build their churches and their schools, was tantamount to extortion. Bishop Conroy was “a tyrant who was out to exterminate them.”
This was not the first clash between French Canadian and Irish American Catholics in New England. This was an old feud. And in his voluminous apologia, Edouard dissected in excruciating detail every one of the precedents back to the beginning; the beginning, that is, in the 1840’s, of the massive exodus of French Canadians from the poverty of backwoods Québec down to the mills of New England. And from that beginning, the conflict between the French Canadians and their Irish American clergy had always been over the same thing: Who controlled the parish?
A sudden whoosh of snow slid off the roof and landed in a muffled thump outside Edouard’s window, distracting him from his work. He gazed out at the snow-globe flakes swirling in all directions. In his unguarded moments, like this one, his face was open and free of the usual frown he presented to the world; he looked, just now, young for his fifty-three years and keen. The look he used to have when, so many years ago, he’d written love letters to his wife Yvette, back when he had been young, handsome, and in love; a look he only had now when, after having fathomed for hours the arcane minutia of Canon law, he indulged in writing an impassioned digression about the glorious past of New France and the ultimately victorious future of l’Amérique française.
But the moment passed, and he soon returned to his worries. He worried that his brief might not appeal to the eminent guest he was expecting for tea later that day. His guest was none other than Monseigneur Carol Prince, who had been made a hostage by the snow. Prince was, among his many roles besides French Canada’s best-known literary critic, one of a number of prominent clerics from Québec who was thought to favor the French Canadian parishes in their battle with their Irish American bishop. For once, Edouard was grateful for the snow, for making Mgr. Carol Prince a captive. He was hoping Prince would reassure him that the Pope was on their side, that His Holiness would protect them against their rapacious, bigoted bishop.
Upstairs in her bedroom, Edouard’s daughter Gabrielle was going over her opus, her first novel, also in anticipation of Monseigneur’s visit. Because of his great renown as a critic, she had mailed him, months ago already, her original manuscript. She knew that Prince would recognize her father’s name, and hoped his reputation would predispose the critic to approve of her own work. The draft she was reading now was a carbon copy of her original typescript. In the bluish light from her lamp, she sat at her small desk in her nubby flannel robe, parsing an early scene, struggling to find in her written words the reassurance that the Monseigneur’s silence so far was not proof of a negative verdict on her effort. Titled Volte Face (About Face), the precocious work – she was only 24 – was a highly autobiographical Bildungsroman written in her native French.
When she was five years old, her parents spent a lot of time with their friends at the tennis court two doors down from their house on Rideau Terrace. Her mother had set down a blanket for her in the shade of the linden trees where she was sitting near enough to the tennis court to see her mother now sprinting for the ball. She liked the snappy plunk of the ball bouncing off the ground. One of these friends of her parents, a man she didn’t know, but who seemed to know her, came and sat next to her on the blanket, his white-clad legs stretching out into the green grass. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows and a white handkerchief tied in a band around his thick wavy blonde hair. He was handsome, like a prince in a fairy tale. His soft greenish-gray eyes squinted from his smile, tiny pearls of sweat sparkled on the bridge of his nose. In a distracted gesture, he pulled off the headband and wiped his face with it, saying words she didn’t understand. For some reason, this embarrassed her. She sensed from the way he pretended not to be staring at her mother that it was forbidden. Then he took something small and red that she knew as un radis out of a paper bag and bit into it. She liked the crunching noises he made as he chewed it. He asked, “A radish?” as he invited her to pick one from the bag. Before she could take it, he yanked the bag away and repeated “radish,” giving each vowel, each consonant his full attention. She said un radis, but he wouldn’t give it to her unless she called it by his name.
“Rahdeesh,” she said, the long squashy word sounding nothing like the short crisp radis. The sharp taste of her reward stung her tongue, like the prickle of guilt she felt for the way she’d won it. Then she noticed her father standing nearby, close enough to have heard what she said, close enough to have witnessed her betrayal. He was glancing at the young man, then turned to stare at her mother on the court. He’d seen it too, the forbidden look and who the young man had aimed it at. Her father turned back and stomped away without glancing at her. That was the moment she felt her mother was a threat, the one who could make her father leave, maybe for good. And woven into the warp of her family drama was the weft of this other tug of war, the one between French and English; speaking English, besides betraying herself, was threatening to her family. But soon, she would shirk this fear and become a spy, a double agent who could slip unnoticed between worlds. It would become second nature.
She put aside her carbon copy and wrote in her notebook, And eventually, her need to reveal the secrets she’d spied would crystallize into her desire to become a writer. That was true, she thought, but she wasn’t sure where that sentence belonged. She set down her pencil and glanced outside where it was still barely light, and, as usual, the snow was falling. She could find nothing to alter in this passage. It expressed exactly how she had experienced that moment, and what she wanted it to say about adult duplicity and her own duality. She was only dimly aware that her parents, when they would eventually read her book, might recognize themselves, and feel betrayed. In fact, the only reason this hadn’t already happened was because she hid her carbon copy from her mother who, she knew, was always nosing around her things; while her father’s interest in her novel, she also knew, was altogether feigned. He would not waste his precious time on something as inconsequential as a novel when he had the entire fate of the French Canadian diaspora resting on him and his campaign. She pictured him saying this, all in caps.
She had plowed through the bulk of her pages armed with only her pencil, a regular number two whose eraser tip she was now using to scratch her tight curls in their net of bobby pins. A spray of her brown hair sprang loose and waved, like a plume. She had only last night learned that Monseigneur Prince was coming for tea that very afternoon, presumably bringing her original manuscript bearing, she hoped, his copious and flattering remarks. Mgr. Prince was many things, she knew, but she cared most about his influence as the pre-eminent literary critic in Québec, her native pays where she intended to return to once her novel was published there. But Prince was also the Catholic Church’s appointed Censor Librorum, the institution’s official book censor. This was the ultimate role in which he would determine the fate of her novel. Because, in Québec in 1928, not unlike in Spain during the Inquisition, every novel, play, poem, history, etc. had to carry the Church censor’s Nihil Obstat, his No Objection stamp of approval before the work could ever get published.
Gabrielle had been assuming that, even though her book was heavily autobiographical, writing her story as a novel would shield her work from censorship, that somehow doing so elevated her words beyond the reach of, as she saw it, the pedestrian standards reserved for memoirs and, in her view, other inferior genres. She’d read Carol Prince’s essays and literary criticism and had tried to anticipate what he might object to in her novel. But being young and idealistic, she had little inkling what he would demand that she erase from it. She had taken it for granted that Prince having accepted her father’s invitation to tea today was a tacit endorsement of her father’s cause. And because she thought getting Prince’s permission to publish was a mere formality, she saw herself going back to her old newspaper job at Le Devoir in Montréal, the job she had agreed to leave, for a time, to come down here to Woonsocket to help her father at his weekly, Le Combat. Already, that had been over a year ago, and in that time she had experienced here in her parents’ house, a confusing loss of her early ambition and her chosen life. Being wrenched from that former life made that life feel irrelevant and vague, like a dream she hardly remembered. Her novel had been her only way to maintain her tenuous connection to it. Her novel, she believed, was her ticket out of Woonsocket, back to what she considered her real life in Montréal. That was the way she thought of her situation on good days. All would turn out well. But on other days, and this was one of those, she worried that nothing would turn out well at all.
As she leafed through her pages, her hazel eyes had a feline alertness. She knew she was considered pretty, in that way that most young people are attractive; but what mattered to her was that she be valued for her accomplishments. She drained the last sip of her cold coffee, and leaned back in her creaky chair to look out her window at the gray morning.
Outside, the snow was falling slowly in big flakes, piling up in peaked eddies in the front yard and on the monumental snow banks that barricaded the streets into separate camps. From one side of the street, even from a second floor window, the houses across the way had all but disappeared. At the foot of these snow mountains, narrow trenches snaked along the length of them, more or less where the sidewalks ran beneath, trenches that reminded veterans of the Great War of the muddy ones they had survived, trenches where neighborhood children, split into gangs of the odd street numbers against the evens, would tunnel through the snow to surprise their enemy.
An hour later, Gabrielle stood at the door of her father’s study in a plain skirt and cardigan, and her hair had been tamed into a fashionable bob: it was an unquestioned assumption of hers that a well-bred young woman, that any decent woman, should never appear in a robe and hair pins. Her excuse for disturbing her father was to ask for a large envelope for her carbon copy. As she knocked first inaudibly and then loudly on the door, she became aware of another intention, one that made her feel an agitated sort of expectation. She couldn’t help wanting her father’s favor, his approval, the mood that so often came over her when she entered his territory. She heard him shout “Entrez” and opened the door; and as she did so she assumed an air of confidence, of competence, the one her father expected of her, the role she had played for so long that to her, the part felt mostly like who she actually was.
As usual, Edouard’s eyes didn’t stray from the words he was writing. Beyond his lamp-lit desk, the dim light barely reached the corners of the room where stacks of documents teetered in the shadows. Casually, Gabrielle mentioned the envelope on her way to the file cabinet where he kept such things. Edouard said nothing, as her request didn’t require a response. She noticed he was wearing the paisley ascot that she had given him. His habit was to wear his daughter’s gifts. Her habit was to interpret this as proof of his affection for her.
Gabrielle thanked him for the beige envelope she had found in the drawer. Looking up suddenly from his pages, Edouard frowned. “Carol Prince is coming to see me about our cause,” he said, “whatever interest he shows you, it’s only because you’re my daughter. So don’t take up any of my precious time with him.”
Gabrielle stiffened. He wasn’t usually this mean, and she hadn’t expected the jab. She could feel her red cheeks betraying her embarrassment.
“You know the situation is critical,” Edouard went on, justifying himself. “I need his endorsement. No airy-fairy discussions about literature,” he insisted, waving his hand dismissively. “I have a war to win.” He bent back to his work. He knew he’d been harsh, but so be it. So much was riding for him on this visit from Monseigneur Carol Prince.
Gabrielle was still reeling from her father’s barb. Of course she knew all about his war with Bishop Conroy. She was, after all, her father’s staunchest political supporter. Everyone knew that. In fact, it had always been this way. Except on one issue, her conviction that because of her broad popularity, Blanche Taillefer’s support would be a great boon to the cause, Gabrielle had always agreed with him on politics, religion, on so many things. She didn’t feel that she was obeying him so much as being naturally in accord with his views. Like Athena, she liked to think, born fully armed from the head of Zeus, her father.
She was searching for something to say. She swallowed to loosen her tight throat. What did not occur to her, was that her father felt in competition with her for the great man’s attention. Her dismay had obscured for her his latent motives. She hadn’t seen, and he would never admit, that he had felt threatened by Mgr. Prince’s interest in her novel, a work that could be good enough to appeal to the literary critic more than Edouard’s exhaustive treatise on parish rights, and he had lashed out at her to protect his privileged position with the Monseigneur.
She put down the envelope on his desk and picked up the pewter eagle she had found in an antique shop in Montréal. Its fierce expression had reminded her of her father’s. The pewter had a reassuring heft and authority, the kind of solidity that she could only feel when she was in agreement with him.
“No of course, of course,” she said, feeling, as she spoke, her body relaxing into her familiar supporting role. “I expect he’ll just give me back my draft with his notes. It’ll only take a minute.”
Edouard was watching her as she held the pewter statuette and was reminded it was one of his favorite gifts from her. She had known that he would appreciate this perched eagle which was not the American Republican symbol, but the French Imperial emblem chosen by Napoléon, and that he, like his father before him, was a great admirer of the Emperor. He smiled at her.
She recognized his smile. It meant that everything was understood between them. That their understanding was so complete that nothing further needed be said and all would be well.
When Gabrielle had left the room, Edouard leaned back in his chair feeling tired. His little pique of rivalry with his daughter had suddenly allowed his old fears to needle him once more. The fear of losing his campaign; the fear of having made a bad bargain in abandoning Ottawa where he’d been a well-respected journalist covering Parliament Hill for this sooty backwater to run an obscure Broadsheet. The fear that the assimilation of French Canadians into American culture was as inevitable as that of all other immigrant groups to this country, and he had sacrificed so much, too much, for a lost cause. This last horror, he refused to entertain and threw himself back into his work.