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I had not been more than three weeks
the administrator of the parish of Charlesbourgh, when the terrible words, "The
cholera morbus is in Quebec!" sent a thrill of terror from one end to the
other of Canada.
The cities of Quebec and Montreal, with many surrounding country places, had been decimated in 1832 by the same terrible scourge. Thousands upon thousands had fallen its victims; families in every rank of society had disappeared; for the most skilful physicians of both Europe and America had been unable to stop its march and ravages. But the year 1833 had passed without hearing almost of a single case of that fatal disease: we had all the hope that the justice of God was satisfied, and that He would no more visit us with that horrible plague. In this, however, we were to be sadly disappointed.
Charlesbourgh is a kind of suburb of Quebec, the greatest part of its inhabitants had to go within its walls to sell their goods several times every week. It was evident that we were to be among the first visited by that messenger of a just, but angry God. I will never forget the hour after I had heard: "The cholera is in Quebec!" It was, indeed, a most solemn hour to me. At a glance, I measured the bottomless abyss which was dug under my feet. We had no physicians, and there was no possibility of having any one for they were to have more work than they could do in Quebec. I saw that I would have to be both the body and soulphysician of the numberless victims of this terrible disease.
The tortures of the dying, the cries of the widows and of the orphans, the almost unbearable stench of the houses attacked by the scourge, the desolation and the paralyzing fears of the whole people, the fatherless and motherless orphans by whom I was to be surrounded, the starving poor for whom I would have to provide food and clothing when every kind of work and industry was stopped; but above all, the crowds of penitents whom the terrors of an impending death would drag to my feet to make their confessions, that I might forgive their sins, passed through my mind as so many spectres. I fell on my knees, with a heart beating with emotions that no pen can describe, and prostrating myself before my too justly angry God, I cried for mercy: with torrents of tears I asked Him to take away my life as a sacrifice for my people, but to spare them: raising my eyes towards a beautiful statue of Mary, whom I believed to be then the Mother of God, I supplicated her to appease the wrath of her Son.
I was still on my knees, when several knocks at the door told me that some one wanted to speak to me a young woman was there, bathed in tears and pale as death, who said to me: "My father has just returned from Quebec, and is dying from the cholera please come quick to hear his confession before he expires!"
No tongue will ever be able to tell half of the horrors which strike the eyes and the mind the first time one enters the house of a man struggling in the agonies of death from cholera. The other diseases seem to attack only one part of the body at once, but the cholera is like a furious tiger whose sharp teeth and nails tear his victim from head to feet without sparing any part. The hands and the feet, the legs and the arms, stomach, the breast and the bowels are at once tortured. I had never seen anything so terrible as the fixed eyes of that first victim whom I had to prepare for death. He was already almost as cold as a piece of ice. He was vomiting and ejecting an incredible quantity of a watery and blackish matter, which filled the house with an unbearable smell. With a feeble voice he requested me to hear the confession of his sins, and I ordered the family to withdraw and leave me alone, that they might not hear the sad story of his transgressions. But he had not said five words before he cried out: "Oh my God! what horrible cramps in my leg! For God's sake, rub it." And when I had given up hearing his confession to rub the leg, he cried again: "Oh!what horrible cramps in my arms! in my feet! in my shoulders! in my stomach!" And to the utmost of my capacity and my strength, I rubbed his arms, his feet, his shoulders, his breast, till I felt so exhausted and covered with perspiration, that I feared I should faint. During that time the fetid matter ejected from his stomach, besmeared me almost from head to foot. I called for help, and two strong men continued with me to rub the poor dying man.
It seemed evident that he could not live very long: his sufferings looked so terrible and unbearable! I administered him the sacrament of extreme unction. But I did not leave the house after that ceremony as it is the custom of the priests. It was the first time that I had met face to face with that giant which had covered so many nations with desolation and ruin, caused so many torrents of tears to flow. I had heard so much of him! I knew that, till then, nothing had been able to stop his forward march! He had scornfully gone through the obstacles which the most powerful nations had placed before him to retard his progress. He had mocked the art and science of the most skilful physicians all over the world! In a single step he had gone from Moscow to Paris! and in another month he had crossed the bottomless seas which the hands of the Almighty have spread between Europe and America! That king of terrors, after piling in their graves, by millions, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, whom he had met on his march through Asia, Africa, Europe, and America, was now before me! Nay, he was torturing, before my eyes, the first victim he had chosen among my people! But the more I felt powerless in the presence of that mighty giant, the more I wanted to see him face to face. I had a secret pleasure, a holy pride, in daring him. I wanted to tell him: "I do not fear you! You mercilessly attack my people, but with the help of God, in the strength of the One who died on Calvary for me, and who told me that nothing is more sweet and glorious than to give my life for my friends, I will meet and fight you everywhere when you attack any one of those sheep who are dearer to me than my own life!"
Standing by the bedside of the dying man whilst I rubbed his limbs to alleviate his tortures, I exhorted him to repent. But I closely watched that hand-to-hand battle that merciless and unequal struggle between the giant and his poor victim. His agony was long and terrible, for he was a man of great bodily strength. But after several hours of the most frightful pains, he quietly breathed his last. The house was crowded with the neighbours and relations, who, forgetful of the danger of catching the disease, had come to see him. We all knelt and prayed for the departed soul, after which I gave them a few words about the necessity of giving up their sins and keeping themselves ready to die and go at the Master's call.
I then left that desolated house with feelings of distress which no pen can portray. When I got back to the parsonage, after praying and weeping alone in my chamber, I took a bath, and washed myself with vinegar and a mixture of camphor, as a preventive against the epidemic. The rest of the day, till ten at night, was spent in hearing the confessions of a great number of people whom the fear of death had dragged around my confessional box that I might forgive their sins. This hearing of confession was interrupted only at ten o'clock at night, when I was called to the cemetery to bury the first victim of the cholera in Charlesbourgh. A great number of people had accompanied the corpse to his last resting-place: the night was beautiful, the atmosphere balmy, and the moon and stars had never appeared to me so bright. The stillness of the night was broken only by the sobs of the relations and friends of the deceased. It was one of the best opportunities God had ever given me of exhorting the people to repentance. I took for my text: "Therefore, be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh." The spectacle of that grave, filled by a man who, twenty-four hours before, was full of health and life in the midst of his happy family, was speaking more eloquently than the words of my lips, to show that we must be always ready. And never any people entered the threshold of their homes with more solemn thoughts than those to whom I spoke, that night, in the midst of the graveyard.
The history of that day is the history of the forty days which followed for not a single one of them passed without my being called to visit a victim of the cholera more than one hundred people were attacked by the terrible disease, nearly forty of whom died!
I cannot sufficiently thank my merciful God for having protected me in such a marvelous way that I had not a single hour of disease during those two months of hard labours and sore trials. I had to visit the sick not only as a priest, but as physician also; for seeing, at first, the absolute impossibility of persuading any physician from Quebec to give up their rich city patients for our more humble farmers, I felt it was my duty to make myself as expert as I could in the art of helping the victims of that cruel and loathsome disease: I studied the best authors on that subject, consulted the most skilful physicians, got a little pharmacy which would have done honour to an old physician, and I gave my care and my medicine gratis. Very soon the good people of Charlesbourgh put as much, if not more confidence, in my medical care, as in any other of the best physicians of the country. More than once I had to rub the limbs of so many patients in the same day, that the skin of my hands was taken away, and several times the blood came out from the wounds. Dr. Painchaud, one of the ablest physicians of Quebec, who was my personal friend, told me after, that it was a most extraordinary thing that I had not fallen a victim to that disease.
I would never have mentioned what I did, in those never-to-be-forgotten days of the cholera of 1834, when one of the most horrible epidemics which the world has ever seen spread desolation and death almost all over Canada, if I had been alone to work as I did; but I am happy and proud to say that, without a single exception, the French Canadian priests, whose parishes were attacked by that pestilence, did the same. I could name hundreds of them who, during several months, also, day after day and night after night, bravely met and fought the enemy, and fearlessly presented their breast to its blows. I could even name scores of them who heroically fell and died when facing the foe on that battlefield!
We must be honest and true towards the Roman Catholic priests of Canada. Few men, if even any, have shown more courage and self-denial in the hour of danger than they did. I have seen them at work during the two memorable years of 1832 and 1834, with a courage and self-denial worthy of the admiration of heaven and earth. Though they know well that the most horrible tortures and death might be the price of their devotedness, I have not known a single one of them who ever shrank before the danger. At the first appeal, in the midst of the darkest and stormiest nights, as well as in the light of the brightest days, they were always ready to leave their warm and comfortable beds to run to the rescue of the sick and dying.
But, shall we conclude from that, as the priests of Rome want us to do, that their religion is the true and divine religion of Christ? Must we believe that because the priests are brave, admirably brave, and die the death of heroes on the battlefields, they are the true, the only priests of Christ, the successors of the apostles the ministers of the religion out of which there is no salvation? No!
Was it because his religion was the divine and only true one that the millionaire, Stephen Gerard, when in 1793 Philadelphia was decimated by a most frightful epidemic, went from house to house, visiting the sick, serving, washing them with his own hands, and even helping to put them into their coffins? I ask it again, is it because his religion was the divine religion of Jesus that that remarkable man, during several months, lived among the dying and the dead, to help them, when his immense fortune allowed him to put a whole world between him and the danger? No; for every one knows that Stephen Gerard was a deist, who did not believe in Christ.
Was it because they followed the true religion that, in the last war between Russia and Turkey, a whole regiment of Turks heroically ran to a sure death to obey the order of their general, who commanded them to change bayonets on a Russian battery, which was pouring upon them a real hail of bullets and canister? No! surely no!
These Turks were brave, fearless, heroic soldiers, but nothing more. So the priests of the Pope, who expose themselves in the hour of danger, are brave, fearless, heroic solders of the Pope but they are nothing more.
Was it because they were good Christians that the soldiers of a French regiment, at Austerlitz, consented to be slaughtered to the last, at the head of a bridge where Napoleon had ordered them to remain, with these celebrated words: "Soldiers! stand there and fight to the last; you will all be killed, but you will save the army, and we will gain the day!"
Those soldiers were admirably well disciplined they loved their flag more than their lives they knew only one thing in the world: "Obey the command of Napoleon!" They fought like giants, and died like heroes. So the priests are a well disciplined band of soldiers; they are trained to love their church more than their own life; they also know only one thing: "Obey your superior, the Pope!" they fight the battle of their church like giants, and they die like heroes!
Who has not read the history of the renowned French man-of-war, the "Tonnant?" When she had lost her masts, and was so crippled by the redhot shot of the English fleet that there was no possibility of escape, what did the soldiers and mariners of that ship answer to the cries of "Surrender!" which came from the English admiral? "We die, but do not surrender!"
They all went to the bottom of the sea, and perished rather than see their proud banners fall into the hands of the foe!
It is because those French warriors were good Christians that they preferred to die rather than give up their flag? No! But they knew that the eyes of their country, the eyes of the whole world were upon them. Life became to them a trifle: it became nothing when placed in the balance against what they considered their honour, and the honour of their fair and noble country; nay, life became an undesirable thing, when it was weighted against the glory of dying at the post of duty and honour.
So it is with the priest of Rome. He knows that the eyes of his people, and of his superiors the eyes of his whole church are upon him. He knows that if he shrinks in the hour of danger, he will for ever lose their confidence and their esteem; that he will lose his position and live the life of a degraded man! Death seems preferable to such a life.
Yes! let the people of Canada read the history of "La Nouvelle France," and they will cease from presenting to us the courage of their priests as an indication of the divinity of their religion. For there they will see that the worshipers of the wooden gods of the forests have equaled, if not surpassed, in courage and self-denial in the face of death, the courage and self-denial of the priests of the wafer god of Rome.