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The three years which followed the
cholera will be long remembered in Quebec for the number of audacious thefts
and the murders which kept the whole population in constant terror. Almost every
week the public press had to give us the account of the robbery of the houses
of some of our rich merchants or old wealthy widows.
Many times the blood was chilled in our veins by the cruel and savage assassinations which had been committed by the thieves when resistance had been offered. The number of these crimes, the audacity with which they were perpetrated, the ability with which the guilty parties escaped from all the researches of the police, indicated that they were well organized, and had a leader of uncommon shrewdness.
But in the eyes of the religious population of Quebec, the thefts of the 10th February, 1835, surpassed all the others by its sacrilegious character. That night the chapel dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary was entered, a silver statue of the Virgin the gift of the King of France a massive lamp, a silver candlestick, and the silver vases which contained the bread which the Roman Catholics believe to be the body, blood, and divinity of Jesus Christ, were stolen, and the holy sacrament impiously thrown and scattered on the floor.
Nothing can express the horror and indignation of the whole Catholic population at this last outrage. Large sums of money were offered in order that the brigands might be detected. At last five of them Chambers, Mathieu, Gagnon, Waterworth, and Lemonie, were caught in 1836, tried, found guilty, and condemned to death in the month of March, 1837.
During the trial, and when public attention was most intensely fixed on its different aspects, in a damp, chilly, dark night, I was called to visit a sick man. I was soon ready, and asked the name of the sick from the messenger. He answered that it was Francis Oregon. As a matter of course, I said that the sick man was a perfect stranger to me, and that I had never heard that there was even such a man in the world. But when I was near the carriage which was to take me, I was not a little surprised to see that the first messenger left abruptly and disappeared. Looking with attention, then, at the faces of the two men who had come for me in the carriage, it seemed that they both wore masks.
"What does this mean?" I said; "each of you wear a mask. Do you mean to murder me?"
"Dear Father Chiniquy," answered one of them, in a low, trembling voice, and in a supplicating tone, "fear not. We swear before God that no evil will be done to you. On the contrary, God and man will, to the end of the world, praise and bless you if you come to our help and save our souls, as well as our mortal bodies. We have in our hands a great part of the silver articles stolen these last three years. The police are on our track, and we are in great danger of being caught. For God's sake come with us. We will put all those stolen things in your hands, that you may give them back to those who have lost them. We will then immediately leave the country, and lead a better life. We are Protestants, and the Bible tell us that we cannot be saved if we keep in our hands what is not ours. You do not know us, but we know you well. You are the only man in Quebec to whom we can so trust our lives and this terrible secret. We have worn these masks that you may not know us, and that you may not be compromised if you are ever called before a court of justice."
My first thought was to leave them and run back to the door of the parsonage; but such an act of cowardice seemed to me, after a moment's reflection, unworthy of a man. I said to myself, these two men cannot come to steal from me: it is well known in Quebec that I keep myself as poor as a church mouse, by giving all I have to the poor. I have never offended any man in my life, that I know. They cannot come to punish or murder me. They are Protestants, and they trust me. Well, well, they will not regret to have put their trust in a Catholic priest."
I then answered them: "what you ask from me is of a very delicate, and even dangerous nature. Before I do it, I want to take the advice of one whom I consider the wisest man of Quebec the old Rev. Mr. Demars, expresident of the seminary of Quebec. Please drive me as quickly as possible to the seminary. If that venerable man advises me to go with you I will go; but I cannot promise to grant you your request if he tells me not to go."
"All right," they both said, and in a very short time I was knocking at the door of the seminary. A few moments after I was alone in the room of Mr. Demars. It was just half-past twelve at night.
"Our little Father Chiniquy here on this dark night, at half-past twelve! What does this mean? What do you want from me?" said the venerable old priest.
"I come to ask your advice," I answered, "on a very strange thing. Two Protestant thieves have in their hands a great quantity of the silver ware stolen these last three years. They want to deposit them in my hands, that I may give them back to those from whom they have been stolen, before they leave the country and lead a better life. I cannot know them, for they both wear masks. I cannot even know where they take me, for the carriage is so completely wrapped up by curtains that it is impossible to see outside. Now, my dear Mr. Demars, I come to ask your advice. Shall I go with them or not? But remember that I trust you with these things under the seal of confession, that neither you nor I may be compromised."
Before answering me the venerable priest said: "I am very old, but I have never heard of such a strange thing in my life. Are you not afraid to go alone with these two thieves in that covered carriage?"
"No, sir," I answered; "I do not see any reason to fear anything from these two men."
"Well! well," rejoined Mr. Demars, "If you are not afraid under such circumstances, your mother has given you a brain of diamond and nerves of steel."
"Now, my dear sir," I answered, "time flies, and I may have a long way to travel with these two men. Please, in the shortest possible way, tell me your mind? Do you advise me to go with them?"
He replied, "You consult me on a very difficult matter; there are so many considerations to make, that it is impossible to weigh them all. The only thing we have to do is to pray God and His Holy Mother for wisdom. Let us pray."
We knelt and said the "Veni Sancte Spiritus;" "Come Holy Spirit," ect., which prayer ends by an invocation to Mary as Mother of God.
After the prayer Mr. Demars again asked me: "Are you not afraid?"
"No, sir, I do not see any reason to be afraid. But, please, for God's sake, hurry on, tell me if you advise me to go and accept this message of mercy and peace."
"Yes! go! go! If you are not afraid," answered the old priest, with a voice full of emotion, and tears in his eyes.
I fell on my knees and said, "Before I start, please, give me your blessing, and pray for me, when I shall be on the way to that strange, but, I hope, good work."
I left the seminary and took my seat at the right hand of one of my unknown companions, while the other was on the front seat driving the horse.
Not a word was said by any of us on the way. But I perceived that the stranger who was at my left, was praying to God; though in such a low voice that I understood only these words twice repeated: "O Lord! have mercy upon me such a sinner!" These words touched me to the heart, and brought to my mind the dear Saviour's words: "The publicans and harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you," and I also prayed for that poor repenting sinner and for myself, by repeating the sublime 50th psalm:
"Have mercy upon me, O Lord!"
It took about half an hour to reach the house. But, there, again, it was impossible for me to understand where I was. For the carriage was brought so near the door that there was no possibility of seeing anything beyond the carriage and the house through the terrible darkness of that night.
The only person I saw, when in the house, was a tall woman covered with a long black veil, whom I took to be a disguised man, on account of her size and her strength; for she was carrying very heavy bags with as much ease as if they had been a handful of straw.
There was only a small candle behind a screen, which gave so little light that everything looked like phantoms around us. Pictures and mirrors were all turned to the wall, and presented the wrong side to view. The sofa and the chairs were also upset in such a way that it was impossible to identify anything of what I had seen. In fact, I could see nothing in that house. Not a word was said, except by one of my companions, who whispered in a very low voice, "Please, look at the tickets which are on every bundle; they will indicate to whom these things belong."
There were eight bundles.The heaviest of which was composed of the melted silver of the statue of the virgin, the candlesticks, the lamp of the chapel, the ciborium, a couple of chalices, and some dozens of spoons and forks. The other bundles were made up of silver plates, fruit baskets, tea, coffee, cream and sugar pots, silver spoons and forks, ect.
As soon as these bundles were put into the carriage we left for the parsonage, where we arrived a little before the dawn of day. Not a word was exchanged between us on the way, and my impression was, that my penitent companions were sending their silent prayers, like myself, to the feet of that merciful God who has said to all sinners, "Come unto Me, all ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
They carried the bundles into my trunk, which I locked with peculiar attention. When all was over I accompanied them to the door to take leave of them. Then, each seizing one of my hands, by a spontaneous movement of gratitude and joy, they pressed them on their lips, shedding tears, and saying in a low voice: "God bless you a thousand times for the good work you have just performed. After Christ, you are our saviour."
As these two men were speaking, it pleased God to send forth into my soul one of those rays of happiness which He gives us only at great intervals.
I believe our fragile existence would soon be broken up were we by such joys incessantly inundated. These two men had ceased to be robbers in my eyes. They were dear brethren, precious friends, such as are seldom to be seen. The narrow and shameful prejudices of my religion were silent before the fervent prayers that I had heard from their lips; they disappeared in those tears of repentance, gratitude and love, which fell from their eyes on my hands. Night surrounded us with its deepest shades; but our souls were illuminated by a light purer than the rays of the sun. The air that we breathed was cold and damp; but one of these sparks brought down from heaven by Jesus to warm the earth, had fallen into our hearts, and we were all penetrated by its glow. I pressed their hands in mine, saying to them:
"I thank and bless you for choosing me as the confident of your misfortunes and repentance. To you I owe three of the most precious hours of my life. Adieu! We shall see one another no more on this earth; but we shall meet in heaven. Adieu!"
It is unnecessary to add that it was impossible to sleep the remainder of that memorable night. Besides, I had in my possession more stolen articles than would have caused fifty men to be hanged. I said to myself: "What would become of me if the police were to break in on me, and find all that I have in my hands. What could I answer if I were asked, how all these had reached me?"
Did I not go beyond the bounds of prudence in what I have just done? Have I not, indeed, slipped a rope around my neck?
Though my conscience did not reproach me with anything, especially when I had acted on the advice of a man as wise as Mr. Demars, yet was I not without some anxiety, and I longed to get rid of all the things I had by giving them to their legitimate owners.
At ten o'clock in the morning I was at Mr. Amiot's, the wealthiest goldsmith of Quebec, with my heavy satchel of melted silver. After obtaining from him the promise of secrecy, I handed it over to him, giving him at the same time its history. I asked him to weigh it, keep its contents, and let me have its value, which I was to distribute according to its label.
He told me that there was in it a thousand dollars worth of melted silver, which amount he immediately gave me. I went down directly to give about half of it to Rev. Mr. Cazeault, chaplain of the congregation which had been robbed, and who was then the secretary of the Archbishop of Quebec; and I distributed the remainder to the parties indicated on the labels attached to this enormous ingot.
The good Lady Montgomery could scarcely believe her eyes when, after obtaining also from her the promise of the most inviolable secrecy on what I was going to show her, I displayed on her table the magnificent dishes of massive silver, fruit baskets, tea and coffee pots, sugar bowls, cream jugs, and a great quantity of spoons and forks of the finest silver, which had been taken from her in 1835. It seemed to her a dream which brought before her eyes these precious family relics.
She then related in a most touching manner what a terrible moment she had passed, when the thieves, having seized her, with her maid and a young man, rolled them in carpets to stifle their cries, whilst they were breaking locks, opening chests and cupboards to carry off their rich contents. She had told me how nearly she had been stifled with her faithful servants under the enormous weight of carpets heaped upon them by the robbers.
This excellent lady was a Protestant, and it was the first time in my life that I met a Protestant whose piety seemed so enlightened and sincere. I could not help admiring her.
When she had most sincerely thanked and blessed me for the service I had done for her, she asked if I would have any objection to pray with her, and to aid her in thanking God for the favour He had just shown her. I told her, I should be happy in uniting with her to bless the Lord for His mercies. Upon this she gave me a Bible, magnificently bound, and we read each in turn a verse, slowly and on our knees the sublime Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O my soul," ect.
As I was about to take leave of her she offered me a purse containing one hundred dollars in gold, which I refused, telling her that I would rather lose my two hands than receive a cent for what I had done.
"You are," said she, "surrounded with poor people. Give them this that I offer to the Lord as a feeble testimony of my gratitude, and be assured that as long as I live I will pray God to pour His most abounding favours upon you."
In leaving that house I could not hide from myself that my soul had been embalmed with the true perfume of a piety that I had never seen in my own church.
Before the day closed I had given back to their rightful owners the effects left in my hands, whose value amounted to more than 7,000 dollars, and had my receipts in good form.
I am glad to say here, that the persons, most of whom were Protestants, to whom I made these restitutions, were perfectly honourable, and that not a single one of them ever said anything to compromise me in this matter, nor was I ever troubled on this subject.
I thought it my duty to give my venerable friend, the Grand Vicar Demars, a detailed account of what had just happened. He heard me with the deepest interest, and could not retain his tears when I related the touching scene of my separation from my two new friends that night, one of the darkest which, nevertheless, has remained one of the brightest of my life.
My story ended, he said: "I am, indeed, very old, but I must confess that never did I hear anything so strange and so beautiful as this story. I repeat, however, that your mother must have given you a brain harder than diamond and nerves more solid than brass, not to have been afraid during this very singular adventure in the night."
After the fatigues and incidents of the last twenty-four hours, I was in great need of rest, but it was impossible for me to sleep a single instant during the night which followed. For the first time I stood face to face with that Protestantism which my Church had taught me to hate and fight with all the energy that heaven had bestowed on me, and when that faith had been, by the hand of Almighty God, placed in the scale against my own religion, it appeared to me as a heap of pure gold opposite a pile of rotten rags. In spite of myself, I could hear incessantly the cries of grief of that penitent thief: "Lord, have mercy on me, so great a sinner!"
Then, the sublime piety of Lady Montgomery, the blessings she had asked God to pour on me, His unprofitable servant, seemed, as so many coals of fire heaped upon my head by God, to punish me for having said so much evil of Protestants, and so often decried their religion.
A secret voice arose within me: "Seest thou not how these Protestants, whom thou wishest to crush with thy disdain, know how to pray, repent, and make amends for their faults much more nobly than the unfortunate wretches whom thou holdest as so many slaves at thy feet by means of the confessional?
"Understandest thou not that the Spirit of God, the grace and love of Jesus Christ, produces effectually in the hearts and minds of these Protestants a work much more durable than thy auricular confession? Compare the miserable wiles of Mr. Parent, who makes false restitutions, to cast dust into the eyes of the unsuspecting multitude, with the straightforwardness, noble sincerity, and admirable wisdom of these Protestants, in making amends for their wrongs before God and men, and judge for thyself which of those two religions raise, in order to save, and which degrades, in order to destroy the guilty.
"Has ever auricular confession worked as efficiently on sinners as the Bible on these thieves to change their hearts?
"Judge, this day, by their fruits, which of the two religions is led by the spirit of darkness, or the Holy Ghost?"
Not wishing to condemn my religion, nor allow my heart to be attracted by Protestantism during the long hours of that restless night, I remained anxious, humiliated, and uneasy.
It is thus, O my God, that Thou madest use of everything, even these thieves, to shake the wonderful fabric of errors, superstitions, and falsehoods that Rome had raised in my soul. May Thy name be for ever blessed for Thy mercies towards me, Thy unproffitable servant.