Early, before sunrise on the twenty-sixth of July 1904, Father Raphael Durant approached the townhome of Judge William W. Lahey. It was but a short walk that evening from his parish at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Like most townhomes in downtown St. Francisville, it lay upon a bluff, shaded by cypress oak and crepe myrtle trees. The dusk of the night diminished the trees’ blossoming flora, however. Only a single light shown from a window above the gallery upstairs.
He ascended the properties brick steps and crossed the picket gate surrounding the front porch. But half-an-hour earlier a man of about forty woke him at the rectory. He explained his mother, wife of Judge Lahey, was dying of heart failure and requesting a Catholic priest. Father Durant had recently arrived at the parish to replace the longtime, founding pastor, Monsignor Augustin Fontaine. He knew well the judge’s name, but given Catholics were a minority in the town, he was well aware that the man and his family were not among his congregants.
Father Durant knocked on the door.
As he waited, an owl hooted from a nearby tree. He met its eyes, which surprisingly glowed almost green amidst the summer night.
The door opened. A young woman of lovely complexion and Venetian-blonde hair met him, though grief clouded her light eyes. She observed his clerical collar.
“Are you the priest from Mount Carmel Church?” she asked.
Father Durant removed his hat and gave a slight bow.
“Please come in,” she said. “I’ll get my father.”
Upon entering the foyer, he met as uncomfortable of stares, from what seemed thirty people inside, as the humidity which never diminished after sunset. Adults, children, young and grown, they all kept their distance from him as if he had horns and cloven feet.
He searched the room of antique furnishing, clearly built long before the War Between the States. Not a trinket of Catholic iconography lay upon a table or wall. All that identified the inhabitants’ faith was a cross, not a crucifix, near the main fireplace’s mantle. He tugged loose his collar a bit. Clearly, they were well-established enough in the parish to know he was not a Protestant minister.
In a leather chair by the main mantle, the clear patriarch of the house sat. He bore long, grey hair, which waved and touched his shoulders, and maintained a thick beard that covered his neck. He was the only one who refused to look at Father Durant. Instead, he smoked a long-stem pipe furiously with his eyes fixed in a daze. Upon his lapel was pinned a medal containing the compass and square symbol of the freemasons. The hostility made sense now. As to why they summoned Father Durant for the judge’s ailing wife remained to be seen.
“Papa, please, don’t allow this,” another young brunette said. “Mama’s ill. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
The judge continued to smoke like a steam engine. His face grew redder with each puff.
Father Durant approached, holding his suitcase with both hands. “Judge Lahey.” He bowed. “I am Father Raphael Durant. Peace be upon your house and all who live here.”
The smokes stacks swirling from his pipe slowed. “Do you take umbrage being in the house of the Grand Master of the parish’s lodge?” he asked.
Father Durant swallowed. “No, Judge. I was not even aware. I just arrived at Our Lady of Mount Carmel a month ago.”
“Spare me,” the judge said, “how long have you been a priest?”
“And can a Catholic priest give absolution to an Episcopalian?”
“Is that what I’ve been summoned for –”
“Answer the question.”
Father Durant scanned his memory of what canon law he could recall. “If under certain circumstances. Is there no one from the Episcopal church nearby?”
Much to Father Durant’s surprise, an Episcopal priest of tall stature and formidable age emerged into sight and stood behind the judge’s chair. “Mrs. Lahey is insistent on seeing a Catholic reverend,” he said with his chin held high. “Do not think I am completely against this.”
“Papa, listen to Reverend,” the brunette said, knelt at her father’s chair. “I can’t countenance this –”
The judge waved his daughter away. He then stared off as he had been when Father Durant first entered the house. As if a spiteful memory lingered on his mind.
“Isabelle,” he called.
The same Venetian-blonde who let Father Durant in approached her father.
“Show the papist upstairs.”
Isabelle led Father Durant to the master bedroom. Inside, he found an Empire armoire, table set, and a large canopied bed illuminated by the room’s antebellum chandelier. On the bed lay a woman whom Isabelle approached. Her strands of white hair covered her with her blankets as she breathed lightly and gripped a rosary in her hands.
Isabelle kissed her forehead, leading the woman to take in a heavy breath as she opened her eyes.
“He’s here, Mama,” Isabelle said. “I’ll leave you be.”
The woman gripped Isabelle’s hand and nodded. Before long, Father Durant found himself alone with the dying woman.
She studied him a moment. Her face had aged to a natural beauty she likely always had, along with eyes which gleamed like the crystals sparkling among the chandelier.
“Please come, Father,” she uttered. “I won’t make it thru the night.”
Father Durant did as she requested. All the while the same owl from outside hooted with a deep, penetrating rhythm. He set his briefcase on the table beside her. From within he removed a standing crucifix, holy water and oil, his Roman Ritual, and his stole.
She returned to praying her rosary. It struck him how well she concluded her prayer with the Salve Regina in Latin. Her rosary was a lovely piece, made of onyx beads and a cross and center medallion of gold. When he took his chair beside her, she crossed herself with the rosary and opened her eyes.
“May I have your full name please?” he asked.
“Ella. Ella May Lahey. My maiden name is Crawford.”
“Thank you, Ella. The peace of the Lord be with you always. Be not afraid.”
“I am though, Father,” she said, as puddles of moisture settled among her eyelids. “I’ll never forgive myself for what I did. My hope is that God will before I stand before his throne.”
“Were you once Catholic?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Why do you pray the rosary and request me then?”
“I was educated at the Ursuline convent in New Orleans from the age of six to sixteen. I am Episcopalian, but my father had issues with the bishop over his second marriage. In a way, he sent me there for my education to further spite him, though I was bound for boarding school. It was my stepmother’s wishes. She was always in competition with my father over me, as I was his favorite since my mother died with me during childbirth.”
“I am deeply sorry about your childhood, Ella. I assume the convent wasn’t all that horrible as you still hold sentiments for the Church’s prayers.”
“No, I’ll never regret being there, Father. Like the flowers that grow among thorns, I found happiness in suffering. I loved her more than anything in the world.”
Ella’s face pinched and she wept.
Father removed his tissue from his coat pocket and dried her eyes.
“Clea, oh my Clea,” she cried, “please forgive me. If you are not in Heaven, then why should I even seek forgiveness for my sin?”
“Ella don’t speak so. The Lord is merciful. Let us begin.”
Father made the Sign of the Cross and then sprinkled her with holy water. “Let this water call to mind our baptism into Christ,” he said, “who by his death and resurrection has redeemed us.”
After setting down the holy water, he then made opening prayers. As he did, Ella closed her eyes and gripped her rosary tightly. The owl’s hooting ceased, and the room seemed to darken. Once he concluded, he sat back down beside her and nodded with a comforting grin.
“You may now confess your sins, Ella.”
She began with her eyes toward the canopy covering her bed. Her voice was but a whisper, as her heart was clearly fading.
“When I arrived at the convent in New Orleans, I felt I had lost everything. As I told you, my mother died in childbirth with me and my father was my world. I couldn’t fathom he sent me away simply to please his new wife. You may think I am a blessed woman, Father. For despite the war and the upheavals I’ve seen in my sixty-seven years, I was gifted with eleven children and twenty-two grandchildren so far. Yet, as I have buried four of my own, and watched my children bury five of theirs, so even more sadness overtakes me at what occurred before I married my husband.”
“Did I tell you I was six when my father sent me away? I wept the whole way down, as he did not even take me, but rather had servant do so in his stead. It was scary. The nuns in their habits. The old, dark halls. The morbid Catholic iconography all around. But my dormmate seemed even sadder, though she was a French Creole Catholic and two years my senior. She had even been there a year prior to my arrival and had a relative cloistered there named, Sister Helena. Often, she had lessons late into the evening with Sister Helena and would return after I was already in bed. She never spoke until one day I heard her praying to someone she called, le baron, with a black charm she wore around her neck that had a St. Benedict medal attached. She spoke to this baron as if he were there in person. She merely asked if the nuns would pass by our dorm without notice in the morning, as she was exhausted. To my surprise, we both slept in quite late until noon without the nun’s notice.”
“The next evening, I approached my dormmate. I asked her who she prayed too, as I overheard her speaking the night before and the nuns never let anyone sleep past six on school days. She had beautiful, emerald-green eyes, Father. And the most enviable black hair which coiled in lovely curls. Her name was Clea Guillaume. She told me it was her guardian angel. We then talked, and I learned she had a cruel mother too. Far crueler than mine. Before we realized it, the nuns woke us up the next morning fast asleep in each other’s arms.”
The surname, Guillaume, struck a chord in Father Durant’s mind. Even Ella noticed this, as she neared her fading eyes at him with curiosity.
“Do you know this name?” she asked. “You must, for her elder sister laid the foundation for your church after the war.”
He recalled when he arrived to replace Monsignor Fontaine, the ailing pastor gave him a tour of the humble sanctuary. It was built upon the site of a former Franciscan monastery in the Renaissance Revival style along a seven-bay basilica. For years, clergymen had to travel from Jackson and Clinton to administer the sacraments to the parish’s small community of Catholics. When I asked him, who re-built a church at last, he grew somber to the point he had to sit down. Each stained-glass window was dedicated to those who contributed to the church’s construction. He gestured toward the one nearest us and said, ‘A lay woman. Unfortunately, she committed suicide shortly after she had secured the funds for the diocese. It still grieves me I had to deny her Christian burial based on the Church’s precepts regarding her death.’
“I’ve heard,” Father said. “The late Geneviève Guillaume.”
“Yes, Geneviève,” Ella said. “I was ashamed to pass her for years until The Day the War Stopped. That’s what they called it here. The USS Albatross was patrolling north as usual, often to make a mess of things here. I believe this town and society deserved it. Me and Clea detested that oppressive institution and always prayed for its end, as the nuns were staunch abolitionists. But this time the Albatross sent an envoy under truce. Their commander, John Hawk, knew my husband as masons, and sought help from mortal wounds he had received while engaged at Port Hudson. My husband, a cavalry officer then, allowed Hawk onshore to receive medical attention. Geneviève was a nurse throughout the war. Her healing abilities were beyond that of any doctor before seen. On behalf of my husband, I requested she give care to Commander Hawk, and she did. Remedying his wounds to health in miraculous time. Ironic, all the good one can do, yet they are forgotten over one foul deed.”
“But I’m getting off track, Father. Forgive me, as I hope you will forgive what torments my soul. As I was explaining, Clea and I become closer than sisters. My joys were her joys. My pains were her pains. My heart was her heart. Nothing could ever replace her. And as we matured in age, this love we shared came to life as they preach of how man and woman, they twain shall be one flesh. But we were woman and woman. Do you understand?”
Father nodded. Having spent twelve years in confessionals, her sin in youth bore no shock considering the far more malevolent deeds men had revealed to him from behind the screen.
“Is this what burdens you so, Ella? Do not fret, daughter. Even if you have held this as a secret all these years –”
“I’m not finished. You must let me finish, Father.”
He nodded again and bowed respectfully without judgement.
“It’s what happened when we left the convent, Father. Oh, why? Why did God have to forbid the purest grace I ever knew?”
Father kept his head low. It was not his place to lecture a dying woman on morality. Rather to see she was comforted in her final agony in making a good confession, by which with true contrition the Lord would not refuse to forgive.
“Clea became betrothed at the age of fifteen to, Clarence Barrington, the heir of the wealthiest family in Louisiana. Though she had five more years of waiting until Clarence completed his education, we knew what was precious between us was fading like a candle left kindled throughout the night. I suppose we always knew as daughters of the aristocracy this day would come. Clea’s mother detested it oddly, as she insisted her daughter to become a nun. If I could have stayed at the convent, perhaps such a prospect would not be so bad. But Clea dreaded becoming a cloister, much as she often dreaded her evening lessons with Sister Helena. For though our love it was stronger by far than the love of those who were older than we – of many far wiser than we, like Poe expressed, there was an inescapable darkness she lived in day and night. Often, I felt it too, especially in my sleep. Such is why she was so devoted to her guardian angel, le baron. Huh. The little miracles she did through him. She was magical, Father. Magical…” Ella trailed off until her breath became faint. She stared at the canopy as if dead, while a gentle smile appeared on her lips.
“Ella,” Father Durant called. “Ella.”
He touched her shoulder, giving her a start. When she looked over at him, sadness returned to her face with light streams of tears.
“You know her mother used to hurt her when she was a girl, Father. Hurt her in ways children shouldn’t be. Clea always said she was an orphan. Her real mother was somewhere in Heaven. But this was her way of dealing with a woman who hated her since she lay in her womb.”
“Clea completed her studies in 1853. And though I was two years behind her, my father too had arranged my marriage to my husband and pulled me out of school shortly after. It hurt as we began our courtships. But knowing we both lived here, the absence of physical love would not stop the love we began as children years before. We had long planned for it I would say. And I was happy for her, as Clarence was a dear friend of hers since childhood. She had a happy life ahead. One we would still share together, away from our cruel mothers – God, why is Providence so cruel? Why Father? Did the Lord really permit what befell her, after all her sufferings, merely because we loved each other?”
“You must not look at it that way, Ella. We are all sinful. It rains on the just and the unjust alike.”
“You are good, Father. That’s why I wanted a Catholic priest. Because it was the faith of my beloved. And she was good, no matter what you hear. A house divided cannot stand. Christ could not cast forth demons by devils. She was beautiful, Father. My angel. My love. And he ravaged her. He ravaged and robbed her like some Boot Hill whore!”
“Who did this?”
“Clarence. Clarence. While courting her one evening at his plantation, Rosalee, he lured her up to his room when no one was home, claiming he wished to show her his plans for their suite. And once he had her trapped, he began his advances. She refused, so he forced himself upon her, all the while knowing he had recently accepted a large dowry for the hand of Oakhurst’s daughter, Elizabeth Townsend. He did it just to have her and disgrace her so no other would. How he hurt my love. And how the town, and her cruel mother ostracized her as if it were her fault. I refused to see her suffer. I wanted nothing of our society, including my own betrothed. I would love her forever, as I did before. We had plans by the end of 1854 to runaway together to Cádiz, Spain. Her guardian angel had failed her, but she believed not again. She began saying that’s where her mother lay. I still don’t understand. I believe it was because Spain is a land of many forms of the Blessed Mother. Along with the fact, her family often spent their holiday in France among family, so no one would suspect us there. We were a day away. One day away from being free and happy at last. And then that cruel lady came to my childhood home at Pleasington Gardens and revealed to my parents what Clea and I were planning.”
“By that cruel lady, I mean her mother, Marguerite. Years later after Geneviève died the parish found out she was a heathen, you know? That’s why she was so cruel to my Clea. Because Clea was beautiful and she was evil. I remember her arriving that day. She had seen us together, though we thought we had been careful. The witch had eyes and ears everywhere. Even at the port, where she found out we had booked passage to New Orleans to begin our journey. And this is my sin, Father. Perhaps it was living a secret a life I knew would ruin me as Clarence had ruined her. I suddenly felt ashamed and afraid. I believed my father would cast me out forever, especially once my stepmother knew. I confessed everything, Father. I betrayed my love, and begged forgiveness, and let Madame Guillaume convince my parents this was all her daughters doing. I said nothing, Father. All I did was cry out of fear for myself. And then they took me to Clea’s home at Laurel Manor and sent her eldest brother and my future husband to find her at the riverfront where she was waiting for me. When they brought her into the room, all I did was hide my face in my hands and cry. She even called my name, and I refused to look at her. I simply sat there and cried while she was humiliated and cursed at. Only her sisters, Geneviève and Rachelle, defended her. Clea tried to deny it. But she no longer could once her mother revealed to her I was the one who betrayed our plans. Dear God, how she collapsed to her knees. I can still hear her cries. And though her eldest brother had hoped to betroth her again, he at last conceded to their mother’s wishes and informed her he would be taking her back to the convent the following morning. It was awful. Awful. And all I did was sit there and let it happen.”
Father Durant tended her eyes with his tissue. At the same time, he stilled her shaking hands wrapped around her rosary. Despite his disproval of her relationship with Clea Guillaume in her youth, it grieved him knowing she truly loved the girl. Such light cannot be hid under a bushel.
“Bless you, Ella, for coming forth with all that burdens your heart. There is nothing the Lord won’t forgive, so long as we express repentance.”
“No, Father, you don’t understand,” she cried. “I only wish I have said my piece. Clea lost it that night. Her mother tried to take her up to her room, but she pushed her on the ground. And then she held forth the charm she always wore on her neck to her guardian angel, and cursed her mother and her line, and threatened to let loose something upon the house. I at last looked up. I saw the rage and pain in her face. I went to tell her, I’m sorry. That I loved her always. But before a word escaped my mouth, she tossed something on the floor, which caused an explosion of smoke, and then fled out the back parlor.”
“Father. Father,” Ella uttered, losing breath with each word. “Father, she killed herself. There was a pond behind the house, and she picked up a boulder, and jumped in and let herself drown. When I heard, I lost my mind and went hysterical. I had to be drugged and taken home. They never even found her. To this day, she still down there somewhere. I couldn’t even go to her funeral. It took me months to recover. Even after I married. Not until my first child, Hunter, was born five years later did I find purpose to live and love again. But never the same. No, nothing, for neither the angels in heaven above, nor the demons down under the sea could dissever my soul from her soul. We were one. And since she’s been lost, and all the ill’s that have befallen her house, like Geneviève’s death, I fear – I dread my actions have caused my love to roam without peace forevermore.”
Father went hollow as Ella wept like a lost child in her old age. As she did, the owl’s hooting returned. Except now it came slow and sorrowful.
“I’ll pray for her, Ella. And I’ll pray for you too.”
“What good is it if I led her to be damned?”
“Because God is outside omnipotent. He can hear a future prayer for one who’s died or suffered in the past. Let that comfort you. But before I absolve you, my dear woman, you must show remorse for what you and Clea did beforehand.”
“I am not though. I am not! I betrayed her in life. I’ll go to my grave and before God before I do so in death. I love her. And if that damns me, than so be it. I can’t help, nor hide any longer what’s always been in my heart. Let God decide, shouldn’t we? Won’t only He know whether what I did is sinful as you think, or grace as I believe?”
Father Durant knew not the words to reply. He wished to absolve this woman and give her peace, but he could not reject his Church’s teachings regarding her behavior and lack of remorse thereto. Though he did believe with all sincerity what she and Clea beheld was love. A love any can have. One borne from none other than their childhood purity.
“I beg you to let God be the judge when I get there,” Ella said. “What I ask of you is forgiveness, not for loving her, but for betraying her. Betraying what I believe in my heart was the most beautiful gift God gave me. Who needed me more than ever, as I needed her before.”
“Have mercy, Father. She may be sinful in your eyes, but she loved your Church. That’s why I beseech you by the power given you since the apostles to lift this burden I have caused to both of our souls. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned against heaven and my love, and cannot pass until this is pardoned. Bid me this mercy. At least for my love’s sake. Absolve me, Father. Will you?”